Heading into this year’s MLB trade deadline, everyone knows that the Detroit Tigers need starting pitching. Sure, maybe they can squeak by if they add a reliever or two and move Shane Greene back to the starting rotation, but running Anibal Sanchez out there every five days is going to be a serious hindrance to their playoff chances, and everyone knows it. Combine this leverage with a dearth of available pitching options on the trade market, and the Tigers could be looking at some steep prices for middling upgrades.
There is another way, though. The Tigers boast one of the better offenses in the American League, and are on pace to score nearly 800 runs. However, it isn’t perfect. There are still some holes around the batting order, and in most cases those players aren’t making up any ground with their defensive capabilities. Shortstop Jose Iglesias is the only Tiger who has been a net positive while posting below average offensive numbers.
It seems backwards, but the pitching-starved Tigers could improve their roster not by adding a starter, but by doubling down on their offense at the trade deadline and adding a bat. Runs are runs, and the only object in baseball is to score more of them than the other team.
This is an idea that FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron explored earlier this week. Cameron argued that the Boston Red Sox could dig into their considerable farm depth and trade for an upgrade at catcher, such as Milwaukee’s Jonathan Lucroy, one of the most talented players on this year’s trade market (presumably). Cameron postulates that boosting a good offense with an above average hitter actually has a bigger effect than adding said hitter to a bad team.
Reinforcing a strong offense can be just as effective at winning games as replacing poor pitchers. It might not be as aesthetically pleasing to keep beating your opponents 9-7, but it still counts as a win, and given the way offense scales up in a non-linear way, it’s actually going to be easier for a team like the Red Sox to make a larger improvement by adding a good-hitting catcher than it will be to upgrade the rotation in a similar manner. Instead of forcing themselves to shop in a barren pitching market with few good options, the Red Sox could likely make a bigger impact on their team by acquiring Lucroy...
Like the Red Sox, the Tigers have also received subpar production from their catchers. James McCann is hitting just .205/.256/.323 this season and has been worth just 0.3 rWAR. Contrary to popular belief, he has not hit much better lately, batting just .238/.292/.349 in the past 28 days. He has stalled the running game defensively, but his pitch framing numbers have made him an overall minus player, worth -0.5 WARP according to Baseball Prospectus. Jarrod Saltalamacchia has been slightly better with a 103 wRC+ on the year, but he has also been a minus defensively. And while he has hit a little better lately, he has posted a .598 OPS since opening the season with seven home runs in the team’s first 12 games.
The Tigers could theoretically upgrade their catching tandem, but there aren’t many options available. Lucroy would be a pricey addition, and the Tigers probably don’t have the pieces in their lower minors to add him without subtracting from their major league depth. San Diego’s Derek Norris has also been mentioned as a potential trade chip and is a better pitch framer. However, as a righty bat with significant platoon splits, he would not pair well with McCann. Other catchers on the market have similar warts, and the Tigers still appear wedded to the idea of McCann as their catcher of the future.
There are other areas where the Tigers can improve, though. Beyond the Box Score’s Henry Druschel identified shortstop and the outfield as other areas in which the Tigers could upgrade this July, citing Cameron Maybin’s pending regression and Iglesias’ subpar offensive numbers as evidence. While I would argue against Iglesias — he has been on fire lately and there is zilch to be found at shortstop elsewhere — the outfield is a decent place to start. Maybin is a sure bet to fall back to earth in the second half given his .410 BABIP, and his frequent injuries are worth mentioning. The Tigers are also without a true fourth outfielder, and the right acquisition could potentially steal at-bats from Justin Upton, who still hasn’t found a groove offensively yet.
The Tigers could also look to San Diego for outfield help. The Padres have been aggressively shopping their trade chips this season, already dealing James Shields and Fernando Rodney for prospects. Jon Jay is having a bounce-back season in his final season before free agency, but is currently on the disabled list with a broken forearm. The timing of this injury could be fortunate for the right buyer, as Jay likely won’t be ready to return until after the trade deadline. Jay’s BABIP is also higher than average at .379, but his 108 wRC+ is in line with what he has done throughout most of his career. An off-the-wall option could be Melvin Upton Jr., who has resurrected his career in San Diego. The elder Upton brother is due $16.45 million in 2017, which would make for an expensive replacement for Maybin next season. However, he has put together two consecutive partial-seasons of 3.0-WAR production, and represents much more of a power threat than Maybin.
There are several different options the Tigers could go in if they set their sights a bit lower. New York’s Carlos Beltran also has an expensive contract, but is a free agent after this season and represents the kind of impact bat that fits best in Cameron’s hypothetical above. Beltran could be used in a number of different ways, even pushing Justin Upton to center field on occasion, or as a lethal pinch-hitting option off the bench. Center fielder Michael Bourn has perked up a bit in 44 games with the Arizona Diamondbacks, but is no longer the defensive maven he was earlier in his career. Speedster Peter Bourjos is also in the final year of his contract, though it’s worth questioning whether he or Bourn actually represent an upgrade worth pursuing on the trade market.
Overall, signs point towards the Tigers targeting pitching on the trade market (if they target anything at all). Their offense has carried the load all season long, and could feasibly improve on its own when J.D. Martinez returns from injury and if Upton starts producing like he should. Finding the right combination of need, value, and a willing trade partner could be nearly impossible in this year’s market. The Tigers will probably be better off keeping things simple and upgrading their pitching staff, even if that player comes at the usual July markup.