By: Will Burchfield
2017 is the Tigers’ last gasp, the current core’s final chance to do something special — right? With a potentially extensive makeover looming, one that eluded the front office over the winter, surely this is it for the Tigers as you know them.
Time, especially in the short term, is not on their side. They are working against an accelerated clock, one that’s set to strike midnight sometime before the July 31 trade deadline. If the Tigers aren’t in contention when that hour of reckoning arrives, a major firesale may well ensue. A major firesale ought to ensure.
But that’s a decision for later. In the present, the Tigers have made the call to go for it, to pony up once more in pursuit of that elusive World Series title. Through 30 games, the team has mostly justified management’s faith. The offense has been great, the rotation has been solid and the bullpen, outside of one pitcher, has quite honestly been fine.
That one pitcher, the team’s closer, has cost the Tigers at least three games. Plug in a reliable late-inning reliever for Francisco Rodriguez, and this 15-15 team is possibly 19-11, likely 18-12, but most definitely in first place in the A.L. Central. That’s in spite of the fact that Ian Kinsler and Victor Martinez have hardly hit a lick, Miguel Cabrera, who missed ten games over April and May, has yet to get going and J.D. Martinez hasn’t played a game.
Have the Tigers been propped up by unlikely saviors, unsustainably so? Sure, but when the likes of Alex Avila and Jim Adduci come back to earth, Kinsler and Cabrera, among others, will inevitably balance things out. Consider who’s missing from the team’s top-12 WAR players thus far: Miggy, V-Mart, Nicholas Castellanos, Justin Verlander. That’s bound to change. When it does, the Tigers are bound to improve.
This team has legitimate potential. Most of the pieces are there for a run at the division title, maybe more. The big one that’s missing is a product of K-Rod’s implosion. The Tigers, once again, desperately need a closer.
The obvious move is to replace Rodriguez with Justin Wilson and move everyone else one rung up the bullpen ladder. But that’s merely robbing Peter to pay Paul. Is Alex Wilson or Shane Greene really fit to be an everyday set-up man? There are a few candidates for promotion within, but none of them inspire a whole lot of confidence. If Al Avila and Co. are truly committed to giving this group of Tigers one last go, they need to look outside the organization for a new closer.
The season is young so the market is thin. But there’s a jewel potentially up for grabs in Kansas City, where the 10-20 Royals are reportedly receiving interest in closer Kelvin Herrera. It was the Nationals who called first and the Tigers who should ring next.
The 27-year-old flamethrower will cost a lot, likely even more for a division rival. But the Tigers have already pushed their chips to the middle of the table for 2017 and there’s no point in hedging their bet now. If it takes a package centered around Joe Jimenez to pry Herrera from the Royals, do it. If it takes one centered around Matt Manning, do it. If it takes one built on both, heck, do it. Otherwise, you’re drawing a line in the sand without choosing a side.
Herrera’s numbers might look down this season, from his 3.75 ERA to his 6.8 K/9. But he has a career-best .917 WHIP and the velocity and whiffs are still there. He possesses All-Star level stuff, is owed just $5.325 million this season and is controllable through 2018. Most importantly, he would plug the most glaring hole on a ball club that otherwise has very few leaks.
There might be some reluctance on behalf of the Tigers (and their fans) to give up Jimenez and/or Manning, particularly in a farm system that’s already pretty thin. But you have to cede talent to receive talent. What’s more, Herrera already represents the ceiling for Jimenez, who’s still very much an uncertainty, and Manning, while a consensus top-100 prospect, doesn’t crack the top 50 on any list that matters. Whether the Tigers are planning for today or tomorrow, they shouldn’t treat any of their prospects as untouchable.
Here’s someone else the team should make available: J.D. Martinez. The slugging right fielder is set to cash in as a free agent after this season, likely to the tune of $20-25 million per year. It’s a raise he fully deserves and one that almost certainly won’t come from the overextended Tigers. Either they can deal him before the July 31 deadline or watch him walk for nothing next winter.
Trading Martinez for a closer, in theory, is about drawing from a surplus to fill a deficiency. The Tigers have plenty of offense. They are fourth in the A.L. with five runs per game this season and Martinez hasn’t taken a swing. The same trend held up last season. When Martinez was healthy, the Tigers averaged 4.8 runs per game; when he was sidelined (for 40 games in the summer), they averaged 4.85. This isn’t a knock on Martinez, a former All-Star with 30+ HR/100+ RBI chops, but it’s evidence the Tigers offense can make do without him.
Martinez might not be attractive to a small-market team like the Royals, who likely wouldn’t want to pony up the cash to keep him around. But if a bigger-budgeted team with a top-notch closer falls out of the playoff race early, Avila should pick up the phone. Could the 11-21 Giants, who were reportedly interested in Martinez in the offseason, be enticed to part ways with new signee Mark Melancon? Since 2014, Melancon has the most saves (137) in baseball and a WHIP of .919. His contract, which pays him an average of $15.5 million per season through 2020, could obviously be a holdup but maybe the Giants would be willing to absorb some of the cost.
The Tigers have a firm rotation, led by a future Hall of Famer and three promising youngsters. They have a robust offense, flush with right-handed power. They have, believe it or not, the makings of a decent bullpen, save one critical piece. To keep pace in the American League, particularly with the Indians and their vaunted cast of relievers, it’s crucial that the Tigers make a move to eliminate their most obvious weakness. And with judgement day arriving sooner than usual this season, it’s crucial that they do it soon.
Management committed to this team when the offseason makeover never took hold. It committed to contending, at least for one more season, instead of tearing things down and starting from scratch. A serious overhaul may still be in the cards, but as long as the Tigers are anteing up why not go all-in? Even if things don’t work out, any player they acquire now could be flipped at the trade deadline in a couple months.
Really, that’s all they have. A couple months. Maybe two and a half. But it’s going to get late early this season and we’re nearing the middle of May. The Tigers, at 15-15, look capable of big things if they can fix a familiar flaw. Do it now, before spring gives way to summer and June yields to July and time runs out on a season and an era.