Halfway through the season, or actually 10 games past the half way point in the season, the Detroit Tigers sit in first place in their division, with a 6-½ game lead. Despite a month of misery, when they went 9–20 from May 19 to June 18, the team is poised to win their fourth straight division title for the first time in the history of the storied franchise.
Then what? As of today, the Tigers would have home field advantage in the American League Division Series, hosting the winner of the East. Presently, that is the Baltimore Orioles, but it could be the Yankees, or the Blue Jays, or the Tigers might overtake the West-leading A’s and Angels and host the wild card team. A lot can happen between now and October.
The fact that the Tigers just recently swept Oakland in a three-game homestand is certainly encouraging. But that was before the A’s went out and traded their two top prospects to the Chicago Cubs for two starting pitchers, both of whom could be all-stars, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Justin Verlander came said he believed that the A’s made the trade with the Tigers in mind. Oakland GM, Billy Beane, retorted that they’re worried about the Angels and Seattle first, but Verlander certainly has a point.
So, what is Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski thinking of as the trade deadline approaches? Chances are that he’s got an eye on the teams in the west, and that means both the A's and the red-hot Angels, but he is also very much focused on his own team.
The Tigers control their own destiny, and that destiny can be a happy place as long as their own players perform like they are capable of doing. Mainly, the best rotation in baseball needs to regain the form that it showed a year ago, when four starting pitchers ranked among the top 10 in the league in defense-independent stats. They also need to provide those pitchers with a decent amount of run support.
What sidelined the Tigers during the infamous month of misery wasn’t just offense, and it wasn’t just pitching. It took a team effort for a roster of players this talented to post a record of 9–20 for a month. Great players were having not so great performances.
Two glaring weaknesses have shown up during the first half of the season, and they’ve been pretty obvious even when misery wasn’t around. One is the bullpen, led by "proven closer" Joe Nathan. The Tigers have one of the worst bullpens in the league, and no matter how they rearrange the chairs on the deck, their bullpen could still sink any hopes that they have of winning in October, as it did last year.
Pretending that Nathan, Ian Krol, Blaine Hardy, Phil Coke, and the minor leaguers du jour will somehow step up and give the Tigers an adequate bullpen is a risky bet. One can envision scenarios of Drew Smyly returning to the bullpen, being one of the best relievers in the league like he was until about this time last year. One might be tempted to see Joel Hanrahan storming back from the disabled list and becoming the late inning reliever that the Tigers desperately need. Don’t count on it. Not when the club has invested $157 million in this roster with the goal of winning a World Series title.
There are relief options available, whether it’s Joaquin Benoit, or Jonathan Papelbon, or Huston Street, or Koji Uehara, or Joakim Soria. They will be expensive, and will cost a couple of prospects. So be it. Dombrowski says that he’s not looking for a closer, because they already have one. I beg to differ, and hope that he’s just being politically correct. And even if Nathan does regain his old form with his new arm slot, the Tiger bullpen still needs more late inning help.
Detroit is not the only team looking for bullpen pieces. The Angels have already acquired former Tigers reliever Jason Grilli, who was the closer and an All-Star with Pittsburgh, and they're looking for more bullpen help, being linked to Street.
The Orioles and Yankees would like to add to their bullpens also. The Royals have acquired Jason Frasor from Texas for a minor league player, bolstering a bullpen that was best in show last year, but average so far this season. Frasor has been better than all but maybe one Tiger reliever this year. The Dodgers are said to be pursuing Papelbon.
The other problem that has plagued the Tigers in 2014 has been the outfield. The Tigers’ outfield ranks 10th in the league in WAR, according to Fangraphs.com, and they have the second worst outfield defense in the league. JD Martinez has been a beacon of light, shining upon the dark corners of the Detroit outfield, where Torii Hunter and Rajai Davis provide little offense and even worse defense. Hunter has been the worst defensive outfielder in the league with a total minus-0.4 WAR. Davis has been barely above replacement level. Austin Jackson hasn’t exactly set the world on fire, but at least he is trending upward recently.
The original plan was for Davis to take the lesser half of a left field platoon with Andy Dirks, who hasn't played yet this season, and has just had his rehab assignment postponed indefinitely. Davis has a .424 wOBA against left handed pitchers, but just .291 against right handers. Hunter's splits show no advantage, either way.
The Tigers hope that J.D. Martinez can keep up his torrid hitting pace, and play at least adequate defense. He has a higher WAR than the rest of the Tiger outfield, combined, in just 200 plate appearances. They also hope that Andy Dirks will return from his March back surgery and play more like he did in the second half of 2013 than he did in the first half. The past month may be an encouraging sign, as the Tiger outfielders have made room for Martinez, and hit somewhat better.
Maybe they should do more than just hope. Maybe now is the time to get that much needed replacement for Hunter, who is a free agent after this season, and relegate Davis to pinch running and starting only against left-handers.
The Tigers are a top-heavy team. They have true stars in Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and Ian Kinsler. Their starting pitching is second-to-none. But other than solid performances from J.D. Martinez and Joba Chamberlain, the production dries up after that.
Every team has its issues. Expecting a team to field stars at every position is unrealistic, but there are holes on the Tigers’ roster, and there are players available who could plug them. Dombrowski has an excellent track record in making deadline deals during July in his tenure with Detroit. The moves that he is able to make in the next two weeks could go a long way to determining how far the Tigers can go in October.