Wojo: To stave off a sell-off, Tigers must get hot in a hurry

Detroit News

Detroit — We shouldn’t even be having this conversation. It doesn’t seem right, or real. But, because the Tigers reside in baseball’s ugliest division, we’re forced to play along. They might as well, too.

The unofficial second half of the season starts now, and by all metrics, the Tigers are a bottom-third team, yet somehow without bottom-feeder ambitions. At 39-50, they’re on pace to finish 71-91. Only six teams in baseball have a lower winning percentage. Only three teams have a worse run differential than the Tigers’ minus-86.

So, naturally, let’s talk playoffs!

I’m willing to do this, as long as everyone remains reasonable. Nobody in the AL Central is above .500, which means The Tigers are only 5½ games behind first-place Cleveland (45-45) and five behind Minnesota. Barring congressional intervention, the division winner will participate in the playoffs. According to FanGraphs, the Tigers have a 2% chance of being that playoff team.

However, they are getting healthier, with Riley Greene adding oomph to the lineup again, and Tarik Skubal, Eduardo Rodriguez and Matt Manning looking like rotation mainstays again. In the next two weeks leading up to the Aug. 1 trade deadline, president of baseball operations Scott Harris will have major decisions to make, and AJ Hinch will have major juggling.

Under normal circumstances, the Tigers would sell, sell, sell at the deadline. And they’re still highly unlikely to buy, buy, buy. Harris has been here less than a year, so here’s my unsolicited advice to him: Don’t be fooled, but don’t be afraid.

In other words, beware the losing team in contention, but if your dinged-up division presents a rare opportunity, don’t ignore it. If the Tigers are, say, three games out of first as Aug. 1 approaches, they deserve the right to go for it. But, by “go for it,” I don’t mean they should trade prospects for experienced sluggers. At this stage of Rebuild 3.0, “going for it” means not trading away key contributors.

If the Tigers are five or more games out on July 31, selling is still the best option. I’m sure Harris knows it, but he has no reason to dampen anyone’s aspirations prematurely, or cruelly. The Tigers have missed the playoffs eight straight seasons, tied for the longest drought in baseball, and fans are starved for anything.

“As far as the standings, yes, it’s going to impact our decision,” Harris said on 97.1’s Stoney and Jansen Show Thursday. “If we get hot out of the break, it’s going to change our approach to the trade deadline. We are going to be responsive to the way the team is playing and we’re going to make the best decisions we can for the organization.”

The Tigers do have the skeletal structure of a decent team when everyone’s healthy. Their decimated pitching staff is being pieced back together, and Hinch should be able to use a regular rotation, although the patchwork bullpen days have been surprisingly successful. A rotation of Rodriguez, Skubal, Manning, Michael Lorenzen and Reese Olson is solid, and the bullpen has been very good, for the most part.

But, the offense remains fundamentally flawed, with only one regular hitting about .300 (Greene at .305 with an .835 OPS). The Tigers have been shut out an MLB-worst 11 times and are 28th in runs and 25th in home runs. Could that change now that Greene’s back, and perhaps with hot streaks from Javier Baez, Matt Vierling or Spencer Torkelson?

Sure, there’s a chance. If nothing else, could the Tigers at least stir hope, false or otherwise, and go on a Lions-like second-half run to above-.500? The Tigers were 16-11 in May, their first winning month in two years. Now, July might be the most important month of Harris’ tenure so far. He has to decide who stays, who goes, and just as vital, who comes up.

He’s made it clear he won’t rush any of the Tigers’ three prized prospects — Colt Keith, Justyn-Henry Malloy, Parker Meadows — who all are excelling in Triple-A. He has valid concerns if they’re not ready, and Torkelson’s struggles should serve as a sobering reminder. The former No. 1 overall pick has played in 197 games since being promoted last season and has a .215 batting average with only 20 home runs.

Harris also has valid (unspoken) concerns about starting the rookie clocks early, which could have contractual implications. Keith, who turns 22 next month, certainly looks ready, hitting .414 with a 1.126 OPS in eight games with Toledo, and should get a shot in the Tigers’ infield soon.

“We think it’s a disservice to them to push them up here a little bit too quickly, especially against the backdrop of how many talented prospects (all across MLB) have come up and struggled,” Harris said on 97.1. “We’re really excited about their progress so far, and we’re gonna be ready to press the button as soon as they convince us they’re ready to come up here and stay up here.”

Harris hasn’t been reluctant to make moves. He sent Nick Maton, one of his first trade acquisitions, to Triple-A (not that he had much of a choice). He released veteran Jonathan Schoop (not that he had much of a choice).

Complicating Harris’ efforts are this nasty little twist: All of the Tigers’ best trade chips have been damaged in some way.

Rodriguez was pitching superbly before missing a month because of a finger injury. Lorenzen made the All-Star team even after a rocky June. Reliever Alex Lange appeared to be a prime temptation for a contender, but after a dominant start, has stumbled of late. Spencer Turnbull and Matthew Boyd were possible trade chips before getting injured.

Rodriguez can opt out of his contract after the season and Lorenzen is on a one-year deal. Barring a sudden rush up the standings, trading both is wise, practically mandatory. Harris’ long-term thinking already has revealed itself. He selected nine high-schoolers in the recent draft, including high-upside outfielder Max Clark. In Al Avila’s final draft as GM, he took none, only college players.

There’s still a ton to clean up from Avila’s messy regime, and chasing a longshot championship run seems reckless. The counter to that, shouted by diehard fans: What about the 83-78 Cardinals beating the Tigers in the 2006 World Series?! Duly noted. But, are we really going to compare a long-successful Cardinals franchise with the current Tigers?

Again, don’t be afraid, but don’t be foolish. The next couple weeks will be fascinating, as Harris weighs conflicting dynamics. Maybe the Tigers will rise with improving health and a less-than-daunting schedule. Maybe they’ll fall farther, ending the debate and necessitating a sell-off. Most likely, this will remain dangerously, deliciously murky, another critical curve on the rocky rebuild road.


Twitter: bobwojnowski

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