PHOENIX — Two months ago, Miguel Cabrera offered a five-word statement as he walked out of his postgame news conference after becoming the 33rd player in MLB history to reach 3,000 hits.
“See you in the playoffs,” Cabrera said.
Barring a miracle, that won’t happen until at least 2023.
Entering Sunday, the Detroit Tigers are 15 games below .500 (28-43). They’re 11 games out of first place in the American League Central and 11 games back in the AL wild-card race. The Tigers have a 0.4% chance to make the postseason, according to FanGraphs.
General manager Al Avila proudly announced in spring training the end of the rebuild, and he set his sights on the postseason, but the 2022 Tigers appear no closer to reaching the playoffs than previous teams, dating back to 2017.
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The next important date on the baseball calendar is the trade deadline, Aug. 2.
Acquiring players at the deadline for a postseason push isn’t happening. The Tigers, one of the worst offenses in baseball history, immediately dug themselves in a hole and aren’t showing many signs of climbing out in time to play relevant baseball in the final weeks of the season.
So, what’s the plan as the deadline approaches?
Any trade the Tigers make, whether at the deadline or in the offseason, won’t be sparking another rebuild. This season has been a failure, but the organization remains fully committed to its plan of building a sustainable winner. The Tigers want to improve their MLB roster and win as soon as possible, so the internal focus has already shifted to the 2023 season.
And so, the Tigers will listen on trade offers for nearly all players in hopes of upgrading the team for 2023 and beyond. The only player considered untouchable is 21-year-old center fielder Riley Greene.
That’s why this season’s trade deadline could get interesting.
The Tigers won’t trade for rental-type players, which would mean they’re going to be, if anything, sellers.
But the Tigers also see themselves as buyers for the future. The organization is motivated to acquire players with multiple years of team control. Those deals typically happen in the offseason, but if there’s an opportunity to strike in early August, the Tigers will be ready to engage in trade negotiations.
Who might depart?
One problem with that plan: The Tigers don’t have many rental players to sell to contenders at the trade deadline.
Five players are set to become free agents after this season: right-handed starter Michael Pineda (making $5.5 million this season), outfielder Robbie Grossman ($5 million), righty reliever Michael Fulmer ($4.95 million), catcher Tucker Barnhart ($7.5 million) and righty reliever Wily Peralta ($2.5 million).
From that group, Fulmer should provide the best return package. He has a 2.00 ERA with 12 walks and 27 strikeouts in 27 innings as a high-leverage reliever, along with throwing 11⅔ scoreless innings in a row.
Pineda has been on the injured list since May 15 with a fractured right middle finger, but he is scheduled to come back to the starting rotation in the first week of July. Starting pitching depth isn’t easy to come by, so as long as Pineda is healthy, he will be shopped to contenders as a back-of-the-rotation starter.
Grossman, a player the Tigers once considered as an extension candidate, is hitting .209 with two home runs in 56 games. Those numbers make him a hard sell for playoff contenders unless he has the best July of his career.
After all, the players create their value.
The Tigers once expressed interest in pursuing a contract extension with Barnhart, as well. That’s still possible, but the momentum toward a new deal has fizzled for now. The two-time Gold Glove winner is slugging a career-worst .245 and is worth minus-5 defensive runs saved.
Peralta has value as a pitcher on a cheap contract. He has a 1.91 ERA with 16 walks and 24 strikeouts in 19 games (one start) this season. Last season, he started 18 of 19 games and posted a 3.07 ERA.
The 10-year veteran, who can operate as a starter and reliever, received interest from several teams this past offseason, including the Washington Nationals (who have a worse record than the Tigers in 2022). He initially received MLB offers, but those opportunities were pulled following the lockout because of his work visa situation. The Tigers signed him to a minor-league deal.
A suitable return for Fulmer should be in order, but the Tigers are unlikely to get organizational difference-makers for Pineda, Peralta and Barnhart. Meanwhile, Grossman’s poor production makes him virtually unsellable.
2023 and beyond
Six more players become free agents after next season: Cabrera, second baseman Jonathan Schoop, left-handed reliever Andrew Chafin, righty reliever Jose Cisnero, third baseman Jeimer Candelario and righty reliever Joe Jiménez.
From that group, a pair of relievers — Chafin (3.26 ERA in 24 games) and Jiménez (3.58 ERA in 29 games) — have the most value because of their performance and their contract status, with team control through the 2023 season. Chafin, however, has an opt-out in his contract.
Schoop and Candelario are two of the worst offensive players in baseball, hitting .195 and .187, respectively, and unless their numbers improve — a lot — in July, teams with postseason aspirations won’t trade for them by the Aug. 2 deadline, especially knowing they’ll be on the hook for 2023, too.
Schoop will make $7.5 million in 2023 — he has an opt-out in his contract but isn’t likely to seek a new deal after 2022’s awful start — while Candelario will enter his final year of salary arbitration this offseason.
Báez is earning $20 million this season to open his six-year, $140 million contract, and Rodriguez is earning $14 million to begin his five-year, $77 million contract. Both players can opt-out after 2023.
Rodriguez, though, has been on the restricted list (and unpaid) since June 13, reportedly because of marital issues. He hasn’t pitched in the majors since May 18. A timetable for his return to the Tigers is unknown.
And, finally, there is Cabrera.
Despite his .297 batting average in 61 games, his general lack of power — just seven doubles and three homers — leaves him as a below-average designated hitter collecting $32 million this season and next. While the 2023 Tigers roster may look different in spots, that deal seems to ensure the DH spot, at least, will look very familiar.