While the Tigers have already passed the midpoint of the season in terms of games played, the All-Star break represents the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half.
With the non-waiver trade deadline looming, the Tigers are in the position that many predicted. Sitting 12 1/2 games behind Cleveland in the Central Division and little chance to challenge for the wildcard, the Tigers look to continue a rebuilding process that began last July.
So what did the first half of the season tell us about the organization and where it stands? Here are a few observations.
The Tigers absolutely made the right decision in hiring the former Twins skipper. Gardenhire provides the Tigers with a blend of baseball savvy and a healthy portion of patience. Fundamentally, the Tigers are not where they need to be. Much of this is due to the youthful makeup of the roster. Yet, Gardenhire does not use that as an excuse. He continues to demand that the game is played the right way. If that means sitting a player for transgressions involving hustle, then so be it. Gardenhire knows this team is far from a finished product. The components of the roster are evolving and will continue to do so in the future. One thing that won’t change is his philosophy. Gardenhire was not the most talented player on the field in his playing days, but his years in the game have taught him what works. Blending his style with the ever-evolving world of analytics remains a work in progress. Baseball is a numbers game in many ways, but the human element will never cease to be part of the equation. Humans are not perfect, but neither are the numbers that are provided to the manager daily. With the trend leaning toward hiring younger, less experienced managers, the Tigers bucked the trend by hiring a veteran skipper. With a young roster that is still in flux, and the challenges that it presents, Gardenhire’s experience is a perfect fit.
A stellar first half for Castellanos did not result in an All-Star bid, but that was more circumstance than anything. He is the Tigers best player and there is little debate about that. More than his ability to hit a breaking ball, Castellanos’ biggest strength just might be his mental toughness. His defense in right field has been sub-par at times this season, but he has the ability to let go of a bad game quicker than any player I know. It’s a short memory that makes Castellanos the great player that he is. Beyond that, we all know that he crushes breaking balls and left-handed pitching. He also plays hard. Every single day. The next time I see him loaf down the line on a ground ball will be the first time. I’m convinced I’ll never see it. When Miguel Cabrera’s season ended with a ruptured biceps tendon, Castellanos bat became the centerpiece of the Tigers lineup. He hasn’t disappointed. Castellanos leads the American League in line drive percentage at 29.5%, which is not surprising because it seems everything off his bat these days is loud. Will he be part of the next Tigers contender? I know he would like to be and he wants to stay in Detroit, but if a club calls Al Avila with an enticing package, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could be moved.
Since last season’s deadline purge, the Tigers have offered many of their minor leaguers a chance to win a big league job, but no one has seized the opportunity like Niko Goodrum. The former Twins second-round draft pick was signed as a free agent in the off-season with a chance to battle in spring training for a utility spot on the roster. After eight seasons in the minor leagues with the Twins and only 17 major league at-bats to show for it, Goodrum has never had anything given to him. A change of scenery has breathed life into his career and he has outperformed his competition every step of the way. Goodrum made the Tigers roster out of spring training, winning the job over veteran Alexi Amarista. When the season began, Gardenhire used Goodrum all over the diamond, finding at-bats for him where he could. Then, starting second baseman Dixon Machado began to struggle. Goodrum received more and more of Machado’s at-bats as the first half progressed until Machado was designated for assignment and Goodrum stepped in as the every day second baseman. In July Goodrum has punished pitching to the tune of a .351 average. Why anyone would continue to challenge him with fastballs is beyond me. His average against the heater this year is .346. He hits good pitching too. Goodrum’s resume already includes James Paxton, Carlos Carrasco, and Jose Berrios as top-flight starters he has homered against. Not bad for a minor league free agent looking for a chance this past off-season.
Joe Jimenez will be closing games one day for the Tigers. He had a short cameo in that role when Shane Greene was placed on the DL, but his future is the 9th inning. Jimenez was money in the eighth inning in the first half, save for a few outings, and his efforts earned him an All-Star reward. He provided Gardenhire with a reliable arm at the back end of the Tigers pen when, for much of the first half, consistency was missing from a group that was overused because starters were not pitching deep into games. His mix of upper 90’s fastball heat and a bowel-locking slider have proved deadly for opposing hitters. Gardenhire deserves a lot of the credit for Jimenez’s progress. Despite a disappointing 2017 season in which the right-hander pitched to a 12.32 ERA in 24 games, the Tigers manager told Jimenez from the jump that he was going to pitch late in games in 2018. The confidence the manager showed in him has been a major reason for his success. Greene is healthy again and has drawn interest from other clubs. Should he be traded, Jimenez will be ready to start the next phase of his major league career as the Tigers closer.
Perhaps no Tiger needs the All-Star break more than Candelario. The Tigers third baseman flashed early signs of what he will eventually be, a solid defender with plate skills beyond his 24 years. Candelario was solid in April and May, slugging eight of his 13 home runs and drawing a bushel-full of walks while posting a high on-base percentage. No Tiger has worked over opposing pitchers better than Candelario. He has seen more pitches than any Tiger this year and is averaging 4.33 pitches per plate appearance. He looked like he was primed for a big season. Then June rolled around. A stint on the disabled list because of a balky wrist brought a complete stop to his season. In June, Candelario hit only .172 and July has been no better. The four-day break will hopefully give him the reset that he desperately needs. Only Candelario knows how much the wrist has affected his swing, but it has been clear that at times it has been an issue. Candelario wants to play and has soldiered through his injury, but the hope is that the second half will look much like the first two months of the year when Candelario was at the top of his game. His dynamic bat is desperately needed in a Tigers offense that sputtered into the break. He did provide a spark on the final day of the first half when he homered against Justin Verlander in Houston.
WIth Kyle Funkhouser promoted to Toledo, Beau Burrows, and Alex Faedo at Double-A Erie and a wave of young starters in A-ball such as Matt Manning, Franklin Perez and this year’s top overall pick Casy Mize lurking, the health of the organization as it relates to pitching is strong. It’s just not quite ready yet. That’s what makes the contributions of Francisco Liriano and Mike Fiers and the resurgence of Jordan ZImmermann at the major league level important. The young guns in the minor leagues are not quite big league quality yet. Buying some time is critical. Liriano and Fiers, both signed as free agents in the off-season, have provided the Tigers with a couple of veteran arms while the organization waits for the youngsters to develop. Both have been mentioned in trade talks, but unless the Tigers find a trading partner to overpay, it may behoove them to hang on to the vets while the prospects undergo additional seasoning on the farm. The last thing the club wants is to trade away big league pieces for minimal return and leave the club devoid of major league talent. Keeping fans engaged and selling tickets can be difficult in a rebuild, and keeping a semblance of a major league product is important. If the club can receive good value for Fiers, Liriano or even Jose Iglesias and Shane Greene for that matter, then, by all means, deal away. If not, it just might not be worth it.
While I wouldn’t paint this year’s trade deadline as potentially frothy, the Tigers may have some pieces that other clubs want. However, the lack of teams that feel they are in the race will impact the timeliness of deals this year. There are very few teams that feel they need help to get into the postseason. Most of this year’s playoff teams are already entrenched solidly in the playoff picture. Because of that, teams are taking their time in deciding how to improve their clubs. There are some concerns attached to the Tigers main trade chips. Liriano was off to a flying start this year but has returned to earth, with bumpy results in his last seven starts. He left his final start of the first half with back stiffness. Greene and Leonys Martin have dealt with DL stints recently and will have to prove they are healthy in the next week. Michael Fulmer is the main attraction, but his price tag remains very high. He also allowed seven runs in his last start against Houston. The question is whether or not there is a club out there that is willing to meet the price for the years of control he offers. Fiers, the Tigers most consistent starter remains a possibility.
The Bottom Line
The Tigers had hoped Cabrera would remain healthy this year and return to form. Early returns were promising. Cabrera hit .326 in April and knocked in 21 runs in 25 games. However, the disabled list caught up to him again. An early stint on the DL for a hamstring problem and then the eventual season-ending biceps injury delivered a key blow to the Tigers offense. Victor Martinez has been unable to fend off Father Time and inconsistencies in the rotation and bullpen have left the Tigers in third place at the break. The Tigers were the surprise of the division early, but injuries and inexperience have served up a dose of reality. Despite residing in a division that appears much more wide open in the coming seasons than we thought, 2018 is proving to be what most in the organization predicted, a transition year. The chasm between the elite teams in the American League and the Tigers is wide for the moment. It was for Houston in 2013 as well when they lost 111 games. Two years later they were in the postseason, and four years later they won the World Series. They drafted well and currently have five home-grown first-round picks on the big league roster. The Tigers can follow that blueprint. How soon the farm system can provide the next wave of talent to Detroit will impact how long the rebuild takes. Regardless, The first half of 2018 has informed us that there is still much work to be done.