The Detroit Tigers rank 12th out of 14 American League teams in overall ERA at 4.33 and this is including Justin Verlander at 2.32. Verlander has thrown more innings than any other Tigers hurler. All starters not named Verlander have combined for a 4.85 ERA this year covering 365.2 innings.
It’s not surprising then that Jon Paul Morosi reported yesterday that the Tigers are scouring the trade market for starting pitchers instead of focusing on ways to upgrade at second base and third base.
The first of the dominoes to fall was the Phil Coke experiment in the rotation. It was announced yesterday that Coke will be returning to relief duties and will be replaced in the rotation by Charlie Furbush.
The Tigers opted to give Coke a shot at starting this year instead of looking to add a southpaw through free agency this winter. Coke made 14 starts and through the first 11, he was more than serviceable, posting a 3.54 ERA over 61 innings. He wasn’t working deep into games, but he was holding opposing offenses down. His 1-5 record during those starts spoke much more to his run support than it did to his performance.
Still, for as good as he was in those starts, he was terrible in his last three. A more established starter would be given more rope than Coke got from Tigers manager Jim Leyland. The combination of Coke’s recent woes in addition to a group of inconsistent left handers in the ‘pen made this move almost a necessity for the Tigers. Coke was outstanding in a relief role in each of the past two years and though the club has tried a total of five left handers in the role, they haven’t been able to match what Coke gave them in relief last year.
The reality is that while the Tigers have a decent stock of minor league arms who are projected to become major league contributors, those pitchers are a year away at best from being ready to step into substantial roles. When Coke turned an ankle earlier in the year, lefty Andy Oliver made two starts in his stead. The results weren’t pretty as walks became an issue for the young hurler. Though he didn’t suffer significant problems with walks before coming up, since his demotion back to Toledo, Oliver hasn’t been the same pitcher and walks and home runs have been haunting him.
So with Coke moved to the ‘pen and Oliver not yet ready, it’s Furbush that gets the next chance. Regardless of how well he performs (and I expect he’ll be decent but not tremendous), the Tigers won’t be in much better shape overall than they are right now. Replacing one average at best starter with another one might strengthen the bullpen in this case, but it won’t help the rotation. Tigers fans are still left to hope that right handers Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello can find again the ace-like form that seems to come so easily at times, only to elude them again at others.
Brad Penny, who is the next in line in terms of expendability, is half way through a one-year deal. His performance hasn’t been terrible overall, but he hasn’t been able to put together a string of outings that would be qualified as good.
Essentially, the Tigers have been operating this year with an ace in Verlander, a number three in Scherzer and three number fives. I know it has been a while since it happened, but on those rare days that Verlander is off his game, the Tigers are left vulnerable to an extended losing streak. If the offense isn’t out-slugging their opponents, the non-Verlander starters are in trouble on most days.
But where can they look for help? Don’t go banging the Jacob Turner drum, folks, the Tigers would be fools to rush him to the show in the way they did Porcello. They still believe that Turner can be ready next season and guys like Furbush and Oliver (and potentially Casey Crosby) will also be given a look next season. But this year GM Dave Dombrowski will be seeking help via trade, looking to add a veteran starter (probably two) to the rotation. There won’t be a ton of help available in terms of guys on short-term deals, so he may have to get creative.
If he scours the clubs that typically carry low payrolls, he might be able to pry away a pitcher who is about to cash in through arbitration. Yes, the price would be steeper in terms of return on the deal, but the club would be able to retain the player beyond this season. If you dangle and Oliver or a Crosby, you might be able to land one of the Oakland guys or maybe a young Marlin or Astro. It’s a pointless exercise to rattle off names that may or may not be available, but those are the kinds of deals that would be most beneficial to the Tigers.
I don’t see any way Turner gets traded, but I wouldn’t suggest that any of the other soon-to-be-ready pitching prospects should be off-limits. The deal has to be the right type of trade to make it worth it, however. Dealing an Oliver for a 33-year-old on the last year of his deal would be a tough pill to swallow, but moving him in a package for a 27-year-old with two arbitration years ahead of him makes much more sense.