The July 31 deal that brought David Price to the Tigers was supposed to give them the league's most formidable rotation from one through five, a group that included the past three AL Cy Young winners, as well as 2013 AL ERA leader Anibal Sanchez and 2014 breakout Rick Porcello. But things haven't gone Detroit's way this month. Not only have the Tigers slipped out of both the AL Central lead and a wild card spot, but they're also now facing the possibility of being without Sanchez for the remainder of the season.
Sanchez has pitched fairly well this year, delivering a 3.46 ERA and 2.71 FIP in 125 innings, though his 48-percent quality start rate and 7.3 strikeouts per nine are well off of last year's marks (69 percent and 10.0 K/9), and there has been reason to worry about his physical condition. He battled shoulder inflammation back in spring training, missed three weeks due to a middle finger laceration in April and May, and was cuffed for a 6.03 ERA in in five July starts. After whiffing a season-high 12 hitters in his Aug. 3 start against the Rockies, he left his next turn against the Blue Jays after 4 2/3 innings due to a strained pectoral muscle that sent him to the disabled list. Expected to return in late August or early September, Sanchez had resumed throwing on flat ground as of last Friday, but on Monday, he suffered a setback while playing catch, one that could jeopardize his season.
Sanchez had played long toss at a distance of 150 feet on Monday prior to attempting to throw from 60 feet on flat ground. He experienced considerable pain after throwing a changeup, having apparently torn some scar tissue in the muscle. Via MLB.com's Jason Beck, here's how he described the situation:
"I threw just one pitch. … As soon as I felt it, I knew I had to stop, because I couldn't even move my arm.
"It's really hard to explain that kind of pain. It's something like when you got a needle inside you, and you try to move it. That's the pain, like that. It really hurt. It's nothing like what I felt when I had my shoulder or elbow issue before."
An ultrasound exam confirmed that Sanchez had indeed torn scar tissue in the pectoral muscle. While he has full range of motion, he's obviously a long way from pain-free, and his timetable needs to be reset. He’ll need to resume a full throwing program, progressing from flat ground to bullpen sessions to live hitters to simulated game conditions — since the minor league season is ending soon — before he can return to big league action, almost certainly no sooner than mid-September.
The setback comes at a less-than-opportune time for Detroit. While the Tigers (71-59, .546) are riding a modest three-game winning streak, they're still just 18-21 since the All-Star break. They surrendered first place in the AL Central to the Royals (25-12 since the break) on Aug. 11 and are now 1 1/2 out in the division race and half a game out of the second wild card spot, with the Yankees (three games behind them) still looming as a threat. Max Scherzer (3.13 ERA, 2.81 FIP) has pitched nearly as well as he did in winning last year’s AL Cy Young, Porcello (3.06 ERA, 72 percent quality start rate) is amid a long-anticipated breakout, and Price has lived up to his track record since the trade, though offensive support has been a problem; he lost a one-hitter in his most recent turn, and the team is just 2-2 in his starts.
Less reassuring is the performance of Justin Verlander, who has been ripped for a 4.82 ERA, whiffing just 6.8 per nine amid declining velocity. He left his Aug. 11 start against the Pirates after just one inning and five runs allowed due to shoulder inflammation. After skipping a turn, he returned and yielded four runs and 11 baserunners in 5 2/3 innings against the Twins on Saturday, hardly the emphatic success for which the team hoped.
Perhaps most troubling for the Tigers — beyond the perennially frustrating bullpen and the fact that Miguel Cabrera is playing at far less than 100 percent, physically — is that the rookies they've used to patch the rotation, namely Robbie Ray (acquired from Washington in the Doug Fister trade), Buck Farmer and Drew VerHagen, have been battered for an 8.44 ERA in 37 1/3 innings across nine starts, only one of which was a quality start. The team is 2-7 in those games, and time is running out for general manager Dave Dombrowski to scare up an alternative before the waiver trade deadline on Aug. 31. As noted in connection with the Giants on Tuesday, both Bartolo Colon and Scott Feldman have cleared waivers, but the former is owed about $12 million through 2015, his age-42 season, while the latter is owed about $20 million through 2016. Neither is likely to be gift-wrapped for a negligible return when so many contenders — the Angels, Giants and Dodgers among them — cry for rotation help.
For the moment, the Tigers plan to have 24-year-old rookie lefty Kyle Lobstein take Thursday's turn against the Yankees. A second-round pick in 2008 by the Rays, Lobstein is a soft tosser ("Talk about somebody who really should develop an eponymous eephus pitch," I wrote of him in the 2010 Baseball Prospectus annual) who came to the Tigers' organization in exchange for catcher Curt Casali. Lobstein has pitched to a 4.07 ERA with 7.8 strikeouts per nine at Triple-A Toledo this year; in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader with the Twins, he made his major league debut with 5 2/3 solid innings of long relief after Farmer and reliever Pat McCoy helped put Detroit in an early 9-1 hole.
Given the performance of their internal options and the difficulty of adding a player from outside the organization, the Tigers simply don't have much room for error. They'll have to cross their fingers and hope that they can get Sanchez back to working order before the end of the regular season. Nothing less than a playoff spot for a team with the game's fourth-highest payroll is at stake.