The Tigers Are Trapped

Last winter was the winter of Cole Hamels trade conversation. As it became more clear the Phillies were going to hold on for the time being, it became necessary to try to forecast the midseason trade market. Hamels was obviously going to be out there. And then people wondered about Johnny Cueto. On the one hand, it made sense, with Cueto due to become a free agent, and the Reds seemingly not very good. But the Reds also wanted to win — everyone wants to win — and in the middle of May, the Reds were caught in that in-between position, with as many wins as losses. That’s not a good place to find yourself, when you’re on the verge of having to rebuild. Since then, though, the Reds have lost 60% of their games, so they’ve at least gotten clarity. These Reds ought to sell. While nobody likes losing, at least losing has made the Reds’ decision easier.

Where the Reds know what they ought to do, though, the situation has grown increasingly complicated in Detroit. Many have been predicting the Tigers’ coming demise for a while, and though that might be overstated, it’s not an organization on the upswing. It’s more of a win-now ballclub, but it’s a win-now ballclub with about as many losses as wins, and a few days ago Miguel Cabrera went and hurt himself. For the next six weeks — roughly half of the remainder — Miguel Cabrera will be replaced by not Miguel Cabrera, and that’s a huge void for a team that’s been struggling for a month and a half. The Tigers, I’m sure, would love to know how to proceed. Unfortunately, nothing about this is simple. The Tigers are navigating a ridge while they’re fully exposed.

Consider that, on May 22, the Tigers were 26-17. Consider that, since then, the Tigers have had the worst record in the American League. And consider that, the other day, Cabrera went down with a bad calf strain. Do you buy, do you sell, or do you do nothing? It seems like a tough choice, but it appears Tigers fans themselves have been heavily influenced by recent events:

tigers-buyers-sellers

The majority of those voters say “sell”, and while the samples are technically limited here, these sorts of polls tend to even out fast. Most of those who vote vote to sell. They don’t think this team is going to do anything, and David Price is about to become a free agent. Ditto Yoenis Cespedes. Why not cash those guys in? It could help the future that at present seems somewhat bleak. In fact, the Tigers could even try to get out ahead of the market, and pull a premium. The team could stand to re-stock its system.

The problems are obvious, though. Of late, the Tigers haven’t been about selling. And even now, the team’s still barely above .500, and there are pieces in place. The Tigers are a game and a half out of a playoff position. It’s not like Cabrera is going to be lost forever. There’s a strong argument to be made that, if anything, this roster should be solidified. Who’s really buying the Twins? Are other contenders not every bit as flawed?

The most important recent information is the loss of Cabrera. Assuming Cabrera returns on schedule, and assuming he’s okay at that point, the projections say his absence would cost the Tigers about a win and a half. As a consequence, the Tigers project out as about a .500 team. Their playoff odds are just 27%, and think about that win and a half. We have the Tigers projected to finish at 81.3 wins. The Orioles, 82.8. The Blue Jays, 83.4. Add Cabrera and the Tigers close that gap. Another contender might make a trade-deadline splash. Cabrera’s injury is essentially the opposite. It robs the Tigers of one of the game’s best players, and that’s obviously a blow, if short of crippling.

There’s some consolation, however, beyond just the idea of Cabrera returning in August. Over the last five years, when Cabrera has started, the Tigers have won 56% of their games. When Cabrera hasn’t started, the Tigers have won 59% of their games. It’s a tremendously small sample, but it’s at least evidence that the Tigers don’t fall apart when Cabrera is missing. And you can look at the timing, here. The team’s down one Cabrera, but Alex Avila was recently activated from the disabled list. Victor Martinez has hit a lot better since he came off the disabled list. And while Justin Verlander hasn’t looked good yet in his four starts, most of his stuff is there, so he could be crucial stretch-run rotation insurance.

As one important player goes away, other important players return, and the Tigers are projected to score 4.4 runs per game. The Tigers already have scored 4.4 runs per game. The offense shouldn’t fall apart, and the emergence of James McCann allows Avila to cover first base a lot of the time. McCann could stand to improve his receiving work, but his hitting has been better than expected, so the Tigers can’t complain. There’s still strength in the outfield corners. Martinez should look a lot more like himself.

The issue with the Tigers is it’s really easy to see the strengths, and it’s really easy to see the weaknesses. So it’s really easy to see the team making a run for the playoffs, and it’s really easy to see the team slipping well below .500. Our projections still like them more than the Twins and the Royals, but the Royals have a six-game edge. The better play might be for the wild card, but every team is a potential contender there. Right now, we have the Angels and Blue Jays winning the wild cards. The Jays are projected to finish two wins higher than the Tigers. The Jays are also likely to make a midseason upgrade. The Angels, perhaps less so. The Tigers are just barely behind, but they might not be able to do much, outside of add a reliever or two.

This is a bad place. The Tigers are a contender without being a strong one, and the years to come don’t look that sunny. There are pieces to sell, but nothing that could completely change the organization’s fortunes. The Tigers wouldn’t get much for Rajai Davis. The Tigers won’t be able to issue Yoenis Cespedes a qualifying offer, but he’s also just a decently good corner-outfield rental. And David Price would be a rental, and last year’s rental lefty fetched…Yoenis Cespedes. Good talent, but not blockbuster talent, and the Tigers would get compensation for losing Price as a free agent. The value of trading Price now is the difference between the trade-market return and the draft-pick return. And then you have to factor in the lost value down the stretch in 2015, since without Price the Tigers would about be giving up.

The Reds were trapped, until they lost enough to get clarity. The Tigers have lost, but to this point those losses have just dropped them into the same trap the Reds lost their way out of. The team’s good enough to try to improve, but it’s also weak enough to take apart, and the entire American League is at least on the periphery of the race. Given opposing potential routes, maybe the best way forward for now is to do nothing. Do nothing as a front office, and see what the team does. A cold spell makes the decision easier. A hot spell makes the decision easier. And as for alternating wins and losses? Then nothing’s easy. The Tigers aren’t in the worst position in baseball, but they are in perhaps the least clear.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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8MileKyle
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8MileKyle

Kind of was in the sell boat until I really sat down and thought about it. The wild card right now is paramount for the Tigers, because this is their last year in which they have a shot at the playoffs. Next year, the pain begins. Might as well cash in all the chips. Do they have any movable parts? I don’t know. Their minors are pretty barren. Two of their minimum salary pieces; Greene and Castellanos, are damaged goods. But if you’re going to be pot committed, which they are, might as well try to increase the odds of being all in.

Ryan
Guest
Ryan

We just need an SP, we would be within a half game of first if we had Scherzer. Simon, Greene, Verlander have all done bad while the rest of the team has done their job. It’s just, we have 3 guaranteed losses out of the 5 SP we have. Just do whatever it takes to sign Cueto and get that rotation we used to have. I’d take our old rotation over our new offense anyday. Let’s get Price, Cueto, and Sanchez