With no baseball for two whole days (terrible, I know), there hasn’t been much to talk about other than trade rumors. Rather than listing off a bunch of far-fetched trade ideas that will never happen, I’m going to look at a team that’s floating in “sink or swim” mode, and try to figure out a way for them to make the playoffs. The Detroit Tigers entered the All Star break with a record of 46-43, sitting 6.5 games behind the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central. Despite their winning record, the Tigers haven’t looked much like a contender at all this year. Their lineup is very good, but the pitching staff is not built for the playoffs. No matter how good your offense is, pitching wins in October. That’s been proven time and time-again. Whether it’s a workhorse rotation, or a lights-out bullpen, you need pitching in October. As of right now the Tigers have neither the rotation, nor the bullpen to be a serious contender.
It’s not just that the pitching staff has under-performed, it’s that they’ve been one of the worst in baseball this year. The team’s front office made an attempt to fix this last year, when former GM Dave Dombrowski acquired Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd in the David Price trade, as well as scoring Michael Fulmer for Yoenis Cespedes. Dombrowski was removed from his position just days after making these moves, and was replaced by Al Avila. The first big move of Avila’s career as a GM was to sign Jordan Zimmermann in free agency, thus going along with the “improve the pitching” theme. From there he signed outfielder Justin Upton and reliever Mark Lowe. That was it.
The lineup is doing just fine. Even with Justin Upton’s underwhelming performance thus far and the absence of J.D. Martinez, the Tigers still rank among the elite offensive teams. Major contributions from Nick Castellanos, Ian Kinsler,Victor Martinez, Cameron Maybin, and (of course) Miguel Cabrera have placed this team within the top 10 for Runs, Slugging %, OPS, Home Runs, Hits, Batting Average, and On Base Percentage. By the numbers, the Tigers offense is scoring 4.7 Runs per game, which is nothing to scoff at. Now if only the pitching staff could give up less runs, then this team would actually be kind of scary.
Going into this year, the Tigers’ pitching rotation consisted of Justin Verlander, Jordan Zimmermann, Anibal Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey, and Shane Greene. The trio of Verlander, Zimmermann, and Sanchez would have been pretty good three or four years ago, but that’s not the case today. As of right now, Zimmermann is injured, Verlander is a middle-of-the-rotation guy, and Anibal Sanchez is one of the worst starters in the league. Mike Pelfrey has been pretty awful too. The only bright spot in their rotation is Michael Fulmer, who replaced Shane Greene after just a handful of starts. To give you an idea of how bad the pitching staff has been collectively, opposing batters are hitting .273 against Tigers pitching, and they’re giving up more than 4.5 runs per game. I don’t need to go digging any farther than that, Just know that the Tigers pitching staff has been very hittable this year.
So how to go about fixing this problem? Drew Pomeranz is the ideal choice of this year’s pitching options, but the Tigers just don’t have the prospects to pull that off. Rich Hill is probably the more realistic of the two, though there will likely be a good deal of competition to acquire him. One pitcher won’t be enough to fix this team though. Mike Pelfrey and Anibal Sanchez should be removed from the rotation, and the Tigers should acquire two starting pitchers to replace them. In this year’s thin pitching market, Jeremy Hellickson (Phillies) is the obvious choice to me. He’s looking like the solid innings-eater they were looking for in Mike Pelfrey, and won’t require top prospects to acquire. Ervin Santana and Andrew Cashner also fit in that category. Should the Tigers find replacements, they could simply release Pelfrey, and move Sanchez to the bullpen. Speaking of the bullpen, that’s another area that desperately needs improvement.
Mark Lowe turned out to be a one-year wonder, as his ERA ballooned from 1.96 in 2015 to 10.05 this year, while costing his team 1.4 wins (according to WAR). Of the 2016 squad, Francisco Rodriguez has been the only reliever to put up decent numbers so far, with a 2.94 ERA and 24 Saves. While those numbers are good, they’re not exactly elite. Jeanmar Gomez (Phillies) and/or Will Smith (Brewers) could probably be had for a decent price, and since the Phillies and the Brewers are both in a rebuilding phase, they would likely be willing to give up these relievers for young, controllable players.
As they’re used to doing, the Tigers will probably have to exhaust their already-exhausted farm system to keep up with the competition. Rich Hill will likely cost them prospects along the lines of Tyler Alexander and Sandy Baez, if not a more polished player like Steven Moya. Lower level prospects such as Adam Ravenelle, Myles Jaye, Josh Turley and Matt Hall could all be used to acquire bullpen and middle/back of the rotation pieces for this year’s playoff run. Of course, that would require the front office to start the farm system from scratch, yet again.
Replacing Mike Pelfrey and Anibal Sanchez is of utter importance if the Tigers intend to make the playoffs, and adding a bullpen piece like Jeanmar Gomez or Will Smith would give them a chance to actually survive the playoffs. Making the necessary trades to make the postseason will force the team to deplete their farm system. Dave Dombrowski was used to his sort of thing, but is Al Avila ready to do what team owner Mike Ilitch wants, and go all-in? As the July 31st trade deadline approaches, we’ll just have to wait and see.