As the month of June draws to a close and the halfway point of the 2016 MLB season approaches, the Detroit Tigers, who were supposed to resume their place as contenders in the AL Central, find themselves falling farther behind the first place Cleveland Indians.
The Tribe just ran through Detroit, taking three straight games in convincing fashion. The weekend sweep made it nine straight for the Indians over the Tigers this season. They opened up a seven game lead over Detroit in the standings. Starters Jordan Zimmermann, Anibal Sanchez, and Justin Verlander -- representing $68 million in total salary -- all got lit up by the Cleveland offense. Zimmermann allowed seven runs in 3 2/3 innings while Verlander gave up eight runs in 4 2/3 innings in the biggest series of the season thus far. Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey are struggling to stay in the starting rotation, with a combined record of 4-14 and ERAs of 6.71 and 5.17, respectively.
The Indians have won nine straight games and are looking like serious playoff contenders. The Tigers look lethargic, with the third-highest rotation ERA, third-worst defense, and third-worst base running numbers in the American League. Worst of all, they can't beat their main division rivals. In each of the Tigers’ four division titles from 2011 to 2014, they were able to beat their closest rivals in head to head competition. This year, they are 0-9 against Cleveland and 2-5 against Kansas City.
When the Tigers made the fateful decision last July to pull the plug on the 2015 season, they were 50-52, ninth in the American League. They were 11 1/2 games behind the first place Kansas City Royals and 3 1/2 games out of the final wild card spot at the time. As of now, the Tigers are at .500, ninth in the league. They are seven games out of first place and 2 1/2 games out of the final wild card spot. The Tigers would need to play .600 ball through the end of July to get on pace with the final wild card team, currently the Toronto Blue Jays. This looks too familiar.
In 2015, the Tigers wisely made the decision to sell three pending free agent players rather than sell more prospects to make a run at the wild card game. David Price, Yoenis Cespedes, and Joakim Soria were dealt for Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, Michael Fulmer, Luis Cessa, Jairo Labourt and JaCoby Jones. Cessa was then flipped for Justin Wilson during the offseason.
The Tigers acquired cost-controlled players who would help them compete almost immediately. They wanted a reboot, not a rebuilding job. Fulmer, Norris, Boyd, and Wilson have featured in the Tigers’ roster in 2016, yet the team is still struggling to put together a starting pitching rotation to compete with the Indians. If the Tigers are going to be contenders in 2016, they need their newly-acquired pitchers to step up and play a major role sooner than expected. Selling some young prospects for a shot at a one game wild card playoff makes little sense. They have to compete for the division title.
The Tigers have a difficult schedule in July as the trade deadline approaches. After they host Miami and travel to Tampa Bay, they begin another three game series in Cleveland as part of an 11 game road trip that will take us up to the All-Star break. That series and that road trip will go a long way to determining whether Detroit will remain in the playoff chase this season, or whether they will again bail out and try to add players to fuel another reboot for 2017.
If the Tigers decide to sell at the trade deadline, the only pending free agents on the roster are Mike Aviles and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. All other players are under club control for 2017. The team has options on closer Francisco Rodriguez and Cameron Maybin. Those two could be shipped, or could help to compete in 2017.
If the Tigers are truly going to sell this season, they will have to go bigger. They may need to deal Ian Kinsler, Justin Upton, or even Miguel Cabrera, and try to get multiple major league ready players who can help them in 2017, even if they don't get full value because of the big contracts they're unloading. Or, they could try to trade Verlander or Zimmermann in a Price like deal for a couple of young pitchers like they did a year ago.
The Tigers have survived the past several seasons by trading young prospects for veteran players and by giving up draft picks to sign free agents. They have a $200 million payroll but their playoff hopes are again circling the drain halfway through the season. The lack of talent in the farm system is what has gotten them to this point. They are continually chasing expensive veteran players, and the trade market doesn't offer any magic solutions for this team. They may need another reboot that will bring an influx of young, cost-controlled talent, because what they’re doing this year isn’t working.