Despite a loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday night, the Detroit Tigers are no longer reeling—no longer fighting off the lowly Minnesota Twins for higher standing in the American League Central Division. Thanks to a recent 8-4 stretch, they’ve climbed within two games of the .500 mark—which signals vague respectability—and now sit 3.5 back of first place. (They can also be grateful to the folks who schedule the contests for setting them up to face a couple of substandard National League clubs; if only the Tigers could visit Wrigley Field every week, then return to Comerica Park to see the frigid Colorado Rockies.)
It’s not an ideal spot, but neither do the Tigers have an ideal roster. As Lynn Henning of The Detroit News noted in his Friday afternoon column, Detroit has “a decent team but a fragile team.” The evidence: Quintin Berry, a career minor leaguer living on a .453 batting average on balls in play, is currently their solution in the outfield and their batting order plug-in between All-Star caliber hitters in Austin Jackson and Miguel Cabrera. Further, Delmon Young, oft-futile with the bat and ever-demoralizing with the glove, remains a regular, following Prince Fielder in the Tigers’ lineup despite working on a third season in the past five with a negative Wins Above Replacement rating from FanGraphs—his fWAR is currently -0.6. To make matters worse, Brennan Boesch is the only qualified batter in the American League rated worse by that measure than his similarly frustrating teammate (his fWAR is -1.2). Not to mention a lot of people don’t exactly like what the Tigers have going on at second base, where Ramon Santiago and Ryan Raburn are sharing playing time and hitting for a combined .196 average.
Their roster, on the position player side, simply must look different if they are to contend beyond the division level. Where is the shakeup coming? With the July 31st non-waiver deadline less than six weeks away, so many are pointing to the trade market—but who’s on the block? John Verburg wrote Thursday why it’s going to be slim pickings for Dave Dombrowski and other buyers around the league—with room for more playoff teams than in years past, there are more contenders and therefore fewer clubs willing to part with useful players. In my estimation, only about a dozen can be thought of as deadline sellers at the moment.
Things aren’t hopeless for the Tigers though, as their talent injection need not come from the outside. Rather, the disabled list could lend them the help they need. Andy Dirks’ recovery from Achilles tendinitis in his right foot has been slower than expected, but it’s hard to imagine his situation will keep him out for yet another whole month. While Dirks was a huge contributor for the season’s first two months, another player on the mend should make a significantly bigger impact: Victor Martinez. Owner Mike Ilitch encouraged fans via Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press Friday, “We got a good report on (Martinez’s knee injury). He’s coming along a little faster. Instead of September, maybe we’ll have him in August.”
Returns of Martinez and Dirks would vastly change the complexion of the team. Assuming no more long-term injuries, the lineup would see a huge boost:
2B— Ramon Santiago—SH
LF— Delmon Young—RH
I would say that’s pretty impressive. On the bench, you would have a catcher (Laird or Avila), a second baseman (Santiago, unless he’s filling in for Peralta at short, or Raburn, unless he’s stepped into a corner outfield spot), Don Kelly (or Berry if the Tigers will part with Kelly at the whim of their fans), and one of Dirks, Boesch, and Young—you ride whoever’s hot.
Then again, if Dirks returns to his early-season form, it almost seems silly to keep all three of the aforementioned corner outfielders—especially considering that, since Martinez is back, the poor defenders in the group can no longer hide in the designated hitter role. Is either Delmon Young or Brennan Boesch worth enough on the trade market, perhaps combined with a mid-level prospect, to land a decent second baseman? We may soon find out.
The point is, I truly think the Tigers would be better off waiting to get healthy than trading away Jacob Turner and Nick Castellanos for a stopgap piece in a seller’s market. Martinez and Dirks, in contrast, are free, and they sure would help this offense more than Marco Scutaro.