Henning: Tigers' tough day one of many to come
Pittsburgh — Ninety days from today, which will pass in the usual blur when late April turns into late July, the talk in baseball will all be of trades.
There will be hours until the July 31 deadline that allows deals to be made without help from the waiver wire. The Tigers know all about this summertime clock countdown. They became experts in its tension last July when first J.D. Martinez, then Justin Wilson and Alex Avila, were dealt for Cubs prospects a team aching for a roster renewal badly needed.
A month later, it was Justin Verlander who relocated. The Tigers were starved for blue-chip kids Verlander could deliver and the Astros could offer. Smart moves by both teams, especially for the Astros, who threw a World Series party as their up-front payoff from the Verlander investment.
Justin Upton, too, was shipped to the Angels on the same day Verlander was swapped, although in Upton’s case the motivation was almost bloodless. Upton and his agent had made clear Upton was heading for free agency in two months and the Tigers, who got some low-end prospects from the Angels, avoided a total giveaway.
After the Tigers lost Thursday to the Pirates, 1-0, when Corey Dickerson parked an 0-1 cutter from Alex Wilson into the right-field loft at PNC Park for a ninth-inning walk-off home run, it was tempting to wonder what deals the Tigers might be pondering two, or three, or four months from now.
There will be Tigers inventory available. Good merchandise, for sure. Michael Fulmer. Shane Greene. Nick Castellanos. And possibly another starting pitcher — Francisco Liriano should the skills he’s been showcasing the past month extend into early summer.
The Tigers have played, on balance, decent baseball during this first, miserably cold, month of a new season.
But realities haven’t changed. They are just good enough to compete against so-so teams. They will get hammered by clubs of any quality. They still could, and probably will, lose 100 games as the pitching frays, as better opponents show up, and as those necessary mid-season transactions are sealed.
They will need to spin off tradeable pieces for the kind of return they got in the Wilson-Avila swap with the Cubs. Jeimer Candelario, the hot young third baseman Detroit got from Chicago, has been Exhibit A in how young, skilled players with years and upside ahead become the dividend, often within months, from trades a rebuilding team is obliged to make.
Ron Gardenhire sat in the visitor’s manager’s office after Thursday’s game and talked nobly about his team’s third 1-0 defeat in 23 games.
“Great baseball game,” the Tigers manager said. “It was frustrating because we had a lot of opportunities. We hit some balls on the screws, but right at ’em (defenders). They made plays and we didn’t get it done.”
What also is true is the Tigers are 10-13 having played most of their games against the Pirates, Royals, White Sox, and Orioles. They are 0-4 against the Indians, 0-1 against the Yankees and 1-5 against the Pirates, who are three games above .500.
Cold weather on too many days has killed Tigers hitters. But we are seeing, in slow motion, how the year is beginning to take shape. And why general manager Al Avila will be busy at mid-season, if not before. Some of these Tigers players will need a new home as badly as Avila will need more seed for his farm-system makeover.
Until then, the team’s clubhouse portrait often will resemble Thursday’s post-game scene.
There stood Fulmer, in front of his locker after having shown perhaps the most dynamic six innings of power-pitching since he came to Detroit — by way of a deadline deal three years ago.
He had 24 swings and misses Thursday after a stunning display of fastball-slider mastery. He struck out nine. He walked a single batter. He allowed four hits and no runs.
And he had zilch to show for it.
Fulmer belongs in a pennant-chasing rotation. Any scout watching him Thursday, any GM scanning video of his work against the Pirates, will have quite the notebook filled with exclamation marks.
But the Tigers got zero runs even as Gardenhire said, correctly, they had hit plenty of pitches on the nose.
This brush with victory led to another, less upbeat moment at the back end of the visitor’s clubhouse.
Wilson was about to change into his travel clothes for the charter flight to Baltimore not long after he had been socked for Dickerson’s winning homer. Wilson had the look of a traumatized battlefield soldier.
His voice sounded almost disconsolate.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “I just feel snakebit.”
Get ready for more of these scenes, which are straight from those crucibles known as Rebuilding Seasons. There will be good games and moments, for sure, as there have been during these early weeks, particularly as Candelario and JaCoby Jones and Leonys Martin and maybe Niko Goodrum, not to mention reliever Joe Jimenez and other newbies gradually change Detroit’s baseball profile, bring a dash of spice to Tigers baseball that last year’s aging, out-of-gas roster could never match.
And know this, which the front office understands fundamentally. The more deals Avila can make when the return is irresistible, the better the outlook for seasons ahead. Trades made because a GM wants to make deals rather than having to make deals means more youngsters on the level of Candelario will begin to replace those golden oldies who slowly, steadily are leaving Detroit.
But it will not change this season’s inevitable storyline. The Tigers had a tough day Thursday. There will be many more ahead. Along with a certain GM at Comerica Park, fans would be wise to keep an eye on July.
On deck: Baltimore Orioles
Series: Three games, Oriole Park, Baltimore
First pitch: 7:05 Friday; 7:05 Saturday; 1:05 Sunday.
TV/radio: Friday-Sunday: FSD/97.1
Series probables: Friday — Mike Fiers (2-1, 3.71) vs. Chris Tillman (0-4, 9.87); Saturday — Francisco Liriano (2-1, 3.13) vs. Andrew Cashner (1-3, 3.60); Sunday — Daniel Norris (0-1, 4.85) vs. Kevin Gausman (1-2, 4.66).