As we near the halfway point of the 2015 baseball season, one thing is abundantly clear: the Detroit Tigers have not played as well as expected. Just a game over the .500 mark, sitting in third place and six games back of the division-leading Kansas City Royals, the situation already looks dire to some. And yet, there are 89 baseball games left on the calendar. Injuries have hurt the Tigers substantially this year, but as they get healthy, there is plenty of potential for them to run down the Royals in the second half. Nothing is close to being decided yet.
So the question at hand is, what should Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski prioritize to improve this club at the trade deadline?
The fundamental problem is the starting rotation. The once-mighty Tigers' rotation has been reduced to David Price and a handful of question marks. Anibal Sanchez appears to have turned it around after a long stretch of disastrous starts, but now Alfredo Simon has come unglued a bit in recent weeks. Shane Greene spent all of May and much of June getting shelled before his demotion to Toledo. Since Kyle Lobstein's injury, both Kyle Ryan and Buck Farmer have tried and failed to hold down the fifth spot in the rotation. Only David Price has an ERA under 3.50, and of the others, only Alfredo Simon has an ERA under 4.00 despite one of the best defensive units the Tigers have put on the field in years.
Sure, the offense hasn't been great, but no team is going to acquire a hitter the quality of Victor Martinez at the deadline. When Alex Avila returns the Tigers will have already put more offensive firepower back in it's lineup than any trade could provide a competitor.
The key to the Tigers' season is Justin Verlander, and right now, he remains an unknown. Without a good second half from Verlander, it's reasonable to suggest that the Tigers are in serious trouble anyway. If he can provide at least the type of production he did in 2013 prior to his core muscle repair surgery, then the Tigers are suddenly looking very good. There is only a month left for the Tigers to see what they have in him before a decision has to be reached. His health and success is potentially the main determinant in what kind of move the Tigers make.
Some argue that the bullpen is even more of an issue, but I disagree. The Tigers' have Joakim Soria, Blaine Hardy and Alex Wilson, each of whom has pitched well for the most part. Bruce Rondon has rejoined the club, adding the possibility of another quality arm for Tigers' manager Brad Ausmus to employ. While Tom Gorzelanny has been terrible after a promising start, the Tigers have potential help from the left side available in Kyle Ryan, and hopefully Kyle Lobstein in the near future. All together, those are more weapons than Jim Leyland had to work with in recent seasons.
Adding a quality starter solves two problems. First, it obviously improves the rotation. But the corollary to that improvement would be more rest for the bullpen and more opportunity to use the bullpen effectively, rather than simply trying to put out fires in two or three starts per week. Alex Wilson, for example, is sitting pretty with a 2.86 FIP, and yet he's on pace to pitch 81 innings, which is a heavy workload for any reliever. There would also be the opportunity to add Lobstein, Greene, Farmer or Ryan into the bullpen should the need arise for backup beyond Rondon.
The need is clear. The problem is that, while there are whole roster's worth of starting pitchers heading to free agency after this season, few of them are particularly good. The list is basically Johnny Cueto and Scott Kazmir. Ignore those on teams that are in contention, and we're left with the likes of Clay Buchholz, Ian Kennedy, Aaron Harang or Mike Leake as lesser options. Not a particularly inspiring set of names, though Buchholz and Harang have both had decent success on awful teams this year. There's a reason it's so easy to home in on Cueto or Kazmir. And it's the same reason every other team looking to upgrade it's rotation will too. Of the rentals, they are the only two impact starters available, and the competition may be fierce for them as a result.
Fortunately, the Tigers have Dombrowski in their corner. I won't be surprised if a more radical move than just attempting to get a rental starter is made. A big trade that looks to acquire a younger starter with upside and team control is potentially more likely considering Dombrowski's aggressive track record. If the Tigers do go for just a modest upgrade, they'll be pinning their hopes on Verlander and Sanchez posting strong second halves. How they pitch over the next month may determine the quality of move that is made.
Either way, you can bet a move is coming. The Tigers need quality innings from someone, and right now, it's hard to see how they can consistently find them without Dombrowski going to market once again.