According to one of baseball’s oldest and most trusted axioms, the teams that are in first place on the Fourth of July will likely win their divisions and move on to the postseason come the fall. Perhaps another axiom with a similar message should also be created: if you’re a sub-.500 time by the Fourth of July, it’s likely that you’ll remain so for the rest of the season and won’t be playing a wildcard or Division Series game in October.
Such an axiom would apply to the 2017 Detroit Tigers, who reached the halfway point of their season on Sunday by losing again, dropping their record to an ignominious record of 36-45. That’s not only nine games below .500, but that’s bad enough for a share of last place in the American League Central. That record puts the Tigers dead even with the rebuilding Chicago White Sox, who have nowhere near the experienced talent that the veteran Tigers had hoped would be good enough to make a serious run at the postseason.
Despite every chance to show their potential for contention, the Tigers have failed miserably in almost every aspect of the game. Their offense has underachieved (to the point that they are a mediocre eighth in the American League in runs), their starting pitching is paper thin (contributing to the second-to-worst team ERA in the league), and the bullpen has become a train wreck. With three months of the season in the books, it’s become obvious that this team is headed nowhere and has almost no chance of climbing its way into contention.
The 2017 Tigers are a colorless, passionless, lifeless team, one that is led by a colorless and passionless manager. It’s time to admit that the Tigers, as currently constituted, are not going to turn their season around; the only solution is to conduct a firesale and begin the long road toward rebuilding, with the idea of repopulating the roster with vital, young talent.
First step in rebuilding: a new skipper
So where to begin? The Tigers need to start their massive rebuilding project by changing managers. By all accounts, Brad Ausmus is a very nice man, and everyone agrees that he is highly intelligent and well-organized. But being an effective major league manager encompasses more than smarts and IQ. Good managers display an inner fire, and show a willingness to hold their players accountable for their mistakes, even if it results in the occasional confrontation. Good managers also demonstrate a feel for the ebb and flow of the game, which involves an understanding of how to manage critical situations. For whatever reason, Ausmus has struggled in these areas and shown little sign of improvement. After three and a half years on the job, hardly a small sample size, it’s time to move on.
If the Tigers do fire Ausmus in midseason, I would advocate hiring one of his coaches, at least on an interim basis. Lloyd McClendon and Gene Lamont already have major league experience, but they are best described as managerial retreads who are better suited for coaching. The more exciting, if unknown, choice would be first base coach Omar Vizquel. Like Ausmus, Vizquel was an extremely intelligent player who overachieved during a long career. Would Vizquel represent an improvement over Ausmus in terms of passion, leadership and game management? Would he be effective in developing the young talent the Tigers need to acquire? There’s really only one way to find out the answers to these questions: give him the chance to manage in July, August, and September. If Vizquel is somehow able to extract signs of life from this moribund team, that would be an indication that he is the kind of day-to-day manager that the Tigers need.
The Tigers must trade their valuable pieces
As much as the Tigers need new leadership in the dugout, such a change would become meaningless if the team does not begin to phase out aging veterans and bring in younger talent. The Tigers already made a step in that direction by releasing malcontent Francisco Rodriguez, who exacerbated his poor pitching by foolishly challenging his manager and pitching coach in public. Of course, the Tigers acquired nothing in return for Rodriguez, but that was to be expected. K-Rod had accrued zero trade value; no team would have surrendered anything for him. In such cases, it’s better to simply cut your losses and release the player, relying on the old theory of addition-by-subtraction.
Outside of Rodriguez, the Tigers do have a few veterans who could yield something worthwhile on the trade market. Miguel Cabrera isn’t going anywhere, even if he isn’t the hitter he once was, but the man who plays next to him on the infield, Ian Kinsler, would make sense as a trade option. Playing in the last year of his contract, the 35-year-old Kinsler does not fit into the long-term plan in Detroit, but would seem to be a good match for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who tried to acquire Kinsler last winter before settling on journeyman Logan Forsythe. Forsythe has been a disappointment, opening up playing time for Chase Utley, who is hitting in the .220s with little power. Kinsler, even at his 2017 level of production, would be an improvement over either of these players. The Dodgers could use an upgrade at second base, especially as they try to fend off Arizona and Colorado in what has been a stacked National League West.
Kinsler’s double play partner also figures to be shopped this summer. At 27, Jose Iglesias would seem to be in his prime. He’s a brilliant defensive shortstop who will likely never hit as well as he did in 2015, but he might be a good fit for the Washington Nationals, who recently lost Trea Turner to a broken wrist. The Nationals, who have plenty of offense, can carry a bat like Iglesias in their everyday lineup. Furthermore, when Turner does return to action, the Nats can always put him in center field, the position that he played in 2016. If the Nationals can offer a Grade-A prospect, or even a couple of B-level prospects, the Tigers would probably be thrilled.
Among position players, there is no player more likely to be traded than JD Martinez, who figures to leave as a free agent at season’s end. At 29 years of age, Martinez’ trade value is probably as high as it will ever be; in 47 games, he’s put up an OPS of 1.045. Given his relative youth and his legitimate power, Martinez could bring back a haul of two or three good prospects, from a list of teams that includes the Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, and Seattle Mariners.
Would the Tigers trade Verlander?
On the pitching staff, the most likely trade candidate is Justin Verlander. Granted, he’s not vintage Verlander anymore, not at 34 years of age, but is still striking out batters at a high rate and has a history of pitching well in the postseason, at least until reaching the World Series. Verlander’s pedigree makes him attractive to any number of contenders, including the Cardinals, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros, and the defending World Champion Cubs (who reportedly asked Detroit about Verlander’s availability recently). This year’s pitching market is also very, very thin, which probably raises Verlander’s value in any potential trades.
If the Tigers decide to expand their trade options, they can also shop hard-throwing reliever Justin Wilson, whose live left arm would make him attractive to just about any contending team. Two years ago, the Tigers acquired Wilson for Chad Green and Luis Cessa, two decent prospects now with the New York Yankees. Wilson’s value has grown a little since then, making him viable for a talent-wielding trade.
There’s little doubt that the Tigers’ poor play over the first three months has doomed them to also-ran status in 2017. Now that we can all stop pretending that this team will contend, general manager Al Avila needs to jump-start the rebuilding plan that misfired so badly over the winter. Kinsler, Iglesias, Martinez, Verlander, and Wilson are all potential trade options. If Avila can trade two of them for acceptable return packages, the Tigers will be in decent shape this winter. If he can trade three or four, all the better.
Either way, the fire sale needs to begin soon.