The Detroit Tigers probably won't win their division in 2015. In fact, the odds of even making the playoffs seem remote with the holes that the team currently has on the roster. The team desperately needs at least one starting pitcher, a reliever, and potentially a first baseman to make a serious run at the post season. A common reaction to this is to want to trade for players who are on the trading block because they will be free agents after this season, so their current teams are shopping them.
The Tigers are also facing the reality that key players such as David Price, Yoenis Cespedes, and Joakim Soria will be free agents after this season. Each of them will cost more money than they are currently earning to either extend or replace them on the roster. The Tigers are not likely going to be able to replace their production by trading them, and certainly not by trading them for prospects who are in the minor leagues this season. Top-ranked minor league prospects are nice, but the Tigers have seen their former highly-rated prospects fizzle out after being traded in years past.
The Tigers are still in the middle of a playoff chase. This shot at the postseason is what teams are built for. Chasing teams ahead of them may not seem appealing to a club used to sitting in first place, but many other teams are in the same boat and happy to be there. Most teams play to get themselves into a position where a deadline deal could push them into the postseason. If matters worsen by the deadline, strategy could change. Whether the Tigers "buy" or "sell," they should do so with an eye on 2016 while they still have a core group to build around. In that case, they're still buying -- but for next season.
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If the Tigers trade for pending free agents such as Johnny Cueto or Scott Kazmir, they stand to lose their own free agents after this season plus the players they have rented. The Tigers will have even fewer prospects to help an eventual rebuild, and the possibility of simply retooling for another championship "window" seems unlikely. Whether the Tigers buy now or after the season, they are going to have to buy some players, because what they have in the organization won't get them close to contending in 2016 and beyond.
If we were to forget about this season and focus on 2016, would the team be better off by trading their pending free agents for prospects? Not likely. The players they receive will have to be young talent nearly ready for major league action, and opposing teams are more reluctant than ever to give up these cost-controlled assets.
This is why the Tigers should do exactly what they have done several times before at the trade deadline. If they are still within striking distance by the end of the month, they should trade for players who will be around for a year or two after the current season. Looking at the best deadline deals that Dave Dombrowski has made during his time in Detroit, they all have a common thread. Whether it was Doug Fister, Jose Iglesias, Jhonny Peralta, or Omar Infante, the Tigers picked up players who were not just rentals. Current Tigers Price and Soria also fit that description.
The Tigers have rented players in the past, but not very often, and not with much success. Jarrod Washburn pitched only 43 innings in a Tiger uniform and he was done, but Detroit did not give up a lot to get him. Anibal Sanchez would have been a rental if he had not been signed to a contract extension. The Tigers matched any offers for Sanchez to keep him, and they still had Infante from the same trade for two seasons. Arguably, the worst season that the Tigers have had recently in terms of the trade deadline was in 2007, when they made no moves and lost a 2-1/2 game lead, missing the playoffs.
Some starting pitchers who are not merely rentals that might be available include the Phillies' Cole Hamels, Milwaukee's Mike Fiers, Colorado's Jorge De La Rosa, and San Diego's James Shields, Andrew Cashner, and Tyson Ross. There are others who are the type of players that Dombrowski has been able to land in the past.
If the Tigers are going to "sell" players like Cespedes and Price, the return should be younger players who are already producing in the major leagues, and would contribute immediately in 2015 and 2016. They don't necessarily have to be stars, because the Tigers can then try to parlay the payroll savings into other players who would make up the production deficit.