Detroit Tigers weren’t supposed to be sellers at MLB trade deadline. How it all went wrong

Detroit Free Press

TORONTO — There was a time, not too long ago, when the Detroit Tigers envisioned a much different approach at the 2022 trade deadline — 6 p.m. Tuesday, less than two hours before they play the Twins in Minnesota.

General manager Al Avila expected to add talent at the deadline.

So did manager A.J. Hinch.

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“When you’re not a team that’s acquiring, it’s not nearly as fun,” Hinch said at last season’s trade deadline. “We’ve got to always remember we want to add. … The next time we’re talking a year from now, I hope we’re adding talent.”

Instead, the Tigers — at 41-62 overall and more than a dozen games back in the American League Central — aren’t close to a postseason push. Indeed, it’s fair to wonder if the rebuild needs another rebuild, though the Tigers’ brass seems to believe the disaster of 2022 can be fixed without a complete overhaul.

“We have to be open to see what we can do to make the team better for the remainder of the season, but more importantly, also for next year,” Avila said July 23. “We’ll look at what we can do to make our team better.”

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Once again, the organization seeks to trade players on expiring contracts. If there’s a chance to improve the roster for 2023 and beyond, the Tigers want to capitalize by trading for established MLB players with team control, but that opportunity might not develop  until the offseason. Rookie center fielder Riley Greene is the only untouchable.

“I don’t like that we’re in this position,” Hinch said.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

What went wrong

Avila has faced immense criticism for his role in building these underachieving Tigers, but coming out of spring training, he and Tigers fans were optimistic about the roster assembled over the offseason. Snapping the franchise’s six-season postseason drought wasn’t a guarantee, but nobody expected these players to perform this badly for this long.

After all, remember what the roster was supposed to look like at this point?

Rotation: LHP Eduardo Rodriguez, RHP Casey Mize, LHP Tarik Skubal, RHP Matt Manning and RHP Michael Pineda.

Bullpen: LHP Gregory Soto (closer), LHP Tyler Alexander, LHP Andrew Chafin, RHP Jose Cisnero, RHP Michael Fulmer, RHP Kyle Funkhouser, RHP Joe Jiménez and RHP Alex Lange.

Starting lineup: C Tucker Barnhart, 1B Spencer Torkelson, 2B Jonathan Schoop, 3B Jeimer Candelario, SS Javier Báez, LF Robbie Grossman, CF Riley Greene, RF Austin Meadows and Miguel Cabrera (DH).

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Bench players: OF Akil Baddoo, UTIL Harold Castro, UTIL Willi Castro and C/OF Eric Haase.

On paper, the Tigers were lined up to compete. But on the field, due to myriad injuries and poor performances, the Tigers have the third-worst record in the AL, and the offense — averaging 3.21 runs per game — is one of the worst in baseball history.

But it’s easy to see how things could be different.

“I’m just trying to make sure our guys realize we put ourselves in this situation,” Hinch said. “We have to deal with the consequences of the stress, anxiousness, curiosity and the reality that, if I was on the outside and I had a contending club, I would have a few pieces that I would want here, too.”

There are many “what if” scenarios to contemplate.

What if Greene never broke his foot in spring training, one day before he was supposed to make the Opening Day roster? (Granted, that means the Tigers wouldn’t have traded Isaac Paredes to the Tampa Bay Rays for Meadows.) The Greene injury could be the biggest reason for the Tigers’ woes. The 21-year-old was the best offensive player in camp, and since Greene’s June 18 debut, the Tigers have a better-than-awful 17-22 record.

What if Mize, a Tommy John surgery victim and former No. 1 overall pick, had stayed healthy? What if Manning had stayed healthy beyond two starts, too? (Position player Harold Castro has as many pitching appearances — four — as Mize and Manning combined.) What if an injury and martial issues hadn’t gotten in the way of Rodriguez’s status? He hasn’t pitched for the Tigers since May 18, remains unpaid on the restricted list and won’t return until mid- or late-August.

What if Báez had avoided a career-worst start to the season, where he was the worst offensive player in baseball through mid-June? Even now, he has 10 home runs and a .645 OPS across 89 games. What if Torkelson, struggling to hit fastball down the middle, had looked comfortable in the big leagues? The Tigers demoted the former No. 1 overall pick to Triple-A Toledo on July 17. What if Grossman, Candelario and Schoop hadn’t experienced extreme regressions from last year’s production? What if Meadows, who has played 36 games and none since June 15, never dealt with a sinus infection, ear infection, vertigo, strains to his right and left Achilles and general soreness? He has not homered in a Tigers uniform.

It’s Murphy’s Law.

Everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong.

Many fans were excited coming out of spring training. The team committed $235.5 million to four free agents. Hinch traveled with Avila during the non-lockout portion of the offseason. He met prospective players — including Báez (six years, $140 million) and Rodriguez (five years, $77 million) — to pitch the Tigers’ plan for the future. National networks talked about the Tigers as a threat heading into 2022.

Many of those same fans are unhappy with Avila. Fans have chanted at games for the longtime general manager to be fired. Avila is taking the blame, and while he deserves some of it, Hinch also played a role in building this year’s roster and is the captain of the on-field product.

An on-field product that has been unacceptable.

The players, especially veterans Grossman, Schoop and Candelario, should be held accountable for they do, or don’t do, on the field. As for the injuries, the Tigers have no explanation and believe those setbacks were out of their control.

“I’m not trying to avoid the question, I just don’t have any answers,” Hinch said. “These are age-old questions. The more you protect pitchers, the more we hurt them. But if we run them out there and run them into the ground, then we abused them.

“It is a difficult process to get a pitcher from start to finish. It’s become more difficult with shortened springs, shortened years, inning totals and a lot of variables that are uncontrollable. Quite honestly, it feels like we’re all guessing on what the right solutions are, and the majority of the league is guessing wrong.”

What to watch for

The trade deadline could still open the door for the Tigers to immediately improve — by acquiring talented players — and work toward their long-term goal of sustainable success. What happens to Skubal, either at this year’s deadline or in the offseason, could indicate the organization’s trajectory.

Skubal, a free agent after 2026, is a rare breed with Cy Young potential. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2016 at Seattle University, so his power arm should be in solid shape for years to come. The 25-year-old is the type of player a team builds around, rather than trading for prospects or MLB position players.

“I love being a Tiger, but it’s out of my control,” Skubal said. “I can’t control any of that. My job is to worry about pitching every fifth day, and whatever happens, happens.”

Although Skubal, and almost everyone else, is available, the Tigers’ top priority is seeking trade partners for players on expiring contracts: Chafin (player option after 2022, would consider getting COVID-19 vaccine if traded), Pineda (injured), Grossman (batting .205 in 83 games), Fulmer (2.77 ERA in 40 games), Barnhart (batting .201 in 64 games) and Peralta (rehab assignment).

Two players who become free agents after 2023 are being shopped, too: Candelario (batting .211 in 81 games) and Jiménez (3.00 ERA in 42 games). Soto, a free agent after 2025, has been involved in trade talks, but the Tigers don’t seem motivated to move him unless a postseason contender presents a strong package.

Teams with enough chips to get Soto include the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies.

“Nowadays, there’s not a guy who’s not discussed at some level,” Hinch said.

Over the past couple days, some players have filtered into Hinch’s office to ask about their chances of getting traded before Tuesday’s deadline. The skipper is honest with them about their situation, whether they’re on an expiring contract or haven’t performed well enough to be coveted by contenders, but he’s not the person working the phones and closing the deals.

Finally, Hinch reminds the players of their reality.

The Tigers aren’t buyers, because they lost 60 of their first 100 games.

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldRead more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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