Detroit — The Tigers are low on chips, ridiculously low. They do have two sizeable ones for Tuesday’s trade deadline, but I’m sorry, GM Al Avila should not be permitted to deal either.
Rookie outfielder Riley Greene isn’t going anywhere, obviously. Top pitcher Tarik Skubal is the other big chip and also shouldn’t be going anywhere, obviously and logically. No way.
Reports surfaced last week the Tigers were entertaining offers for just about everyone, including Skubal. Naturally, it stirred people up, including people inside the Tigers clubhouse, including Skubal, who seemed miffed his name was mentioned, then pledged undying devotion to Tigers fans.
Trading Skubal would be a sad admission the rebuild indeed is over — uh, just in time for another rebuild. You don’t get to flip the poker table and start over by cashing in your ace. Avila certainly hasn’t earned that right. However slim the chances of a Skubal trade — less than 5%? — it should be darn near 0.
This isn’t just about Avila’s poor trading record. It’s a recognition the Tigers’ rebuild has gone so poorly, it’s irresponsible to use the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option. Yes, dramatic changes are needed as the Tigers stagger along at 41-62, and after the season, Chris Ilitch must make important decisions. Spend more money? Spend it more wisely? Spend it on more bats? (Yes!) Remove Avila and let someone else spend it? (Makes sense.)
Bolster via bullpen
The Tigers have some decent deal-able pieces, all in their deep bullpen — Michael Fulmer, Gregory Soto, Joe Jimenez, Andrew Chafin, Alex Lange. If a team wants to kick the 32-year-old tires on Robbie Grossman, or any other veteran player, of course the Tigers will sell. One or two (or three) relievers should be dealt to contenders needing a bullpen boost. Any of the Tigers’ hard-throwing relievers could draw a reasonable return of prospects, or even a major-league-ready player. Fulmer and Soto should be especially coveted.
The offense is an abomination, and a team this bad can’t afford the luxury of an excellent bullpen. How many times have Tigers relievers lined up and mowed down opposing batters to preserve a 5-2 loss? It’s a waste. But with virtually all of their starting pitchers either injured or struggling — and 21-year-old Greene off limits — Skubal is the one that creates a stir.
I’m never opposed to value-for-value trades. If Skubal, 25, could fetch a hitter of comparable stature and age, with four more years of team control, OK, I’m listening. But what contender is going to diminish its lineup by surrendering a big bat for a partially proven pitcher? Contenders will give up prospects, but in Detroit, prospects somehow magically dim, which is partly why the Tigers are in this mess.
Have the Tigers experienced an astonishing run of misfortune with their pitchers? Oh yes, from Casey Mize (Tommy John surgery) to Spencer Turnbull (recovering from TJ) to Matt Manning (returning from shoulder inflammation) to Michael Pineda (tricep strain) to Eduardo Rodriguez (personal issues) to Alex Faedo (hip). AJ Hinch has patched together a rotation using 15 different starters.
It doesn’t make sense to trade the only dependable one, a durable, promising lefty with a 93-mph fastball that recently touched 99. I’d even argue Skubal’s stock isn’t at its highest. He dominated early, then hit a patch of five straight sketchy starts in June. He’s 7-8 with a 3.67 ERA and a WHIP of 1.16. His demeanor is classified as no-nonsense bulldog. His mechanics appear sound, which was not the case with Fulmer four years ago, when the Tigers pondered whether to sell high on him, drawing tempting offers from the Yankees and Astros. They didn’t deal the former Rookie of the Year, and shortly thereafter he suffered a series of injuries, concluding with Tommy John surgery.
Whether it’s bad luck or management malfunction, Tigers fans deserve better. They still show up at Comerica Park to witness the worst offense in baseball, one of the worst in recent history. The home attendance average of 20,752 ranks 21st, much higher than their spot in the standings.
Avila, who turns 64 on deadline day, knows he’s under fire, even if Ilitch hasn’t publicly said so. There’s no reason to say so until the season is over.
“We’re all responsible,” Avila said three weeks ago. “Players have to be accountable, the coaching staff has to be accountable, the front office has to be accountable. And it all starts with me.”
Avila might be tempted to take a gambit with a narrative-altering blockbuster trade. Problem is, there’s little reason to trust he could pull off a steal. When he had two huge chips in J.D. Martinez and Justin Verlander in 2017, the return ultimately turned out to be meager, while Verlander and Martinez continue to dominate. You can say Avila was operating from a position of weakness because teams knew the Tigers were headed toward a rebuild and the market for older players wasn’t robust. And he did get three prime prospects (at the time) from the Astros for Verlander.
But through injuries and struggles, none of them — Jake Rogers, Daz Cameron, Franklin Perez — has made an impact on the major-league level. Bad luck? Again, partly. But that’s precisely the risk when you go prospecting for prospects.
The Tigers’ miserable season isn’t getting any better, and they’ll have to play it out and regroup. Maybe their touted pitchers bounce back next season. Maybe Austin Meadows rebounds from his disastrous string of ailments, Javier Báez picks up his career pace, Jeimer Candelario and Jonathan Schoop recapture their 2021 forms, and Akil Baddoo proves to be more than a one-season flash. Maybe rookie Spencer Torkelson figures things out.
Lots of maybes, which is why the Tigers are going to need lots of new bats. Hinch should demand it, and Ilitch has the means to deliver. Asking Avila to deliver by sacrificing the Tigers’ biggest asset is foolish, and I doubt it happens. For now, get some relief by dealing relievers. There’s no guarantee Skubal develops into a steady star, but it’s far less likely the Tigers can trade him for one.