Looking ahead to the second half: The Tigers are in deep, deep trouble

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The Tigers have made the playoffs in each of the last four years. They came into 2015 as a somewhat diminished team, but many nonetheless expected them to once again win the AL Central or, at the very least, remain relevant in that conversation.

As of now, however, they are a full nine games behind the Kansas City Royals in the division. They are only three and a half back in the Wild Card race, but there are three teams ahead of them, another team tied with them and another four teams within two games of them on the backside. And the worst part about it, Detroit looks to be in worse shape than any of them heading into the second half.

The biggest reason for that is obvious: Miguel Cabrera, perhaps the best hitter in the game, is on the shelf with a Grade 3 strain of his calf muscle. That will keep him out of action until at least mid-August, and likely a bit later than that. Losing a guy hitting .350/.456/.578 for weeks on end is going to hurt anyone, but there is perhaps no other team who relies on one guy as much as the Tigers rely on Cabrera.

The rotation is also kind of a mess, as only All-Star David Price has posted a better-than-league average ERA on the year. The back end of the rotation has been horrific lately, with Alfredo Simon posting a 11.12 ERA in his last five starts, Shane Greene has posted a 12.57 over that time and Justin Verlander, finally back from the DL, has been getting beaten around on the regular.

Because there may be children reading this we will not speak of the bullpen, as they need not be exposed to such obscenity.

So what can the Tigers do? And, more importantly, what will they do?

If you were looking at this objectively, you’d probably think that it’s time to rebuild or, at the very least, re-jigger with the hope of competing anew next year or the year after. How to do that? Think hard about shopping David Price, Yoenis Cespedes, Joakim Soria, Alex Avila, and Alfredo Simon, all of whom are in their walk years. Price may be nice to keep around but he’s going to be super expensive on the market this winter. The rest could all bring in some much needed young talent to place around Cabrera, Jose Iglesias, J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler young catcher James McCann and an aging yet still effective Victor Martinez. It’s not ideal — questionable trades and free agent decisions have decimated a once-dominant rotation — but getting something for these guys rather than nothing seems to make a heck of a lot of sense given where the Tigers are right now.

Except that scenario is highly unlikely given what we’ve seen from the Tigers front office in the past and given what they’ve been saying publicly. Owner Mike Illitch is 85-years-old and has plowed money into this team. Nothing about his approach or what people close to the Tigers say about his expectations suggests that he’s interested in a rebuild. GM Dave Dombrowski is likewise an historical buyer, not a seller, and nothing he or people close to him have said anything to suggest he’s approaching this trade deadline any differently.

But what is available for him to buy? And what does he, with his nearly barren farm system, have to sell? Not much, frankly, so if he is buying, it would likely involve taking on some bad contracts and accepting second-tier trade fodder. That doesn’t seem like a difference-making proposition in a longshot battle for the division title and a chaotic Wild Card race.

What it does seem like, however, is a futile gesture. The Tigers are old, they’re hurt and they’re expensive. If nothing changes in the second half, they’ll also be on the outside looking in come playoff time for the first time in years. And, perhaps, they’ll be facing a future like that of the Cincinnati Reds or — perish the thought — the Philadelphia Phillies. Teams which didn’t rebuild aggressively when it became clear they were about to fall short. And which now face a long time in the wilderness.

Whitewash: Rob Manfred says he doesn’t think sign stealing extends beyond the Astros

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Rob Manfred said today that he believes the sign-stealing scandal which has taken over the news in the past week does not extend beyond the Houston Astros. His exact words, via Jeff Passan of ESPN:

“Right now, we are focused on the information that we have with respect to the Astros. I’m not going to speculate on whether other people are going to be involved. We’ll deal with that if it happens, but I’m not going to speculate about that. I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.”

This is simply incredible. As in literally not credible.

It’s not credible because, just last week, in the original story in The Athletic, it was reported that the Astros system was set up by two players, one of whom was “a hitter who was struggling at the plate and had benefited from sign stealing with a previous team, according to club sources . . . they were said to strongly believe that some opposing teams were already up to no good. They wanted to devise their own system in Houston. And they did.”

The very next day Passan reported that Major League Baseball would not limit its focus to the Astros. Rather, the league’s probe was also include members of the 2019 Astros and would extend to other teams as well. Passan specifically mentioned the 2018 Red Sox which, of course, were managed by Alex Cora one year after he left Houston, where he was A.J. Hinch’s bench coach.

Add into this the Red Sox’ pre-Cora sign-stealing with Apple Watches and widespread, informed speculation on the part of players and people around the game that many teams do this sort of thing, and one can’t reasonably suggest that only the Houston Astros are doing this.

Which, as I noted at the time, made perfect sense. These schemes cannot, logically, operate in isolation because players and coaches change teams constantly. In light of this, players have to know that their sign-stealing would be found out by other teams eventually. They continue to do it, however, because they know other teams do it too. As is the case with pitchers using pine tar or what have you, they don’t rat out the other team so they, themselves, will not be ratted out. It’s a mutually-assured destruction that only exists and only works if, in fact, other teams are also stealing signs.

So why is Major League Baseball content to only hang the Astros here? I can think of two reasons.

One is practical. They had the Astros fall in their lap via former Astro Mike Fiers — obviously not himself concerned with his current team being busted for whatever reason — going on the record with his accusation. That’s not likely to repeat itself across baseball and thus it’d be quite difficult for Major League Baseball to easily conduct a wide investigation. Who is going to talk? How can baseball make them talk? It’d be a pretty big undertaking.

But there’s also the optics. Major League Baseball has had a week to think about the report of the Astros sign-stealing and, I suspect, they’ve realized, like everyone else has realized, that this is a major scandal in the making. Do they really want to spend the entire offseason — and longer, I suspect, if they want a thorough investigation — digging up unflattering news about cheating in the sport? Do they really want to be in the bad news creation business? I doubt they do, so they decided to fence off the Astros, hit them hard with penalties, declare victory and move on.

Which is to say, it’s a whitewash.

It’s something the league has tried to do before. They did it with steroids and it didn’t work particularly well.

In 1998 Mark McGwire, that game’s biggest star at the time, was found to have the PED androstenedione in his locker. It was a big freakin’ deal. Except . . . nothing happened. Major League Baseball planned to “study” the drug but most of the fallout was visited upon the reporter who made it public. It was accompanied by some shameful conduct by both Major League Baseball and the baseball press corps who eagerly went after the messenger rather than cover the story properly.

Four years later Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco went public with their PED use and said drug use was widespread. MLB’s response was slow and, again, sought to isolated the known offenders, singling out Caminiti as a troubled figure — which he was — and Canseco as a kook — which he kind of is — but doing them and the story a disservice all the same.

The league eventually created a rather toothless testing and penalty regime. Congress and outside investigative reporters filled the void created by the league’s inaction, calling hearings and publishing damning stories about how wide PED use was in the game. Eventually Bud Selig commissioned the Mitchell Report. Some ten years after the McGwire incident baseball had at least the beginnings of a sane approach to PEDs and a more effective testing plan, but it was pulled to it kicking and screaming, mostly because doing anything about it was too hard and not very appetizing from a business and P.R. perspective.

And so here we are again. Baseball has a major scandal on its hands. After some initially promising words about how serious it planned to take it, the league seems content to cordon off the known crime scene and refuses to canvass the neighborhood. Sure, if someone gratuitously hands them evidence they’ll look into it, but it sure sounds like Rob Manfred plans to react rather than act here.

That should work. At least until the next time evidence of cheating comes up and they have to start this all over again.