Next two weeks should determine what Tigers do
The photo above is of the DirecTV Blimp leaving Cincinnati from the view out of Eden Park. It took off from Kentucky and headed east Wednesday morning. Most of the Tigers, by contrast, left town last night. David Price went home to Tennessee. Jose Iglesias went home for a little bit. J.D. Martinez was headed back to Detroit for a day to relax, though he was talking about taking some swings on Thursday to get ready.
The full team will be back together on Friday, at which point they’ll begin a two-week stretch that arguably could determine the rest of the season.
A lot has been written already about whether the Tigers should be buyers or sellers at the deadline, but to me it’s premature. It’s not just the fact that two weeks remain before the nonwaiver Trade Deadline July 31; it’s what remains in those two weeks.
“There’s such competitive balance almost across the board, somebody is going to get hot,” team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski told reporters in Minnesota last week. “It happens every year. But the reality is, between now and July 31, if you win 10 or 11 games or you lose 10 or 11 games, well that can change the way you are a great deal. If you keep playing the way you’ve been playing, I don’t see where it changes. But nobody can foresee the future. But are there things that happen? Sure. Anything can happen. But I think it’s more predicated upon unusual circumstances. So for me, I think we just continue the way we are. We try to get better. We’re going to have to play better at times. We’re just going to have to.”
This isn’t really about the division race. The Tigers are nine games out, and while bigger second-half leads have vanished before (including this one here), the Tigers would need a lot of help from the Royals on that one. They have 12 games left against each other, but none for a few weeks. In fact, other than six games against Kansas City, the Tigers don’t have any division matchups until September.
“There have been many clubs that have been eight games behind, more than that, at this time of year and have made those games up,” Dombrowski said. “We have a club that has some ability. Getting Verlander back gives us a shot to get on more of a roll from a starting pitching perspective. We like what we saw from Feliz for the bullpen. We’ve been scoring runs more. But again, we haven’t gotten on a streak, but there’s no reason to say that we can’t. You’d rather not be this far back.”
The next two weeks are more about the Wild Card race, and whether the Tigers can see that as more than a crapshoot. Of their 14 games before the trade deadline, half are against teams battling them in the standings. They open the second half with three games against the Orioles, tied with them at 44-44, play struggling Seattle and Boston, then visit the Rays (one-half game ahead of them) for three games. Then comes a four-game series against the O’s that wraps into August.
They have more key games in August — beyond the Royals series, the Tigers hit Houston for three games against a fading Astros team — but their direction should be set by then. If they end up as buyers, their key additions will be on board by then. If they’re sellers, the kids should be up. The one safe assumption is that they won’t be caught in between.
The Tigers have an 8.7% chance to win the division, according to Baseball Prospectus, and 9.4% according to Fangraphs. Their Wild Card percentage stands at 19.6% according to BP and 16.5% according to Fangraphs.
Is the Wild Card a risky way to try to get back into the postseason and make one more run at a World Series? Yes, but that doesn’t make it not worth pursuing if the Tigers end July with a decent shot at it. The defending AL champion Royals still haven’t won a division title in 30 years, and were supposed to be crushed by missing out on the division last year, just as the Tigers were supposed to be in 2006. The Giants have more World Series titles this decade (three) than AL West crowns (two).
If the last few years have shown anything about October, it’s that baseball’s postseason has become more like a tournament, and whoever’s playing the best ball at the time stands a better chance than whoever accomplished the most since April. The Tigers, and notably Dombrowski and owner Mike Ilitch, have to figure out how to get this team playing its best by October, and how much it’ll reasonably take to get them there.
If the Tigers can play better ball in what’s left of July, that notion becomes a lot more feasible. Tigers All-Stars agreed that there’s a sense of urgency to the upcoming couple weeks, though none of them said the motivation would be to keep this team together.
“I think everybody on this team knows that we’re not a .500 ballclub and we haven’t played our baseball,” David Price said. “We need to be on to start the second half the way that we’re capable of playing. We all know that. Everybody’s going to have to do their part to make that happens. We definitely have enough talent in that locker room to be successful, to be where we want to be at the end of the year. We just have to hold it down. Everybody has to do their jobs a little bit better for the next couple weeks or a month or so. We definitely have enough talent in the locker room to do that. I think mentally we’re fine. We just have to go out there and compete.”
Asked if the buy/sell debate is a motivation, Price said, “I don’t think so. We don’t have MLB Network or ESPN on in the locker room. This team is pretty strong mentally. We don’t let the outside stuff really affect us. That’s what you have to do. We haven’t played the type of baseball that we’re capable of playing since the first probably two weeks of the season. We plan on getting back to that point. If we can do that the first couple weeks out of the break, that would be ideal.”
Said J.D. Martinez: “It feels like the last month, month and a half, it’s hard to get it going. It feels almost like a wheel. You’re going, going, but you’re always hitting that bump and you can’t roll. We’ll play a good series and then we’ll go another series and we can’t figure it out. This second half, we definitely have to pick it up, I feel like. It’s going to be interesting because there’s a lot of good teams in our division. Our division is very tough. Minnesota and Kansas City have been playing really well, and they’re starting to create a lot of distance, so it’s going to be tough.”
Jim Leyland, who has been in on the Tigers meetings trying to determine their Trade Deadline direction, seemed to hint at the same thing when he went on MLB Network Radio Wednesday morning.
Leyland on #Tigers: “There is a sense of urgency in my opinion… I think it’s just a matter of putting everything together.”
— MLB Network Radio (@MLBNetworkRadio) July 15, 2015
What the Tigers do is going to be closely watched, and no team seems to have a firm grasp so far. Even as contending teams ask what Detroit is going to do, noncontenders — including the Padres and Reds — have continued to scout the Tigers and their farm system.
Three things to remember as July unfolds:
- Much like with Max Scherzer, the Tigers will get a compensation pick in the back of the first round if they hold onto David Price for the rest of the season and he ends up signing elsewhere as a free agent. Any debate regarding keeping or trading Price over the next two weeks starts with that, because any potential return would have be judged in comparison. The Tigers have a first-round pick that they can recoup, but as was important in this year, they have spending flexbility against the draft cap. If the Tigers trade him, by rule, whoever gets him can’t get any draft compensation if he leaves in the offseason.
- By contrast, the Tigers won’t get a compensation pick for Yoenis Cespedes, whether they keep him or deal him. His contract that he signed in 2012 stipulates that his team can’t make him a qualifying offer.
- If the Tigers decide it’s worth buying in, payroll is still expected to be a factor.