Society loves to lump us into dichotomies — Montagues and Capulets, cat people or dog people, #TeamValor or #TeamMystic (seriously, only weirdos pick the yellow team) — and the MLB trade deadline is no exception. Teams are either buyers or sellers once the calendar approaches July 31, and while they can sway one way or the other all month long, they eventually have to pick a side.
Ever since Major League Baseball introduced the second wild card, that line has become more muddled. With a 46-43 record at the All-Star break, the Detroit Tigers find themselves in that zone of uncertainty for the second year in a row. Last season, they feinted as a buyer for most of the month, but their 11-16 record that month ultimately led to the decision to trade three pending free agents and punt away the rest of the season.
However, despite the infusion of young talent, they’re back in that zone again, and it’s not a comfortable spot to be in. BYB’s own Kurt Mensching tackled this subject in his column for the Detroit News, all but admitting that the Tigers are in baseball purgatory.
The Tigers sit 6.5 games behind the division-leading Indians at the All-Star break, not an insurmountable distance if you believe the home team can play better than it has — and the advanced stats agree that this is a .500 club playing just above .500 ball.
Fangraphs gave them about a 1-in-4 chance of making the playoffs and a 1-in-6 chance of earning the wild card.
With a decimated rotation, repeated mistakes on the basepaths, a defense that ranks in the bottom half of the league, and an inconsistent offense that disappears at the worst times, it can be pretty hard to reach the conclusion the Tigers are better than their record says.
Kurt goes on to point out that improving the team at the trade deadline isn’t easy. The second wild card has provided more deadline buyers than ever, turning July 31 into Mad Max: Fury Road except less spikey and without the awesome flamethrowing guitar guy. Prices are always ridiculous, and will be even more extravagant this year with a dearth of quality arms on the trade block.
The Tigers could look to cash in on the seller’s market for the second year in a row, but that option won’t be as lucrative as last season. For one, they don’t have three marquee free-agents-to-be just lying around. Any players they decide to deal this season would either (a) not bring back much in return, or (b) severely hamper their ability to contend in the future. A full-on rebuild isn’t happening at this point, and their best trade assets are still under control for multiple years.
So we’re basically left with three options.
- Sell off anything not bolted down and waste the last few good years of Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander.
- Do nothing and hope that the young arms in the rotation turn into mid-rotation starters as they approach (and exceed) their innings limits.
- Buy like hell and hope the Tigers can 2011 Cardinals their way into a World Series title.
None of these options seem all that appealing, but I’m choosing #3 every day of the week. The Tigers are locked into this roster for the next two seasons, and have a whopping $138.1 million already committed to contracts in 2018. FanGraphs’ Craig Edwards pointed out that the Tigers’ future commitments don’t dip under $100 million per season until 2020, when Miguel Cabrera will be 37 years old. Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris aren’t digging the Tigers out of that hole by themselves, and the farm system is still far too shallow to produce enough cost-controlled talent to counteract those albatross contracts by then.
Long story short: the Tigers are screwed, and there’s not much they can do about it. They were never going to get away with trading away prospect after prospect after prospect in their dogged pursuit of Mike Ilitch’s coveted World Series title, and the current crop of young talent is only going to soften the blow.
So, you buy. Double down on the win-now mentality and take advantage of all those home games in the second half. Try to flip those playoff odds — FanGraphs has them at 25.2 percent this morning and Baseball Prospectus is even more pessimistic — and hope another pitching-starved team ahead of them falters. The three AL East teams in contention play one another a combined 24 more times, and the Astros have nine more games left against the Rangers. The Tigers even have a chance to control their own destiny, with series remaining against the Orioles, Red Sox, Rangers, and Astros. Then, you spin the playoff roulette wheel.
It’s not a perfect method. The Tigers have been out-scored this season, and it will take some serious improvements to push them ahead of the current contenders. But with a future so bleak unless every single prospect they acquire pans out (hint: they won’t), it’s worth rolling the dice on another playoff run or two. Flags fly forever, and the right move could finally provide the exclamation point this era of Tigers baseball deserves.