A while back, I placed a comment in a thread responding to a poster arguing that the Tigers needed to make a trade for a starting pitcher at the trade deadline. My argument (in a nutshell) was that the Tigers couldn't afford to worry about the rotation when we had gaping holes at second and third base. Since then, Phil Coke has been pulled from the rotation, the bullpen has shuffled around (with Al Alburquerque going to the DL). So the comment has become dated. So I'm updating here. Frankly, the Tigers shouldn't spend all their time focusing on pitching at the trade deadline. Instead, the scarce resources we have (prospects) should be used wisely in order to bolster our chances this year.
Before I begin with the analysis, I should say that I believe selling top prospects (guys like Jacob Turner, Andy Oliver, Fransisco Martinez, Nick Castellanos, Daniel Fields and Rob Brantly) is a bad idea. The Tigers have two superstars in Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera locked up during their prime (Verlander until 2014 and Cabrera until 2015) so there's no pressure to win this year specifically when they have until 2014 to make a championship run. With a large window of viability, why give up all your young, cost controlled pieces, especially when Verlander and Cabrera account for two-fifths of the payroll?
Taking a look at the Tigers
First, let's see how the Tigers are doing right now. Below is a list of the starters on the Tigers and their WAR (Wins Above Replacement) contributions entering play Wednesday. I'm using WAR since it encompasses total player value and is therefore easier to work with. With the starting pitchers I'll also use FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching) in order to show why exactly our players don't need replacing.
First, the offense:
C Alex Avila: 2.7 WAR
1B Miguel Cabrera: 3.5 WAR
2B Ryan Raburn: -0.2 WAR
3B Brandon Inge: -0.3 WAR
SS Jhonny Peralta: 3.3 WAR
LF Brennan Boesch: 2.4 WAR
CF Austin Jackson: 1.3 WAR
RF Magglio Ordonez: -0.7 WAR
DH Victor Martinez: 1.8 WAR
And now the rotation:
RHP Justin Verlander: 3.7 WAR, 2.89 FIP, 2.99 xFIP
RHP Max Scherzer: 1.0 WAR, 4.34 FIP, 3.89 xFIP
RHP Rick Porcello: 0.9 WAR, 4.28 FIP, 4.22 xFIP
RHP Brad Penny: 0.9 WAR, 4.39 FIP, 4.45 xFIP
LHP Phil Coke (for kicks): 1.2 WAR 3.77 FIP, 4.77 xFIP
We'll leave the bullpen out of it with the understanding that an acquisition for a reliever would probably not take one of the key roles (setup man or closer) and would therefore hopefully be reasonably enough priced in terms of prospects.
A couple things spring to mind. First, regarding the pitching, Max Scherzer is probably doing a little better than WAR predicts. His home run rate is high, and WAR uses FIP to calculate value. The home run rate should drop a bit, and Scherzer should improve his FIP slightly. Second, note that the starters (aside from Justin Verlander) are all about the same level of mediocre. Remember this, because it's very important. Third, while some of Phil Coke's peripheral statistics were horrible -- he didn't leave many batters on base, which drove up his ERA -- the scouting reports show he couldn't handle being in the rotation; not only did he fail to strike many batters out, but his stuff got pounded.
Second, the position players are either boom or bust. Austin Jackson probably shouldn't be batting leadoff, but his defense is so good he's a 2.5 WAR player. The Tigers have five players who could have a four win season, which is fantastic. That said, three players are in the negative territory, or to put it another way, are costing the Tigers runs. Brandon Inge is probably nearing the end of the line and is a shell of his former self, Ryan Raburn stinks and Magglio Ordonez has hit like garbage this year. With Ordonez, the ankle injury probably played a major role, so there probably isn't a need to replace him. But there certainly is a need to fill holes at second and third.
It's the runs, stupid (apologies to James Carville)
So what should the Tigers do at the deadline? As far as I see it, there are three gaping holes as it stands today: second base, third base and starting pitcher. Fixing these three holes would make the Tigers a significantly better team, and they can be done simply.
A warning before we proceed: I'm going to make some trade speculations below. They are absolutely baseless, but I need actual players to do the math with. Also bear with me. I'm going to round to half a season to make the calculations easier. After all, you come to Bless You Boys for baseball, not math.
Let's say the Tigers trade for Chase Headley of the San Diego Padres in an attempt to fix their third base situation. Headley would probably be a bit pricey. He'd probably cost Andy Oliver. It would be worth it though, leaving aside Headley's Petco splits, his WAR is an even 2.0 in 82 games. So he's a four win player locked up for two years. If you replace Brandon Inge at third with Chase Headley you gain 2.0 WAR for the second half of the season, less Brandon Inge's negative contribution. Total gain: 2.3 wins.
Now let's assume that the Tigers also want an insurance plan for Carlos Guillen. So they call up the Houston Astros and acquire Jeff Keppinger. Keppinger is overperforming on the year, but he's still been a valuable piece for the Astros, worth about 0.7 WAR. That's fine for the Tigers; remember, Keppinger is an insurance plan for Carlos Guillen, and it's also possible that Raburn finds his swing in July. Total gain: 0.9 wins.
Finally, the Tigers have to replace Phil Coke. It's a little unfair to say that Detroit is replacing Coke's 1.2 WAR since he's shown that he can't pitch out of the rotation anymore. So lets say that he's taking the place of Charlie Furbush. Furbush is currently marginally below replacement level (-0.1 WAR), so we'll call him a replacement level player in the rotation. So the Tigers decide to trade for Hiroki Kuroda, knowing that the rotation will lean heavily toward the right. Kuroda's good, but expensive, so the Tigers would be probably be able to get him for a reasonable package. And what do you know, Kuroda's worth 1.3 WAR so far this season, so he'd be a great replacement for Phil Coke. Total gain: 1.3 wins.
In three trades, the Tigers could easily gain 4.5 wins above what they currently have. They'd give up some good players, but the farm system could weather the hit with the biggest loss potentially being Andy Oliver or Bruce Rondon. It would also be a bit pricey, so hopefully Tigers owner Mike Illich could afford the hit.
Trade Inge, Raburn and Ordonez for David Wright, or refuting bad trade ideas.
So, worst case scenario in the aforementioned plan is that the Tigers are out Andy Oliver while improving by a whopping four and a half wins. But what if the TIgers decide to go for broke by trading for a superstar, let's say a guy like Anibal Sanchez or Jose Reyes?
First, let's start with Sanchez. Sanchez would cost quite a bit in terms of prospects as the best pitcher on the trade market: he has 2.5 WAR so far this year, and is a potential ace pitcher. He'd cost Jacob Turner for sure, and Detroit would probably have to throw in a couple other mid-range prospects. And the Tigers would only improve by 2.5 wins in the second half. Total gain: 2.5 wins. This means that the Tigers would give up more, but improve less because they fill fewer gaps on the team.
Reyes would be a total coup: he's the best player on the market by far, and has been worth a whopping 5.3 WAR so far this year. Assuming he can keep that up and be worth 5.3 WAR in the second half, he would be a tremendous acquisition. Of course, he displaces Jhonny Peralta, who would in turn displace Brandon Inge at third base. That would mean Reyes adds 5.3 WAR while effectively replacing Brandon Inge's -0.3 WAR for a total gain of 5.6 wins. Sounds good, right?
Well, not really. Because getting Reyes means not fixing holes at second base or in the rotation. It also means losing out on Jacob Turner and Nick Castellanos if not even more. That means that reinforcements from the minor leagues will be even more scarce over the next few years. It also means that if something goes "pop" or if Reyes leaves as a free agent next year, that the Tigers are out a boatload of value for a short-term gain. And yes, that includes the draft picks. Reyes would cost two top-100 picks even if he's a free agent at the end of the season, and it's hard to pull top-100 guys out of the middle-lower first round or supplemental rounds.
What does it all mean?
In short, the Tigers have a stars and scrubs roster that has a ton of flaws. It's certainly possible to plug the biggest holes at a reasonable price with smart trades. Adding more stars at the expense of team balance, however, could be risky. Even if the Tigers acquire a third baseman, a second baseman and another starter, there are still risks in right field and the rest of the rotation. Adding one piece and calling it a day would be a very bad idea, and the Tigers should be looking into cost-efficient ways to plug multiple holes with decent players.
Furthermore, it doesn't really matter whether the Tigers improve the offense or the defense. Think of players in terms of runs; if the offense contributes more runs than the pitching can save, the Tigers still come out ahead. After all, it doesn't matter if the Tigers win games with a score of 5-4 or a score of 5-3; a win is a win.
To put it another way, if the Tigers could acquire three players, each worth one measly win per season, to plug the holes at second base, third base and starting pitcher, they would gain 2.0 WAR as a team. It doesn't take a big, sexy splash to win a division or build a dynasty. It takes smart planning and careful thought.