A helpful hint for any team with a 39-48 record sitting a game from last place in the American League Central Division is to perhaps consider the future.
And that, in fact, is the Tigers’ plan in 2017, even if you won’t find any public proclamations to that effect from manager Brad Ausmus or from any of the Tigers players as they enjoy their All-Star break ahead of resuming work Friday against the Toronto Blue Jays at Comerica Park.
It’s a different story in Detroit’s front office. Al Avila’s words from a few weeks ago yet rumble.
“In our situation right now,” the Tigers general manager said, “it behooves us to experiment and explore.”
Reaching for his Lewis and Clark telescope, Avila is scanning the landscape for trades ahead of the July 31 (non-waiver) deadline.
Thus far, no partners. At some point during the next three weeks, a team might offer something pleasing for Justin Wilson, J.D. Martinez, Alex Avila, or others the Tigers would happily deal for, primarily hitters and defenders who might merge with some minor-league pitching to begin shaping a new roster and future contender at Comerica Park.
It’s the complexity of trying to responsibly compete in games this year with the need to build a better long-term product that will make these final 75 games either dicey or depressing. Much depends on Avila’s quietly urgent attempts to make trades this month that aren’t giveaways and instead fetch handy pieces in what has become for the Tigers an unofficial rebuilding push.
The simple truth is baseball’s current market isn’t helping. Not a lick. Not the Tigers. They’re stuffed with big contracts, aging players, autumn free agents, and too few July buyers to boost demand, much less prices, for players Avila happily would deal.
Percentages already are known in those third-floor offices at Comerica Park. The Tigers have as much chance to make zero July trades as they have to make three or more deals when GM phone lines begin to re-heat later this week.
That’s the market. That’s the uncertainty ahead.
It leaves Ausmus and his players, whoever they might be three weeks from now, in a kind of atmospheric vacuum. They will play to win. But they also very much are playing out the string. The team is not a serious contender and likely won’t be no matter what happens this month.
With one eye on 2017, and another fixated on the future, the Tigers stack up accordingly as they head deep into the season’s second half: starters, relievers, lineup, bench, and potential farm-system additions.
Anibal Sanchez is within range of winning the Tigers’ Who’d Have Thunk This? award for 2017. And he might do it, all because he has pitched so neatly in his last four starts, thus sparing Avila from writing a $21-million severance check to a man who is only 33.
Sanchez has made it possible for Matthew Boyd to spruce up at Triple A Toledo. He is insurance as Daniel Norris heals from a groin strain and, perhaps more therapeutically, spends time away from the Tigers rotation addressing various youthful pitching challenges.
That leaves Justin Verlander (no problem there), Michael Fulmer (throwing ace-quality stuff), and Jordan Zimmermann (the Tigers raise right hands and insist he’ll be fine) as workhorses in a five-man rotation that should be serviceable-plus in these final 75 games.
Verlander, of course, is available in the Tigers’ shopping aisles. But so far GMs and their carts appear to be zipping past a superstar and his $56-million price tag for 2018 and ’19.
If he happens to be dealt, or another pitcher hits the disabled list, expect the Tigers to count on either Warwick Saupold or the always-cooperative Buck Farmer. They rank as two of what is bound to be a series of replacement parts — 40-man roster member Myles Jaye cannot be ignored — should such a rotation hole emerge.
Now that the Tigers have their first mow-’em-down closer since Oldsmobile and Pontiac were car brands, they, of course, are willing to trade him.
In fact, it makes sense that they’d listen to offers for Justin Wilson.
They have their best chance to spin Wilson for a couple of prospect position players the organization vitally needs. Will they get such an offer? Not necessarily. They were willing to trade Wilson last winter and offers were underwhelming. In recent weeks they have been talking gently with clubs that, one might think, would lust for Wilson’s left-handed potion. They have yet to hear anything approximating a serious return.
Should Wilson turn irresistible to the Nationals, or Astros, or whomever, and move to a contender that might well find its way into a World Series with the aid of his magic, the Tigers would resume their traditional habit of scaring fans to death in the ninth inning.
The difference is the farm system could actually help.
Joe Jimenez is healed from his spring back strain and is back throwing bullets at Triple A Toledo (0.93 ERA in his last 10 games, 14 strikeouts in 9 2/3 innings). He could soon return to Comerica Park no matter what happens with Wilson.
Jimenez is part of a potential late-innings remedy should Wilson be dealt. So, possibly, are some young guns at Double A Erie. Jairo Labourt, a left-hander whose pitches resemble hot rivets, is still tender (23) and might be a better bet for Detroit in 2018. But a pitcher who has been flying through the farm stops since he was drafted a year ago out of the University of Miami, Bryan Garcia, has the pitches and perhaps the moxie to make a jump.
Jeff Ferrell suited up for the Tigers in 2016 and has been excellent at Toledo. Kyle Ryan hasn’t allowed a run in his last five stints for the Mud Hens.
Losing a wipeout closer like Wilson is all but a return ticket to the trauma center for Tigers fans who thought those days might, blessedly, be history. But if it brings the brand of help Avila is hunting, the Tigers will plod through the rest of the season knowing the farm’s about ready to bloom with some long-term bullpen help.
About the only possible disruption here, separate from unforeseen seats on the disabled list, is a July deal involving J.D. Martinez.
Superficially speaking, it should be a done deal. Martinez is such a strong hitter, a contender would be nuts not to add him to its infantry the next three months. The price tag? A prospect who’s a surer shot than the Tigers will get from, say, a third- or fourth-round draft pick next June, which will be their probable compensation for losing Martinez to free agency.
If he does find a good home with a contender, the Tigers will have your basic middle-of-the-order vacancy as well as a defensive hole in right field.
They could play around with their existing corps and use some variation of Alex Presley, Jim Adduci, Andrew Romine, and Mikie Mahtook, perhaps supplemented by the addition of current Mud Hens Tyler Collins or JaCoby Jones. Chances fans, much less Ausmus, will find that arrangement inspiring are fairly close to nil, which might mean the Tigers will at least ponder adding Erie’s Mike Gerber to the 40-man roster in a bid to see if he can survive big-league pitching.
It’s not a happy scenario, the near-certainty that Martinez will be leaving either this month or at the end of the season. The Tigers can’t afford a contract as long and as steep as Martinez eventually figures to get. But they want more than that lukewarm draft pick next June, which is why Avila hopes to lure an offer that should be sensible for two parties.
On the position side, the Tigers have trade chips other than Martinez that might interest bargain browsers. Alex Avila is a natural there, thanks to his left-handed power, jeweler’s eye for the strike zone, and ability to catch or play first base. But it doesn’t seem Dad has been besieged by shoppers any more than he’s been sorting through competing offers for shortstop Jose Iglesias.
The Tigers have replacements ready to go should either player become inventory clubs can’t ignore. John Hicks is ready to finally drop anchor in the Tigers clubhouse as Avila’s potential successor. Dixon Machado, who doesn’t often need a shower after sitting in a dugout all night, would be the choice at shortstop, or at second base should another contender’s regular get banged up and Ian Kinsler is dealt.
Preparing for 2018
As much as the Tigers will pretend this summer is not about 2018, it definitely is.
Victor Martinez has a year remaining on his long and lavish deal. It’s possible he will receive his last paycheck in the form of a lump-sum parting gift for 2018, either during the coming offseason, or next spring, should it become apparent during camp next March that Martinez, who will then be 39, is not a practical option at designated hitter.
The Tigers no doubt will complete this season with a hallowed DH who has done about all that reasonably could have been expected from a hitter deep into his career twilight. They must also begin considering replacements. That could involve Miguel Cabrera working next season as at least a part-time DH.
It’s more a question for this coming autumn and winter. For now, Martinez will stick at DH, even if his .257 batting average and .683 OPS suggest these next three months could be his last as a regular-season Tigers option.
The Tigers will also be thinking soon about call-ups when active rosters are removed from handcuffs on Sept. 1.
Labourt is on the 40-man roster, which is required for a September ticket to Detroit, and should get a look. Assuming roster space of some type will be cleared, Gerber, or Erie power-hitter Christin Stewart, could also be coming aboard. Or, perhaps, Garcia.
Those are matters for August as opposed to July. But it’s wise to remember that, for the Tigers at this point in their timeline, all possibilities are reasonable. Trades this month. Waiver deals next month. With plenty of roster shuffling in the months ahead.
This is a team in transition. The only sure thing is the turnover that’s destined to come, perhaps in a hurry.