The Detroit Tigers had a nice victory Monday, as Ian Kinsler's two-run home run off Seattle Mariners reliever Mark Lowe with two outs in the eighth inning lifted the Tigers to a 5-4 victory. The Tigers are 46-46, and with the trade deadline approaching, they are square in no-man's land: Sell, buy or stand pat?
They're 10 games behind the Royals in the AL Central but just four games behind the Twins and Astros in the wild-card race. Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported Monday night that executives around the sport expect the Tigers to be sellers:
Yet, when contacted Monday, Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski told USA TODAY Sports that no decision had been finalized. ...
"At this point," Dombrowski told USA Today, "our focus is trying to win right now. We're trying to do everything we can to qualify for the playoffs. Things can turn dramatically over a 10-game period. But you have to play well, at some point, on a consistent basis.
"We're at a point where we have to do what's best in our heart for the franchise."
What's best for the Tigers? Price and Cespedes, free agents after the season, would be two of the most valuable trade chips on the market and can help retool a farm system that Keith Law ranked worst in baseball before the season and had no prospects ranked in his midseason top-50 update.
The Tigers are probably unlikely to re-sign either player, especially since they already have several large, long-term commitments on the books: Miguel Cabrera's $248 million extension doesn't even begin until 2016; Justin Verlander will make $28 million per season the next four seasons; Victor Martinez makes $18 million per season from 2016 through 2018; and Anibal Sanchez and Kinsler are both signed through at least 2017.
Also worth discussing:
The Tigers, coming off four straight division titles, were built to win this year. They traded for Price last year not just for the 2014 playoff run but as a replacement for the soon-to-depart Max Scherzer. They re-signed Martinez in the offseason and traded Rick Porcello for Cespedes. Given the ages of most of the core players, it's not a team that looks like it has a bright future.
Owner Mike Ilitch, who bought the team in 1992, is desperate for a World Series title and is 86 years old. I can't imagine he's up for a rebuild.
The Tigers are at .500 right now and don't look like a team that's going to go on a run, especially considering Verlander looks awful with a 6.62 ERA in six starts since coming off the DL; Alfredo Simon, who struggled again on Monday, has been terrible of late, with 34 runs allowed in his past 28 1/3 innings; and Cabrera is on the DL for several more weeks.
Ultimately, Dombrowski has to assess the team properly. The Tigers are minus-19 in run differential this season. While the division title isn't out of the question, catching the Royals seems unlikely, even though the teams have 12 head-to-head games remaining. Heading into Monday, FanGraphs gave the Royals a 77 percent chance of winning the division and the Tigers an 8 percent chance (about the same as the Twins and Indians). Baseball Prospectus has the Royals at 82 percent and the Tigers at 6 percent. There's nothing that suggests the Tigers have really underachieved all that much; before the season, the projection systems forecast them to win in the low 80s. They're playing .500 baseball because that's the true talent level on the team.
Of course, lingering in the back of Dombrowski's mind: On this date a year ago, the Royals were 48-49, seven games behind the Tigers in the division race and 3 1/2 out of the second wild card. The Royals could have traded James Shields; instead, they kept him and went 41-24 the rest of the way and won a wild card. If the Tigers can win the wild card, they would hopefully have Price lined up for that game, and that gives them a chance. And, as the Royals proved last year, anything can happen after that.
So what should the Tigers do? An informal survey of Tigers fans on Twitter seemed to lean to selling. A sampling:
Rachel (@SOUVLAKI): "Need to trade. Too many holes in the team + might as well since both in contract year/won't be resigned"
Jimmy Schwartz (@Jimbocity84): "trade them. Opportunity is there to justify it w fans w miggy out, won't have many opportunities for this in future"
Shane O'Connor (@shoc81): "sell. Farm system is basically barren right now. Can get some huge pieces to offset aging Cabrera, Verlander, Victor."
Collin Kearney (@ckear0917): "reinforcements. Not far away from making a serious run. Lot of games against the #royals coming up. Its not over yet. #believe"
Zack Lackey (@zacklackey): "Probably just stand pat. Not sure we can do much better than the draft pick Price gets us. Not catching Royals."
My quick take: This team isn't going to catch the Royals. My guess is those 12 remaining games will only serve to separate the teams further. If Cabrera were healthy and Verlander not a shell of his former self, there'd be reason for more optimism. But with the current state of the rotation and a less than reliable bullpen, I don't see this team going on a run like the Royals did last year.
However, you hate to give up on a season. It's not like the Twins and Astros, the AL wild-card leaders, are locks to continue playing at their current level. The state of the farm system means the Tigers don't have the goods to get a guy like Johnny Cueto, so I'd probably just stand pat and hope you get to the wild-card game where Price gives you a puncher's chance. The Tigers have had a great four-year run. I'm not sure it stretches to five playoff seasons in a row, but you have to give it a shot.
But if they go 3-7 in their next 10 games, Dave Dombrowski better be burning up those phone lines on July 31.