Two parallel problems for the Tigers today should spur some inevitable trades, whether deals happen this month, at the annual July deadline, or during the coming offseason.
The Tigers will need to swap some players — from the big-league team and, as becomes more and more clear, from their farm where too many prospects are being jammed into too few position slots.
A first truth surrounds manager AJ Hinch’s big-league bunch: The Tigers might, mathematically, remain in the division hunt. But whatever statistical chances they had at stealing the American League Central in 2023 have all but vanished with another string of cruel trips to the Injured List.
That means, despite some screaming from Comerica Park’s bleachers and even in the clubhouse, the Tigers have to be serious about parting with a handful of talents that legit contenders will want for their more serious playoff runs.
Alex Lange figures principally here. He represents for a stream of teams aching to boost their bullpen a talent on the difference-making level Willie Hernandez became for the soon-to-be world champion Tigers in 1984. He will draw a high-retail return the Tigers require as they move toward bolting together a team that in 2024 can genuinely be quite good.
In the same way, Akil Baddoo would be a dandy left-handed hitting outfielder, with power, for a team such as the Yankees. Kerry Carpenter’s return from the IL makes Baddoo more expendable, as do the plug-‘em-in tastes of manager AJ Hinch, who seemingly never met an infielder he couldn’t also use in the outfield.
Eduardo Rodriguez, of course, headed the midseason trade docket because of his potential autumn opt-out, as well as his starting-pitcher mastery. That all changed last week when E-Rod exited with pulley-muscle ills that threaten to knock him out for much of the summer.
And then there is Michael Lorenzen, an autumn free-agent-to-be, and a handy-dandy right-handed starter who could fetch a nice parting gift in July, even if trade-mart “rentals” tend to be priced cheaply.
Why the Tigers would deal valid talent now and burn holes in their summer roster is a question new front-office chief Scott Harris could answer, but won’t.
Harris knows how limited is this bunch, as does Hinch. The Tigers are a terrible offensive team made more gruesome by another crutches-carrying departure in Riley Greene.
They need to make a package deal that brings to Detroit one heavy player/prospect — outfielder, third baseman, catcher, whatever — for a parcel that involves one or more of the above, and very possibly one of their few potential trophies on the farm.
This is where the minor-league inventory factors, thin as it is.
Colt Keith will be in Detroit at some point in 2024 and everyone will love him. He can hit, truly hit, and will be a left-handed weapon in Hinch’s order.
His problem is endemic to the Tigers farm, and to their big-league picture, overall: Keith has no set position. This can be helpful to a manager such as Hinch when he loves to use players at multiple positions. But it’s of little benefit when players aren’t proficient at any one spot.
Keith’s days as a third baseman have all but expired and the Tigers now are hoping he can play adequately at second base. Fine, if that occurs, but second base also happens to be pretty much the lone option for last year’s first-round pick, Jace Jung.
You see the situation here — well, part of it. The Tigers are dealing with congestion at a finite number of positions but lack Grade-A beef at too many other spots.
Justyn-Henry Malloy at Triple-A Toledo is also cut from the can’t-play-third-base-let’s-try-him-elsewhere cloth that doubles as something of a Tigers coat-of-arms.
We’ve only just begun.
A gent who has the switch-hitting bat to perhaps give Hinch an eventual hand, Wenceel Perez at Double-A Erie, had throwing issues at second base and now has moved to the outfield. So, too, has a suddenly hot-hitting Trei Cruz, who was a third-round grab three years ago, and who rates as a solid option at three infield stations.
Outfield, incidentally, happens to be not only where Perez and Cruz now are auditioning, but where Parker Meadows is tuning for a near-certain Tigers debut no later than next season.
Roberto Campos? He turns 20 next week and is a good distance away. But it was not as a public-relations gimmick the Tigers signed him for comparatively massive money at age 16, or planted him at 19 this season at high-A West Michigan. He easily could enter the Comerica Park picture by 2025.
A problem, though, lingers: The Tigers have too many same-skilled, same-positioned players. Their farm and Comerica cast offers quantity but too little quality. The Tigers need taller-timber talent at one of those needy lineup spots.
You won’t get that player(s) with minor-league expendables. But you can include one or two of those bluer-chip pieces in the kind of deal Harris absolutely knows he must make.
Any talk of dealing Lange, of course, will have everyone shrieking when he has been a Tigers bullpen’s 2023 godsend.
But think about that for a moment. And think about big-league bullpens, particularly at this stage of a team’s development.
That hasn’t been the case. And that’s because people adapted to new roles (Lange, in particular) at the same point enough arms were sufficiently scraped together to allow the Tigers a trustworthy back-end corps.
There are enough options now at Toledo and even Erie to make feasible any Lange departure. That’s particularly true when the Tigers — a moment of candor is required — aren’t heading anywhere this summer and when in fewer than four months a sturdier overall group will begin to be assembled for 2024.
It’s a brand of discipline and foresight the Tigers demand from a new front-office boss who was brought aboard to make these exact types of decisions.
With trades that begin as soon as this month or next, coupled with offseason swaps and some heavy free-agent spending (a certainty, especially with so many bucks coming off the books), Harris and Hinch will have a tougher, more talented bunch heading to Lakeland next February. It could and should be a team, 10 years after the Tigers last made the playoffs, with a chance to play better than break-even ball and hang in the hunt until October.
But it won’t happen, not satisfactorily, not in any way that leads to a sustained and credible playoff club, if trades that must be considered now aren’t made aggressively.
Harris knows this. Expect some dealing — soon.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.