The Tigers Shouldn’t Be Selling

It’s no secret that the Tigers have had a disappointing season. We’re through roughly 60% of the schedule and the team sits one game below .500 and trails the Royals by a whopping 10.5 games for the division lead. They’re four games out of the second wild card spot in the American League and would have to leapfrog three teams to claim it. Miguel Cabrera has been out since the beginning of July with a calf strain. Victor Martinez has been a below-average hitter after being arguably the best in the league last year. Last Sunday, Tigers fans booed Justin Verlander after he allowed seven runs on eight hits and couldn’t escape the fourth inning.  It’s been a frustrating season in the Motor City.

This was not completely unforeseen. Many surmised before the season that Detroit’s four-year reign atop the AL Central could be coming to an end. That had as much to do with holes in Detroit’s roster as it did with the potential improvements of the other teams in the division. Here’s what I wrote about the Tigers in April:

A healthy and rejuvenated Verlander would go a long way toward pushing the Tigers into October for the fifth straight year. With the departure of Max Scherzer in free agency and the trade of Rick Porcello to Boston, Detroit will be forced to rely on newcomers Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon at the back end of their rotation. While at least Greene offers some nice upside, that rotation, even with the always-elite David Price at the forefront, is a far cry from the dominant staffs Detroit fans have gotten used to over the years. The truth is that the Tigers teams that have been consistently lauded for elite pitching rotations have now become a bat-first team.

Bat-first indeed. Even with V-Mart performing like a replacement player and Cabrera missing almost a month, Detroit’s offense has held up its end of the bargain. They entered Sunday ranked third in baseball in runs scored, getting above-average production from six of the nine positions in their starting lineup. It’s the Tigers abysmal run prevention that’s to blame for their lackluster record. In spite of David Price’s continued brilliance at the top of the rotation (140 innings, 134:27 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 2.31 ERA, 2.81 FIP) Detroit ranks 14th out of 15 in the AL in runs allowed. Verlander has been neither healthy nor rejuvenated, throwing just seven games with the Tigers having lost every one. Greene and Simon at the back of the rotation have proved disastrous, combining for a 5.31 ERA in 188.1 innings and a K:BB ratio barely over 2. Even the typically consistent Anibal Sanchez has pitched poorly, allowing a career-high 21 home runs so far in just over 130 innings of work.

Over the course of the past week, reports have emerged that the Tigers may decide to become sellers at the July 31st trade deadline.

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It’s easy to understand the impulse to sell given their struggles to this point. David Price and Yoenis Cespedes are due to become free agents at the end of the year and would both demand a ton of interest on the trade market. Price might actually bring the highest return of any single player if he were made available. There is no shortage of teams in the market for an ace, and Price would headline the class alongside Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto. Beyond that, Detroit’s farm system is barren. Baseball America ranked them dead last in the majors in their organizational rankings published before the season. By conceding defeat in 2015 and selling off their expiring contracts, they can begin to replenish a minor league system that’s been ravaged by years of trading prospects for win-now players (not unlike their deadline acquisition of Price just last summer).

On the other hand, here are the Fangraphs projected final American League standings as of Sunday morning:

Detroit is projected to finish perfectly .500 at 81-81. That would put them in a virtual tie with the Twins, and just about two games behind the Blue Jays for the last playoff spot in the American League. Detroit’s current odds of reaching the playoffs stand at 21.9%, which doesn’t feel quite poor enough to declare their season over with more than two months still to play. Sure, the Tigers will have to play better than their projection (or have Toronto and Minnesota play worse than theirs), but they don’t have to be that much better to give themselves a very real shot at the wild card game. With Miguel Cabrera’s return around the corner, the Tigers have as good a shot as any of the other mid-tier American League contenders to outplay the rest of the pack and seal a spot in the playoff picture. 

Of course, the projections may skew over the course of the next week, depending on whether the other wild card contenders make moves of their own. But the odds are against any one trade moving the needle more than a win or two at the most, and that doesn’t factor in the possibility that Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, generally very adept at improving his club on the trade market, might be able to find avenues for Detroit to become buyers themselves. The team might not have the prospects to acquire a Johnny Cueto or the financial firepower to bring in a Cole Hamels, but there is such a laundry list of mid-tier arms available on the market that it’s likely at least one or two will be able to be had for a discount. Mat Latos, Dan Haren, Mike Leake, Ian Kennedy, Yovani Gallardo and Hisashi Iwakuma are just some of the two-month rentals that could fit the bill.

But beyond the raw playoff odds, there is another, perhaps even more compelling reason that Detroit should push all-in on 2015. The Tigers are on a Phillies-track. The baseball world has known this for a while. Justin Verlander is owed another $112 million over four years after this season. He’ll be 33 years old next year and has declined sharply for three consecutive years. Dave Cameron, in his annual trade value series at Fangraphs last week, listed Verlander as having the third worst value in the game. The contract is an albatross. Additionally, the Tigers will pay $54 million through 2018 to Victor Martinez, a DH who will be 37-years-old at the start of next season. And while Cabrera remains one of the very best hitters in the game, his ungodly 8-year, $248 million dollar extension doesn’t even begin until next season, at which point he’ll be 33 and coming off three consecutive seasons where he has battled injuries. With Price almost assuredly following in Max Scherzer’s footsteps and leaving via free agency this winter, the Tigers will be a team littered with holes and all of its money tied up in guys on the wrong side of 30. Sure, J.D. Martinez has established himself as a bonafide star, slashing .301/.351/.553 over the past two seasons. But unless the Tigers have a tip on where to find other Astros-castoffs who were able to remake their swing and turn into Willie Stargell, it’s unlikely Detroit will be able to acquire enough cheap, team-controlled talent to offset it’s burdensome contracts.

A one-in-five chance at qualifying for a one-game playoff isn’t close to ideal. But the unfortunate reality is that these might be the best odds Detroit has for the next four or five years. They are an aging, expensive, declining team, and it’s too late for them to slam on the brakes now. If you can’t run an infinite budget like the Yankees or Dodgers, you can only thread that needle for so long until you hit the cliff. No realistic return for Price and Cespedes will stop the Tigers from careening off the edge of that cliff, Wile E. Coyote-style. It’s coming, probably as soon as next year. In an American League as weak as this one, Detroit shouldn’t expedite the process.

 

Statistics and playoff odds from Fangraphs and are current as of July 26, 2015. Contract information is from Cot’s Baseball Contracts.

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