On Friday, Jul.3, the Detroit Tigers were dealt what some may be tempted to describe as a death blow. While going from first to second on an attempted hit-and-run in the fourth inning of the first contest of a three-game set against the Toronto Blue Jays, superstar Miguel Cabrera suffered a Grade 3 calf strain. He is expected to miss at least six weeks of action.
At the time, Cabrera was on his way to having yet another elite season, hitting .350/.456/.578 with 15 home runs and a 184 wRC+. He later earned All-Star honors for the 10th time in his career.
Given the fact that the Tigers have been underperforming this year and will now be without the services of their two-time MVP until at least mid-August, many fans have already begun suggesting that the team may be better off becoming sellers at the deadline this year. Admittedly, if Detroit does indeed decide to trade off a few pieces, it probably wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world. The Tigers have six noteworthy players who are on schedule to hit free agency this winter, each of whom could potentially bring back something of value in return.
Catcher Alex Avila may not be the hitter he was back in 2011, but he is still a quality defender, and he could easily be expendable as it seems obvious that James McCann is the Tigers’ backstop of the future. Outfielder Yoenis Cespedes could certainly interest contending teams, and so could the speedy Rajai Davis.
On the mound, 31-year-old Joakim Soria is a versatile reliever with plenty of experience pitching out of the back end of a bullpen, and while Alfredo Simon certainly isn’t one of the top-tier starters currently on the market, he is still a guy who can chew up innings and even help out in a relief role if need be.
The Tigers’ biggest potential trade chip, however, is clearly David Price. A free-agent-to-be, many fans have already expressed their doubts about Detroit’s chances of retaining him. Furthermore, the Tigers’ farm system was reportedly rated as the worst in MLB by ESPN’s Keith Law over the winter, so it would be hard to fault them if they were to consider stocking up on prospects. Dealing Price could help the Tigers accomplish exactly that.
That said, the Tigers’ window may still be open wide enough for them to be buyers once again. Granted, they may not have too much time left to decide, but it appears that it is still a bit early to talk about pulling the plug on this season. Sure, it is now the All-Star break, and the Tigers are sitting nine games behind the Kansas City Royals and 4.5 back of the Minnesota Twins in the AL Central. However, it is still very possible that they could find a way to sneak into the postseason.
As of Monday morning, the Tigers are tied with the Baltimore Orioles for fourth place in the AL Wild Card race, sitting just 3.5 games back of the second spot. Plus, while losing the best hitter in the game is certainly a big loss, the Tigers can still be a very scary offensive team.
Since Cabrera was placed on the DL on the Fourth of July, the Tigers’ offense has erupted for 52 runs. A key part of that has indeed been Cespedes, who seems to have caught fire ever since being moved to the No. 2 hole. Over his past nine games, he is hitting .357/.357/.667 with three home runs. Cespedes is up to .297/.322/.499 with 13 homers and a 124 wRC+ on the season, and his defense has also been exceptional. He currently has an fWAR of 3.0.
For as great as Cespedes has been, former Houston Astros castoff J.D. Martinez has been even more impressive, proving that he is anything but a one-year wonder after swinging his way to a 153 wRC+ and a 4.0 fWAR with the Tigers in 2014. Through 86 games this season, Martinez is slashing .289/.347/.565 with a 25 home runs and a 150 wRC+.
He is on pace to cross the 40-homer threshold, and he has posted a 16.2 UZR/150 with three DRS for the Tigers in right field this season, which is a bit of a surprise considering the fact that he struggled a bit in the Tigers’ outfield last year, especially when he was over in left. Overall, he has been worth 3.7 fWAR, nearly matching his total from last season already.
Also back in the fold is Victor Martinez, who is hitting .337/.370/.558 with four homers and a 159 wRC+ since coming off of the DL on Jun. 19. Due to his slow start, the 36-year-old still has a -0.2 fWAR, but he is certainly beginning to resemble the hitter he was last year, when he finished second to Mike Trout in the 2014 AL MVP voting.
It would also be impossible to ignore the success of Jose Iglesias and Anthony Gose at the plate. After missing all of last season, most fans anticipated that Iglesias would quickly regain the defensive prowess that he showed in 2013, but it is pretty surprising to see him still hitting .314/.364/.373 with a 106 wRC+ on Jul. 13. Gose, who was a .234/.301/.332 hitter over parts of three seasons with the Blue Jays, is batting a rock solid .282/.325/.388 in his first season in Detroit.
Lastly, although Ian Kinsler is no longer the 30-30 man that he was in 2009 and 2011 with the Texas Rangers, he currently has a 100 wRC+, which at least makes him a league-average hitter rather than a disappointment. Nick Castellanos is still having a bit of a disappointing sophomore campaign, but he is hitting .324/.351/.588 with two homers and a 156 wRC+ since Cabrera went on the DL.
To put it simply, the Tigers have enough offensive players to be able to survive the revolving door of Marc Krauss, Jefry Marte, utility man Andrew Romine and Avila filling in at first base for the time being. Obviously, they are not bona fide five-plus fWAR players like Cabrera is, but if they can just provide replacement-level production, they will be able to hold down the fort.
As a team, the Tigers are in a three-way tie with the Blue Jays and Los Angeles Dodgers for first first in baseball with a 113 wRC+, they are second in wOBA (.334) and seventh in ISO (.153). Their offense has been worth 16.4 fWAR, which is good for second in the AL and fourth in baseball. This is certainly a playoff-caliber offense.
So, if the Tigers are buyers, who do they look to add? Well, it still probably wouldn’t hurt to consider trading for someone such as Ben Zobrist, but if they are going to get back into the race, pitching is going to be the key. After all, despite the fact that they have averaged 5.8 runs over the past nine games, they have gone only 4-5. Averaging five-plus runs per game should guarantee a victory almost every time with a good pitching staff.
When it comes to the starting rotation, the Tigers need to have a few guys step up and help Price (assuming they hold on to him). In 18 starts this year, Price has gone 9-2 with a 2.38 ERA, a 2.84 FIP and a 1.12 WHIP. As a team, they have gone 15-3 when he starts, but they are 29-41 when he is not on the hill.
The Tigers rotation currently ranks 25rd in ERA (4.48). Advanced metrics paint a slightly more optimistic picture as they rank 21st in FIP (4.18) and 19th in xFIP (4.03), but it still isn’t a very pretty sight. They check in at 18th with a 5.0 fWAR, but Price has been worth the bulk of that, boasting a mark of 3.2 all by himself.
The Tigers should have enough offensive firepower to make up for most of the wins that they stand to lose in the absence of Cabrera, but they need to start pitching better.
If everything starts clicking, however, the Tigers’ rotation could actually be quite good. Anibal Sanchez has been much better lately, but the long ball remains an issue for him this season, and his 14.6 percent HR/FB is proof that he still isn’t quite the same guy he was from 2013-2014. Simon is currently going through the rough patch that many predicted he would, and Shane Greene struggled on Sunday upon his return from Triple-A Toledo.
Still, any of of these three guys could step up and give the Tigers another rock-solid starter in a perfect world scenario.
Obviously, the biggest wild card in the bunch is Justin Verlander. Although he was a little rocky over his first four starts upon returning from a triceps issue which kept him on the sidelines until about mid-June, the 32-year-old was spectacular against the Twins on Friday night. He even showed shades of his former Cy Young, MVP-award winning self, going 7.2 innings, allowing five hits, one earned run, one walk and striking out six.
Unfortunately, the bullpen blew the game for the Tigers in the ninth.
Although Detroit’s relief corps was a surprising bright spot over the first two months of the season, relief pitching has now returned to being the team’s biggest Achilles’ heel. The Tigers’ bullpen now ranks 25th in ERA (3.97), 26th in FIP (4.20) and 29th in xFIP (4.23). While they recently shook things up a bit by designating Tom Gorzelanny and Joba Chamberlain for assignment, that hasn’t exactly solved everything up to this point.
Although Soria was looking like the lockdown closer the team had sorely been lacking earlier in the season, he is sporting a 6.75 ERA, a 8.10 FIP and a 4.23 xFIP since the beginning of June. In yet another attempt to bolster the bullpen, the Tigers also signed Neftali Feliz over the weekend, but it remains to be seen how well that experiment will work out.
If the Tigers decide that they are still in it, the rotation and the bullpen will be the two biggest areas that they will need to address.
When it comes to starting pitchers, guys like Cole Hamels and Johnny Cueto may be out of reach considering the Tigers’ lack of trade chips, but they should be able to add someone like Mike Leake, Dan Haren or Aaron Harang. Just adding one of those three to a rotation that features Price, as well as an improving Sanchez and Verlander, could be a recipe for success.
Relievers such as Jonathan Papelbon and Aroldis Chapman may be in the same boat as Hamels and Cueto as far as their chances of coming to Detroit go, but John Axford, Tyler Clippard or Joaquin Benoit may be more realistic options. Benoit, of course, pitched for the Tigers between 2011-2013, where he was worth an average value of 0.8 fWAR over three years, and he has continued to be a dependable reliever since moving on from the Motor City and signing with the San Diego Padres.
Selling might set the Tigers up better for the future, but if they were to do that, it would probably be about two or three more years before they would contend again with the rise of the Royals and Twins. There is too much talent on this team and the Tigers have invested too much time and money to not take one last shot at their ultimate goal.
Yes, the Tigers winning the World Series this year feels like an extreme longshot, but as history has proven, all a team needs to do is get into the postseason and take it from there. If the Tigers can get their starting rotation and bullpen in order, this could be a very special team in the second half, especially when Cabrera rejoins an offense that has suddenly become explosive.
* All statistical information courtesy of Baseball Reference, ESPN.com and Fangraphs