Detroit Tigers: A Realistic Prognosis for the Trade Deadline

The Detroit Tigers have massively overperformed in the 2021 season, and have sprung out of the All-Star break with a 5-game winning streak. However, it’s important to keep a realistic mindset as the long rebuilding period comes to an end, and the trade deadline approaches.

Well, it’s safe to say nobody saw this coming. It’s officially late-July and the Detroit Tigers, while not exactly contending for an American League Wild Card slot, they are actually playing competitive baseball into the MLB trade deadline. This is a far cry from where the Tigers were expected to be heading into the season, as back in December they were called “quite clearly the worst team in the AL Central” by Fangraphs’ Dan Szymborski.

Au contraire, the Tigers have rebounded from an abysmal 9-24 start to the season by compiling a 36-27 record since May 7th, a .571 winning percentage that stretched over a full season would certainly be playoff-caliber. With the trade deadline and eventual 40-man call-ups looming, the Detroit Tigers’ recent scorching hot performance begs the question: what is a realistic second-half prognosis?

Despite the  Detroit Tigers’ impressive winning record since May 7th, it’s important to take a deeper dive into the data, as well as keeping in mind where their production is coming from. Even over this 63-game stretch of winning baseball, the Tigers offense is performing below major league average, posting a 92 wRC+ in that stretch.

As far as where the production is coming from, Akil Baddoo, Robbie Grossman, and Jonathan Schoop have been buoying the offense, all posting wRC+ over 110. The uptick in offensive performance from Schoop in particular, however, should be viewed as a rising stock for a trade candidate rather than a dependable staple for Detroit’s future. Grossman is on a very affordable two-year deal, and Baddoo is under team control for the foreseeable future, while Schoop is a pending free agent with a low-cost contract that would certainly be attractive to a true playoff contender at the trade deadline.

Putting aside the offense, the Tigers have found success with their young pitching staff, as well as a reformed Michael Fulmer out of the bullpen. However, future-ace Casey Mize has already seen an innings limit imposed, and his rotation-mate Tarik Skubal is all but certain to see an innings limit of his own passed down in the coming weeks. Whether either of them will avoid a complete shutdown in the month of September remains to be seen, but for Mize at least it seems unlikely he’ll throw any innings in the final weeks of the season.

As it stands, the Tigers’ success as far as wins and losses may be a bit of a mirage. Since May 1st the team’s pitching staff ranks in the bottom half of the American League in fWAR, and the Tigers +5 run differential in that span is good for a Pythagorean win percentage of just .508, well below the .571 clip they’ve played at.

It’s important as the trade deadline looms that the Tigers maintain a data-driven outlook rather than a focus strictly on wins and losses. Obviously, at the end of the season, wins and losses are all that matters to teams that make the illustrious postseason. However, in late July there is still a lot of baseball to be played, and win-loss records can be a bit misleading. This is especially true for teams like the Tigers or the Seattle Mariners, who have posted a 51-44 record despite a woeful -49 run differential and 90 wRC+.

While it’s clear there are many reasons to be optimistic about Detroit’s future, and perhaps the end of a long and painful period of rebuilding is coming to a close, it would be unreasonable for the Tigers to do anything at this trade deadline other than selling off pieces like Schoop to acquire cost-friendly arms that can bridge the gap until Mize, Skubal, and Matt Manning are ready to join the rotation full-time in future seasons.

The X-factor in all of this is, of course, General Manager Al Avila. The Tigers’ front office track record since Dave Dombrowksi’s departure is that of a wary rebuilder, with a noted hesitancy to make splashy trade-bait signings or sell at the trade deadline, reportedly turning down offers for Michael Fulmer that included Alex Bregman from the Houston Astros and Javier Baez from the Chicago Cubs.

Avila’s recent comments suggest the Tigers will not be interested in a fire sale this offseason, saying “we’re not rebuilding anymore.” This level of commitment to building a competitive ballclub should be inspiring to fans, but there is worry it is yet another misdiagnosis by Avila. The point here is not to advocate for an all-out sale at the trade deadline, but holding the doors shut on dealing players like Schoop or Jose Cisnero, or depending on the details of any potential deal, even Matt Boyd or Michael Fulmer, could be another deadline mistake by the Tiger GM.

With the uncertainty around Mize, Skubal, and Manning into the later months of the season, the Tigers should be seeking a gap arm with future upside, and the answer is not going to be found in AAA-Toledo or AA-Erie. Joey Wentz has struggled to find command of his pitches in Erie, so it’s too early for a promotion. Meanwhile, Drew Hutchinson hasn’t exactly been lights out in Toledo and has been rocked in Major League outings, mostly with Toronto in the early-2010s.

One name that should pique fans interests is Astros’ electric young arm Christian Javier, who has been buried in their rotation due to the bevy of elite starting pitching. The Astros are contending for a championship once again, but will certainly need to shore up their bullpen if they hope to contend with the likes of the Chicago White Sox come October. Fulmer, Cisnero, and All-Star Gregory Soto could all garner interest from Houston, and Javier would be a worthy return. Additionally, the Tigers are perfectly suited to provide Javier with starts he hasn’t been able to get in Houston.

While selling off a few assets and officially bowing out of Wild Card contention at the deadline may hurt fans who have waited what feels like an eternity to watch a competitive baseball team, it’s highly unlikely even in a buyers market that Detroit would keep up with, let alone overtake, the likes of the Toronto Blue Jays, Oakland A’s, Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays, or New York Yankees. There are simply too many good teams in the American League, and the Tigers are still a tier or two below them.

However, the future is extremely bright, and Avila’s comments should spark hope that Detroit will finally be headed in the right direction this offseason. After all, he’s right: the painful part is over, and the Tigers are not rebuilding anymore.