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What would it take for the Tigers to turn into contenders?

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The Tigers would need an extremely active trade deadline to have any chance at competing.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Before the 2017 season even began, the Detroit Tigers knew that many things had to go right for the team to have a chance at success. Unfortunately, injuries, slumps, and a taste of reality have silenced those optimistic hopes quite swiftly. As the calendar heads toward July, the Tigers sit in fourth place in the division and almost 10 games under .500. Most fans are thinking that it is time to sell.

But is there any hope for the season? With more than half of the schedule remaining and an opportunity to upgrade the team at the trade deadline, perhaps the Tigers are not done just yet. Of course, any significant changes to the roster would come at a price, but that is what it takes to go from a fourth-place team to a playoff contender.

The needs

Below is a table showing the Tigers’ fWAR at every position compared to the rest of the majors. No single stat alone tells the whole story, but fWAR does a decent job at assessing how Detroit stacks up against the competition.

Position Players

Position fWAR Rank
Position fWAR Rank
C 3.1 1st
1B 0.9 19th
2B 1.4 10th
SS 0.2 24th
3B 0.1 21st
LF 2.1 8th
CF -0.6 29th
RF 1.9 10th
DH -0.5 13th

Of the nine positions, four spots are fairly secure: catcher, second base, left field, and right field. Alex Avila has been outstanding this year, and while James McCann has little value, the Tigers can probably get away with playing Avila more often. Ian Kinsler has been solid as always, and Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez are essential to the core of the batting order.

While Miguel Cabrera at first base and Victor Martinez as the designated hitter have struggled to put up numbers this year, they leave the Tigers in a tough position. Both players are far too costly to move, so finding an upgrade at either spot would be unrealistic.

That leaves three positions were the Tigers could look to improve: shortstop, third base, and center field. Overhauling the entire left side of the infield might be too much, but finding at least one player to replace Jose Iglesias or Nicholas Castellanos could bring a big boost to the lineup. Meanwhile, the Tigers rank second to last in center field production.

Starters

Pitcher fWAR Rank
Pitcher fWAR Rank
All SP 5.9 11th
Michael Fulmer 2.6 5th
Justin Verlander 1.3 29th
Daniel Norris 1.3 31st
Jordan Zimmermann -0.1 68th

In terms of fWAR, the Tigers rotation is not actually that bad. The team ranks 11th overall, and three pitchers — Michael Fulmer, Justin Verlander, and Daniel Norris — all rank in the top 35 of qualified starters. Despite some rough patches at times during the season, these pitchers are good enough to make up three-fourths of a playoff rotation.

The biggest blemish has been Jordan Zimmermann, but between him, Matthew Boyd and Buck Farmer, the Tigers should be able to find normal fifth-starter production for the remainder of the regular season. That means just replacing one spot in the rotation with a top-line starter at the deadline.

Relievers

Pitcher fWAR Rank
Pitcher fWAR Rank
All RP -0.8 30th
Justin Wilson 0.5 56th
Shane Greene 0.3 85th
Alex Wilson 0.1 119th

The bullpen is a different story. The Tigers rank dead last in reliever fWAR, and their top three arms do not even rank in the top 50. Justin Wilson, Shane Greene, and Alex Wilson make up a fine section of the relief corps, but the Tigers would need at least a couple additional arms to really compete.

Fitting relievers into set roles is not helpful, but for the Tigers to make a serious run, they would need to add a pair of bullpen arms at the deadline, likely to be current closers or setup men. Where they slot into manager Brad Ausmus’s strategy is a different topic, but having five reliable relievers should be enough to survive.

The cost

Based on this analysis, the Tigers have five needs at the deadline:

  • Shortstop/third baseman
  • Center fielder
  • Top of the rotation starter
  • Two back-end relievers

Prices at the trade deadline change every year, but perhaps recent seasons can serve as a guideline. In 2015, the Blue Jays acquired top shortstop Troy Tulowitski from the Rockies for Jose Reyes and three solid prospects. The Tigers farm system is still below-average, but perhaps Nicholas Castellanos plus a few prospects could acquire a decent bat to play third.

The Tigers 2015 deadline gives an idea of what a top pitcher and outfielder might cost. The duo of David Price and Yoenis Cespedes brought back five quality young arms, including a couple top-100 prospects. The Tigers may be able to dangle a player like Boyd with a package of prospects to make a deal or two.

Relievers are the players most likely to be moved at the deadline and the Tigers have plenty of experience acquiring bullpen arms. Studs like Andrew Miller cost at least a top prospect, while setup men may bring in a couple lesser, but still valuable, minor leaguers.

The future

The above examples are not meant to be taken as absolutes for assessing value at the trade deadline, but rather they serve as a reminder about what it takes to make a trade. Maybe the Tigers do not need to find players as costly as Troy Tulowitski and David Price, but to become serious contenders they would need to make some significant upgrades.

The cost of each of these players ranges from unwise to astronomical. In addition to a couple of younger players, anywhere from eight to 12 prospects could be out the door, including over half of the current top 10. While the major league roster would be much improved, procuring these players would set the minor league system back almost behind repair.

The Tigers may not even have enough quality prospects to even make these trades. Most superstars require a top prospect to start off the package, and the Tigers lack the organization depth to offer those even if they wanted to. Thankfully, this should stop the front office from ever beginning this pursuit.