The Tigers beat the Mariners on Monday night to level their record at 46–46, but even so, it appears that Detroit is preparing to face a harsh reality: After four straight AL Central titles, the team is likely to be a seller at the deadline. According to USA Today's Bob Nightengale, sources inside and outside the organization indicate that pending free agents David Price and Yoenis Cespedes are likely to be traded as the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline approaches, giving team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski a much-needed chance to retool a roster that has underachieved.
That’s a radical about-face from just a year ago, when Price was acquired as part of a three-way, deadline day blockbuster that sent centerfielder Austin Jackson to Seattle and lefty starter Drew Smyly and minor-league shortstop Willy Adames to the Rays. Pairing with the since-departed Max Scherzer, Price picked up the slack for the declining Justin Verlander, pitching to a 3.59 ERA and 2.44 FIP in 11 turns. The Tigers, who led the AL Central by five games when they pulled off the blockbuster, soon fell behind the Royals but retook first place for good on Sept. 12 and won the division by a single game, though they were swept out of the Division Series by the Orioles.
The 29-year-old Price has pitched up to his high standards this year. His 2.78 FIP is an exact match for last year's combined mark with Tampa Bay and Detroit, and his 2.32 ERA is nearly a full run lower than last year's combined 3.26 mark; it's roughly a quarter-run lower than his career-best and league-leading 2.56 mark from 2012, when he notched 20 victories and won the AL Cy Young. Both his ERA and his 3.5 WAR rank fourth in the AL right now, making for a strong showing that could put the pending free agent in line for a Scherzer-like deal in the $200 million range.
As with Scherzer, the Tigers aren't likely to jump into that free agent fray, as their team-record $172.8 million payroll is already buckling under the weight of more than $480 million worth of long-term commitments to Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Anibal Sanchez and Ian Kinsler. That currently looks like a particularly ominous outlay. Verlander has been limited to six starts and a 6.62 ERA this year due to a triceps injury, Cabrera is out until at least mid-August due to a calf strain, and the other three are showing their years, with Martinez having missed more than a month due to ongoing knee issues and Sanchez (4.56 ERA, 4.26 FIP) amid his worst full season in the majors.
In fact, Price is the only member of the rotation preventing runs at a better-than-average clip. The unit’s 4.52 ERA ranks second-to-last in the league, ahead of only Boston’s 4.84. The Red Sox, of course, have been let down by former Tiger Rick Porcello, who fell just a few days short of free agency this past winter and was dealt to the Red Sox on Dec. 11 in the deal that brought back Cespedes. Signed to a four-year, $82.5 million extension in the spring, Porcello has followed up a career-best season in Detroit with a career-worst 5.79 ERA and 1.5 homers per nine in Boston.
Assuming Price is on the market, he joins fellow pending free agent Johnny Cueto among aces-for-rent and may be the more preferable option based on his durability. Cueto hasn't made 30 starts in back-to-back seasons since 2009–10 and has never thrown 200 innings in back-to-back years, while Price has done both on multiple occasions. Compare the two since the start of the '10 season.
Cueto has prevented runs at a slightly better clip—well ahead of what his peripherals (as expressed via his FIP) suggest, in fact—but Price has been far more durable, averaging about 40 more innings per year. Cueto missed two turns earlier this season due to concerns about his elbow. For a squeamish team, Price probably represents less risk, though at roughly double the salary ($19.75 million to Cueto's $10 million), that difference probably comes out in the wash. In any event, the point is that he'll bring back a prospect or two to a farm system that ranked dead last in Baseball America's Organizational Rankings this spring.
The 29-year-old Cespedes, who was traded last July 31 from the Athletics to the Red Sox in the Jon Lester deal, should provide help as well. A pending free agent whose contract prevents him from being issued a qualifying offer, he's making $10.5 million this year and hitting a thoroughly representative .289/.314/.482 with 13 homers, a 118 OPS+ and eight Defensive Runs Saved en route to 3.1 WAR. With Justin Upton slumping (.175/.281/.263 in 161 PA since June) and battling an oblique issue, the righty-swinging Cespedes provides a robust alternative to teams in search of a corner outfield bat, and a less expensive one given that Upton is making $14.5 million this year. The Mets, Orioles and most recently the Pirates have been reported as having interest in Upton, and he'd fit the bill for the Royals, who could be without Alex Gordon until September, as well.
The Tigers do have other pending free agents to offer as well, though they largely represent buy-low stocks at the moment. Closer Joakim Soria has notched 21 saves—his highest total since 2011—in 24 attempts, but he's allowed a whopping eight homers in 36 2/3 innings en route to a 4.91 FIP to go with his 3.19 ERA. Catcher Alex Avila has hit .192/.333/.293 and battled bone chips in his left knee, and with the emergence of James McCann, he may never get his starting job back—though the fact that his father, Al, is the team's assistant GM and the possible successor to Dombrowski (who doesn't have a contract for 2016), could complicate dealing him. Starter Alfredo Simon, an NL All-Star with Cincinnati last year, has posted a 4.63 ERA and 4.02 FIP in 105 innings, making him more of a back-rotation filler than a true difference-maker. Outfielder Rajai Davis is hitting .268/.325/.423 with 14 stolen bases, making him a solid fourth-outfielder option or a stopgap starter. Soria is making $7 million, while the other three are in the $5–6 million range, so their salaries shouldn't be an impediment to deals.
As for club-controlled players, Dombrowski is sure to field calls on youngsters Anthony Gose, Jose Iglesias and J.D. Martinez, all of whom are having strong seasons. As they represent the only regular position players besides McCann (and the possibly-soon-to-be-dealt Cespedes) who are under 30 and the ones that help keep the team's salary from creeping even further toward $200 million, it would probably take overwhelming offers to move any of them —perhaps with the ability to offload some of their salary commitments to Kinsler (owed $30 million beyond this year) or Sanchez ($38.6 million beyond this year).
With 10 days to go before the deadline, it's not out of the question that the Tigers could avoid a sell-off, particularly with the Mariners and Red Sox (both 42–51) occupying the next seven games of their schedule. As Dombrowski told Nightengale, "Things can turn dramatically over a 10-game period." Though the team is 9 1/2 games back in the AL Central and four games behind the second place Twins, they're only four games back in the Wild Card race as well; both the Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs playoff odds put then with around a 25% chance at making the postseason. But with five teams ranging between 3 1/2 and 5 1/2 back in that scrum, the traffic is as much of a factor as the distance, and given the shape of the roster and the farm system, selling is the right call. It’s time.