Later this evening, Jack O'Connell of the Baseball Writers' Association of America will step behind a podium on the miniature ballfield in MLB Network's Studio 42 and announce the winner of the American League Cy Young Award. In all likelihood, the name on O'Connell's index card will be that of Tigers righthander Max Scherzer.
That announcement follows a more startling one from just two days prior, leaked in a report by CBSSports.com, that Detroit is "open to trading" either Scherzer or rotation-mate Rick Porcello. Immediately trading a Cy Young winner is hardly unprecedented in the historical record -- please refer to "Dickey, R.A., Mets to Blue Jays, 2012," for a recent entry -- nor is the news of Scherzer's availability entirely unexpected, given a previous CBSSports.com report from October.
The problem with such a deal, however, is that only one team profiles as a perfect match for Scherzer: a team with a big payroll and no timidity about adding money, an aging core whose window of contention is narrowing and a farm system that lacks the prospects to trade for Rays ace David Price, who is also said to be available. That club makes its home in Detroit and calls itself the Tigers.
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The Tigers have reached the ALCS in three straight years, even advancing to the World Series in 2012, but thus far have failed to win their first World Series since 1984. Now they must face the reality that their star-laden team's best players are all 30 years old or will be by July 2014, a list that includes Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Doug Fister, Torii Hunter, Victor Martinez, Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander, and, if he stays, Scherzer.
Most of them will be only 30 or 31, which means none are on the precipice of any appreciable drop off due to age. But the risk of injury and decline is higher with each passing year.
The Tigers should be targeting another title run in 2014 while not worrying too much about hedging their bets toward the future. Making a trade to replenish a depleted cupboard of prospects sounds good in theory but Detroit's farm system isn't exactly brimming with close-to-the-majors youngsters that look capable of sustaining the club as a contender. In fact, Baseball America rated it 29th of the 30 big league teams.
In other words, there's a better-than-even chance the Tigers are heading toward a down cycle, but they ought to make another full-bore run at the World Series with an A-plus club in 2014 rather than making several attempts with an A- club over the next few seasons. Martinez and Hunter are set to be free agents after next season; Fister, Porcello, Austin Jackson, Alex Avila and, most especially, Cabrera are all under contract only through 2015.
While listening on trade offers is never a bad idea, in case one is blown over by an unexpectedly over-market bounty, it's unlikely Detroit will get the proper return for Scherzer. His otherwise robust value -- coming off a Cy Young season and the consistency of making 30-plus starts in five straight seasons -- will take a hit because of his huge upcoming payday (mlbtraderumors.com's arbitration projection is for $13.6 million) and because he only has one year of team control remaining.
It's also possible that Scherzer won't repeat his dominant 2013 campaign, in which he went 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA (a 145 adjusted ERA+) and career-best 4.3 K/BB ratio, as it was significantly better than his established track record. Over his four previous full seasons, he had a 3.94 ERA (108 ERA+) with a 3.1 K/BB.
In the past two decades, there have been 12 Cy Young winners ultimately traded by the team for whom the pitcher won the award; half of those -- Dickey, CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, David Cone, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez -- were dealt within one year of winning it. Only two of those dozen hurlers went on to win the Cy Young again, and only Martinez did so with the club that traded for him. (Martinez won two in Boston; Randy Johnson, whom the Mariners traded to the Astros, later won four with the Diamondbacks).
Price, the 2012 AL Cy Young winner, is the better prize than Scherzer on this year's trade market. He is a year younger (28), has a sustained his elite level for longer and has two more years of team control remaining. A team like the Rangers, with their abundant top prospects, matches up well for a trade with Tampa Bay, as would the Nationals. Both Texas and Washington have cores that are younger than Detroit's, meaning they're less likely to trade a major haul for what could be just one season from a top-line pitcher.
In the interim, the Tigers can try to work out a longer term extension with Scherzer or, failing that, make him a qualifying offer next winter to at least recoup a high draft pick should he leave. That'll help hasten their rebuild should it happen in a few years.
In the meantime, however, Detroit's best possible 2014 team would have Max Scherzer in its rotation, and that's what the front office should prioritize.