The Detroit Tigers visit Target Field this week, and it might be worth stopping by for one last look. One way or another, these latter-day Twins tormenters figure to have a new identity next season.
This expensive mix of aging veterans almost certainly will be pared by Opening Day 2017. And as for Detroit’s remarkable decade-long run as postseason contenders — four AL Central titles, three second-place finishes and two World Series appearances in the past 10 seasons — it’s hard to picture that lasting much longer, either. Even — or especially — if they don’t trade some of their cornerstones.
Justin Verlander bristled last month when a Detroit News columnist suggested the 2011 AL MVP might be traded, declaring, “I want to stay here.” But as last year’s trade of Yoenis Cespedes proved, Detroit’s best move might be to dismantle, as best it can, its aging core. Detroit received righthander Michael Fulmer, its brightest rookie in years, from the Mets in that deal. In an offseason with few starting pitchers available on the free-agent market, a star such as Verlander could bring back an intriguing, and less expensive, package of prospects. Same for Ian Kinsler or outfielder J.D. Martinez.
The dollars might matter now. The Tigers possess a payroll of nearly $200 this season, the third highest in the game behind the Yankees and Dodgers, and a jump of close to $50 million in the past three seasons, according to the Associated Press’ tabulations.
It’s a level that reflects 87-year-old Tigers owner Mike Ilitch’s intense desire to end the franchise’s 32-year championship drought, as evidenced by the winter signings of Jordan Zimmermann, Justin Upton and former Twins righthander Mike Pelfrey. But even with Ilitch’s eagerness to improve his team, it’s probably not a sustainable level of spending in a market that’s only one-third the size of New York or Los Angeles.
That’s part of the reason that then- Tigers President Dave Dombrowski dealt Cespedes and David Price at the deadline last July before they could become free agents, and it also helps explain why General Manager Al Avila, put in charge when Ilitch fired Dombrowski only days after those trades, made no moves to improve the roster at this year’s deadline.
Verlander, who has the right to veto any trade, said he was OK with that.
“I have to commend Mr. Ilitch and Al for putting together what we all thought at the beginning of the year was a great ballclub,” he told reporters after his final start of July. “So you look at the big picture, and we have a great nucleus of guys here. I don’t think you necessarily have to add anything. … I like this team a lot. I like where we’re at.”
It’s where they are going that’s a problem, though. Miguel Cabrera might be a future Hall of Famer, but he’s only in the first year of an eight-year contract extension that guarantees him $220 million after this season. Verlander is owed $28 million each of the next three seasons. Victor Martinez gets $18 million each of the next two years. Anibal Sanchez will still earn at least $21 million over two more seasons. Kinsler has at least another $16 million coming.
The ages of those wealthy players? By next year’s All-Star break, they will be 34, 34, 38, 33 and 35. Figure in a farm system that Baseball America judged the worst in baseball in 2015 and hasn’t ranked above 22nd in the past six seasons and it’s clear that Detroit is nearing the finish line of a race against time, with few replacement parts.
It’s a race the Tigers might be losing already. Detroit made a post-All-Star charge to close within two games of the first-place Indians on Aug. 7. But the Tigers had faded to seven back entering Saturday and were on pace for an 85-win season, and MLB.com’s postseason projections gave them only a 24.8 percent chance of making the playoffs.
So say goodbye, Minnesota. Big changes appear imminent in Detroit, either on the roster or in the standings.
Mistakes, they’ve made a few. As Byung Ho Park languishes on the disabled list at Class AAA Rochester, it’s worth remembering that no team is perfect when it comes to choosing players. Here are a few recent transactions their teams may regret:
They knew it was a stretch, but Cleveland signed 37-year-old Juan Uribe last winter to be their regular third baseman. It’s not the wasted $5 million that hurts so much as the playing time that was wasted before utility man Jose Ramirez, 23, stepped in earlier this month, when Uribe was released, and seized the job.
Royals: Alex Gordon was saluted for his loyalty when he re-signed for $72 million in January. Perhaps the contract still will work out. But Gordon, now 32, hasn’t been the same player this season, his OPS crashing to .698, his batting average cratering around .200, and even his stellar defense suffering.
Their $16 million investment in Mike Pelfrey appears to be a mistake, but what’s happened to Justin Upton (six years, $132 million) is far more worrisome. A .281 on-base percentage? Strikeouts numbering 140 already? Occasional “head-clearing” benchings?
White Sox: On June 4, the day they traded for righthander James Shields, the Sox were two games out of first place. Now they are 13½ back, and “Big Game James,” owed $65 million after this year, has allowed six runs or more in half of his 14 starts for Chicago, owns a 7.62 ERA, and hasn’t lasted into the sixth inning since July 26.
How rapid has the increase in extreme-velocity pitchers been? Twins hitters are on pace this season to see more fastballs timed at 100 mph or greater than in the previous seven years that MLB has compiled pitchf/x data — combined.
100-mph pitches faced by Twins batters
2016: 101 (through Friday)