The Tigers have to go for it, this year. There’s really no debate here. The aging core of Miguel Cabrera (33 years old, .310 TAv, 2.0 WARP), Justin Verlander (33, 87 cFIP, 2.82 DRA, 3.4 WARP), Victor Martinez (37, .305, 1.3), and Ian Kinsler (34, .303, 2.6) will never be this productive again—even if you figure it’s actuarially unlikely that they’ll sustain their current levels for even the rest of this year. Nick Castellanos (24, .301, 2.1) is having a great season, and maybe it’s the beginning of his emergence into the star slugger the Tigers envisioned years ago—he’s still young. Then again, maybe it’s the juiced ball, or maybe he’s just run into a few balls and generated a transformed batting line that belies relatively unchanged underlying skills. (He still strikes out a lot, and still doesn’t walk very much, for instance.)
Cameron Maybin is having an insane season, riding a carriage that could turn back into a pumpkin almost anytime, but which gives the Tigers a legitimate, well-rounded offense for as long as it lasts. Justin Upton has slowly come around (.246/.319/.434 since June 1), and J.D. Martinez will be back before the end of July (you know, maybe). Wonder of wonders, the Tigers have a competent bullpen right now. Francisco Rodriguez has brought stability to the closer’s role, and working backward from there, Alex and Justin Wilson, Kyle Ryan, and the somehow-only-25-year-old Bruce Rondon have done decent work in piecing together the rest.
Most importantly, despite losing their 11th game in 11 tries against the division-leading Indians Tuesday night, the Tigers remain right in the thick of the playoff hunt. This is an old team with a woefully thin farm system and a dubious future—one that will probably involve a painful rebound, sooner or later. The Yankees have been in a similar position for a couple years. The Phillies were in something like this position in 2012 or 2013. It’s not an unfamiliar story.
Whereas most teams in similar predicaments have gotten to this point of the season with only a flickering or distant hope of making the playoffs, though, Detroit has a real opportunity. The Indians’ 14-game winning streak has them looking almost uncatchable, and if the Tigers can’t start beating their chief divisional rivals, then that will be true. Realistically, though, the gap between these two teams isn’t as great as the 7.5-game separation in the standings suggests. The Tigers are a better team at the plate, though the Indians are more athletic and better with the gloves. The big difference, the overwhelming difference, really, is in the Indians’ superior starting rotation, and the Tigers’ awful one. Only three teams have made fewer quality starts this season than Tigers pitchers, and Jordan Zimmermann just hit the DL with a neck strain. There’s no reason the Tigers can’t seriously compete in the Central, given the way their key veterans are playing this year, but in order to do so, they need to improve that rotation.
For the record, here’s the rotation as it stands right now:
1. Verlander, 87 cFIP, 2.82 DRA, 3.4 WARP
2. Michael Fulmer, 83 cFIP, 2.98 DRA, 2.0 WARP
3. Mike Pelfrey, 122 cFIP, 7.57 DRA, -2.4 WARP
4. Anibal Sanchez, 123 cFIP, 5.89 DRA, -0.5 WARP
Daniel Norris’s early returns were really reassuring, not to mention inspiring (remember, he underwent surgery to rid him of thyroid cancer back in late October). Like Zimmermann, though, he recently landed on the DL, having strained his right oblique. If the Tigers want to make a serious run at the Indians, they need not only to eventually get those two hurlers back, but add someone else, a durable, quality starter who can eat some innings late in the season (allowing the Tigers to ease off the gas with regard to both Fulmer and Norris) and give the team a legitimate chance to win every fifth day.
There won’t be that many such pitchers available, of course. Some of those who might be talked about—pitchers with several remaining years of team control, or who are signed to team-friendly extensions, guys like Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Julio Teheran, or any of the Rays’ four main starters—are simply beyond the reach of the Tigers, with that over-harvested field of a farm system. There are some more realistic options, though. Rich Hill might be the subject of a bidding war, but he’s just coming back from a groin strain, is old, and will be a free agent at the end of the season. Jeremy Hellickson is neither old nor afflicted by groin trouble (that we know of), but he’ll be a free agent this winter, too, which should both keep the price tag under control (despite Hellickson’s career-best 99 cFIP and solid 3.89 DRA) and motivate the pitcher to advocate for a trade.
A team this leveraged is usually well advised to try to balance things out, play for the future where possible, and focus on sustainability. Not these Tigers. Cabrera, Verlander, Martinez, Kinsler, Martinez, Upton, Castellanos, Zimmermann, Fulmer, and Norris is a good top 10 for a 25-man roster, at least for the rest of 2016. Detroit GM Al Avila needs to beef up the few spots below that, even if it means letting go of a prospect like breakout slugger Christin Stewart, or future closer Joe Jimenez. If he can do it, the Tigers have a chance to defy expectations, and win one or two more meaningful things before their window closes and the pain really starts. Few teams should be more aggressive than this one this July.