By the time most of you read this, we will be two weeks from the MLB non-waiver deadline. The Tigers have three games with the Twins, four with the White Sox, three with the Red Sox, and three with the Astros before they are required to make a decision about the 2016 season. They currently trail Cleveland by 6.5 games and sit three back of the second wild card. They have seven more chances against Cleveland before the season ends.
This is a rare quandary for the Tigers, as the question of what they should do at the deadline is not entirely clear. It was obvious in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 that they were buyers and equally clear in 2008, 2010, and 2015 that they were not, even if they put up a good front for the weeks leading up to last year’s deadline. This year is different.
Last year they were nine back at the deadline and played poorly immediately afterward. In addition, the quality of the roster was much lesser, leaving the odds of a late season return to glory much lower. The 2016 club is four games over and heading into a week of games against beatable opponents. Except for their 1-11 record against Cleveland they have played 47-33 versus the rest of the league, outscoring their other opponents 402 to 360. They have a top tier offense and bottom tier pitching. The club has a challenging question to answer these next two weeks.
Making up three games in the wild card standings is certainly within their grasp, and even the 6.5 in the division is not out of the question. If they play 5-2 against Cleveland that gets them half of the way there. They have 32 games left against MIN, CWS, LAA, and ATL. Drawing a path from here to the postseason is not a difficult thing to do, but it requires certain deadline maneuvers that the organization may not wish to stomach.
If The Tigers Buy
If you look around the diamond, the Tigers have several holes in need of plugging, not the least of which is catcher. While James McCann is adept at nabbing would-be base stealers, his performance at the plate has been extremely poor this year. He’s running a 45 wRC+ and has actually been worse of the last month. Saltalamacchia had a big walk-off home run on Sunday, but despite his hot start has only managed to be a league average hitter this year. If you could combine McCann’s, whose improved his receiving quite impressively this year, with Salty’s bat, you might be able to survive, but given that they can only play when the other sits, a full catcher they do not have.
This isn’t to say that McCann won’t grow into his bat, simply that expecting him to do so this year is probably not wise. The obvious solution is Jonathan Lucroy. After a down year in 2015, Lucroy is up to his old tricks with the bat and behind the plate and could certainly rival any non-Posey catcher for total value left down the stretch. Add the fact that he is owed just $5.2 million next season to the mix and that makes him a very worthwhile target. The Brewers are rebuilding and will be very motivated to move Lucroy in a seller’s market, so prying him from the Brewers will simply be a matter of price. We’ll get to that shortly.
The Tigers could also use depth off the bench, preferably someone capable of handling himself in the outfield. The club’s behavior during JD Martinez’s injury indicates that Steven Moya is not someone they trust a great deal and Tyler Collins is no one’s idea of a hitter who forces the opposing manager to go to his relief ace. If you search teams on the outside looking to sell for the right fit, Corey Dickerson of the Rays emerges. Dickerson is having a down year overall (90 wRC+), but his .219 ISO and .261 BABIP makes me think there’s probably not much about which to worry. Surely Tampa Bay can do that math as well, but the rest of the league isn’t going to be motivated to acquire him in the midst of a down year. The Tigers should. He can provide a left-handed bench bat who can spell VMart at DH and either of the corner outfielders when needed while also pinch hitting for Iglesias or McCann (if Lucroy doesn’t come to fruition). The Rays got him for a decent reliever last winter and he’s a half season closer to arbitration, which the Rays might not want to pay.
Obviously the bullpen is always an area of need, but it’s not nearly the weakness it has been in past years. One solid arm will do, and I’d be in favor of letting that arm be Anibal Sanchez, Joe Jimenez, and whoever gets bumped from the rotation (i.e. Boyd, Norris, or Pelfrey) for the next guy on my list.
Matt Shoemaker. In the Dombrowski days, this would be an obvious Tigers candidate. Shoemaker is 29, has a 5-9 record, and a 4.08 ERA which means he’s not on the radar of the more traditional media, but a deeper dive into Shoemaker’s season and the changes he’s made to his performance midseason reveal an impressive arm. He’s going to the splitter a lot more and it’s had really positive effects. His fielding independent numbers are terrific and looks like exactly the kind of arm you’d want to target if you were the Tigers. He’s under team control for several more seasons, but he’s on the old side of things so his current club is not likely to lock him up and build around him, especially considering the fact that his current team is one Mike Trout away from being arguably the worst franchise in the game. Trading Shoemaker in a market devoid of pitching and after the best run of his career makes all the sense in the world, even if he’s not someone two months or 14 months from free agency. (Shoemaker is also a local guy, attending Trenton HS and Eastern Michigan [Go Eagles!]).
Lucroy, Shoemaker, and Dickerson are the arrangement of players the team would acquire if they were committed to going for it. In particular, Lucroy, Shoemaker, and Dickerson would all have a place on the 2017 Tigers and Shoemaker a place beyond that. Buying these players, at a high price, would effectively equate to this winter’s free agent acquisitions. Given the current roster, the Tigers would likely not need to do more than tinker this winter if they added these three guys and they would hardly put a strain on the club’s payroll, which is quite high.
It would cost the Tigers minor league talent, however, and perhaps a name or two from the major league roster. I won’t imagine the precise arrangement, but I would imagine James McCann, Steven Moya, Derek Hill, and two of the promising arms in the low minors would need to be involved. You can’t get these players without giving up players you like, but the Angels might be persuaded by quantity given their current state. The Brewers would be more discerning, but the Tigers could push their chips in and get it done. The Tigers don’t have a farm system like the Red Sox or Cubs, but they have enough if they’re will to go bare.
If the Tigers are going for it, and last winter suggested they are, you might as well jump in with both feet. Get players who can help the team into the next couple of years and think of it like you’re using the farm system instead of the pocketbook to do their free agent shopping. Lucroy, Shoemaker, and Dickerson are probably four-win upgrades this year and would bring plenty of value beyond that. If you’re all in, you’re all in.
If The Tigers Don’t Want To Buy
I recognize that what I’ve proposed is extreme and would require emptying the farm system to take yet another “last shot” with the Verlander-Cabrera-Martinez core. The problem is that the Tigers aren’t really in a position to sell unless they want to punt 2017-2018 as well. Kinsler would net a small fortune, but JD Martinez won’t be healthy in time to trade and there isn’t much else to move other than a couple of bullpen pieces or Cam Maybin, all of which require the club to admit defeat for next year. And if you’re punting on 2017, you have to start to think about a total rebuild, given that Cabrera and Verlander aren’t exactly going to be spring chickens in 2019.
So if the Tigers don’t buy, they have the option of doing nothing, riding out the storm, and coming back next year with essentially the same roster. Or they could choose to really sell, and entice a club with the a Hall of Famer caliber first baseman (which the organization likely has zero interest in doing).
The point is that the Tigers don’t have a punt-2016 option. They can buy hard, stand pat, or sell hard. Given that selling hard is out of the question, they can choose to ride out the season as they are, perhaps making a small move here or there, or they can go big. Trying to split the difference with a couple of solid but not great pieces probably doesn’t give them enough to win this year and hurts the farm system in a way that sets up later peril. If they are going to gut the system, they should gut it right.
I’m not totally sure I’ve convinced myself which option is better. In general I’m in favor of letting it ride with the roster you built over the winter, but the American League doesn’t have an obviously great team and this might be a good chance to win the pennant and go for broke, especially because the moves I’m proposing would put them in a really good position for next year as well.
For that reason, the Tigers should at least try to go down the road on Lucroy, Shoemaker, and (to a lesser extent) Dickerson. They will not come cheap, but the benefits are potentially quite significant and the owner wants to win before he dies. The reason this makes sense is because you’re pushing in all of your chips for two shots at the title rather than one. If you look at this as a chance to win in 2016 and build the 2017 roster, it’s easier to accept the lost talent in the system.
It’s bold and risky and the prospect huggers won’t want to abandon the potential. Plenty of people will make proclamations that Lucroy and Shoemaker aren’t as good as I suggest. Others will argue the Tigers couldn’t even manage to get both. I reject all three of those particular arguments.
You borrow from the future to go for it in the present. Lucroy and Shoemaker are really good players who would replace huge current holes. And despite a weak system, the Tigers have enough talent to get these deals done if they’re willing to part with everyone you love. Maybe there’s a better move if you’re thinking about maximizing 2017, but I don’t see another play that helps in 2016 and 2017.
Dave Dombrowski, despite a terrific run of success in Detroit, was fired because he didn’t quite get this team over the final hurdle. Mike Ilitch likely hasn’t grown more patient in the twelve months since that guillotine fell. If the Tigers want to go for it, this is how they should do it. If they aren’t comfortable with the risk, the current roster might still give them a fighting chance. Either option is defensible, and the Tigers have two weeks to chart their course.