The Tigers are built to win now. From the owner to the position players to the pitchers, this team is built for short-term glory and some long-term pain. in that context, their latest trade — a package featuring top prospect Jacob Turner for Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante — fills their greatest short-term needs and readies the team for postseason play.
Their 83-year-old pizza magnate owner, Mike Ilitch, bought the team from another pizza magnate, Tom Monaghan, in 1992, or eight years after the Tigers won their last world series championship. After some early success, the owner looked to put a long-term plan in place and hired Dave Dombrowski to captain the ship. 2003 saw the Tigers lose more than any other American League team in history, but then the pieces Dombrowski put together started to come to fruition. It’s still the stars from that accumulation of talent that power the team — Justin Verlander, Austin Jackson, Miguel Cabrera — but recent acquisitions have cemented the win-now feeling.
Spending $214 million on an iffy-bodied first baseman when the team had two or three first basemen already in the fold was probably the biggest sign that the team is focused on the short-term. That says “this team is a bat away,” and says it loudly. But this train might have been moving to a win-now mentality ever since the Cabrera trade sent their best prospects away for two players.
Of course, the early 2012 season didn’t turn out exactly as the Tigers had hoped. After roaring out to a 9-3 start, the team lost seven in a row and ended April at .500. They were still looking up at the Indians after May, too. The idea was maybe that the team’s fielding was hurting them, and that the pitching wasn’t as sure of a thing as it might at first have seemed. Well, the team is second-to-last in fielding runs in the league (-29.5), so that part might actually be a problem. But the Tigers rotation has the most WAR in the American League and even their ERA (4.13) is better than average.
Still, the Braves might be a one-team example for the “you can never have too much pitching” maxim, and past Justin Verlander, even the most ardent Tigers fan would have to admit to excreting a few beads of sweat when Max Scherzer, Doug Fister or Rick Porcello step on to the mound. That threesome has been great for stretches, but they’ve also had some terrible times.
With positive defensive numbers (and experience) at every position except pitcher and catcher, Infante can provide a better glove at any infield position than the Tigers currently boast, save for (perhaps) Jhonny Peralta. Even if his power regresses (.155 ISO this year, .121 career) and his BABIP (.307) stays below his career levels (.310), Infante’s recent .330 wOBA type of work would be a great improvement over the .243 wOBA (and league-worst -2.0 WAR) that the Tigers’ Ryan Raburn, Danny Worth and Ramon Santiago and put together at the position. It probably won’t be a four-win gain for the Tigers — Infante’s career high in WAR is 2.7 and it would be surprising for the 30-year-old to almost double that this year — but at least the team won’t have a below-replacement position on the field any more.
Sussing out Sanchez is harder. Well, it is if you get too caught up in his recent work. The 28-year-old starter spent June with an ERA over seven, and given the fact that he once had shoulder surgery, it might have made sense to worry about his durability some. On the other hand, Sanchez has been playing with the same (slightly lower) velocity all season, and even recently saw an uptick in fastball gas. And if you look at the season as a whole, he’s put up his third-stright season with an FIP under 3.5 by consistently improving his control while still seeing average ground-ball rates and above-average swinging strike stuff. He looks healthy and is a good pitcher. He could be worth a two-win swing himself.
A four-win addition is actually pretty important for a first-place team: with the new rules in place, getting into the second round of the playoffs by winning your division outright is invaluable, as Jesse Wolfersberger pointed out last week and Dave Cameron and Vince Gennaro expounded upon as well. This also gives the Tigers help at the front of their rotation, defensive help around the infield, and offensive help at second base.
At the cost of their top pitching prospect, yes, but that’s not a prospect without questions or a prospect who’s value was on the way up — Marc Hulet had him down at 25 in his mid-season update. The rest of the reported package — Triple-A (and probably depth) catcher Rob Brantly, iffy lefty Brian Flynn & 2013 Comp B pick — is about as lottery-ticket-esque as it comes. It is the first trade of a draft pick in modern baseball, though. [Update: Now it seems like the Tigers may be getting a pick back, so it was a pick upgrade for the Tigers. This part deserves its own post.]
It’s a little surprising to see the Marlins selling so soon after making a push for their new stadium, but Sanchez will be a free agent at year’s end (Infante is signed for another year at $4 mill), and Turner can help them going forward. On the other hand, it’s not surprising to see the contending Tigers retool and fill in their only significant gaps. A quick, surgical strike while much of the baseball world was waiting on Ryan Dempster‘s decision, and the Tigers are ready for the postseason.