DETROIT – As the dust settles on what turned out to be a hectic MLB trade deadline, the Detroit Tigers -- who made just one minor, last-minute move -- sit 1.5 games out of a playoff spot.
Staying the course always seemed the most likely move for Al Avila this deadline. The shortened 2020 season in itself comes with unique circumstances, but the Tigers in particular are a hard team to figure out.
At one point, the Tigers were 9-5, in first place in the AL Central and behind only the Oakland Athletics in the American League standings. Nine losses later, they had just one win more than the worst teams in the league.
Then, in the blink of an eye, that nine-game losing streak gave way to three straight series wins over the Cleveland Indians, Chicago Cubs and Minnesota Twins. After the three-game sweep of Minnesota, the Tigers have won five in a row and clawed their way back to .500 at 16-16.
Teams competing for No. 8 spot
With about half of the season left to play, seven AL teams appear to be virtual locks for the playoffs:
- Tampa Bay Rays (25-11)
- Oakland Athletics (22-12)
- Chicago White Sox (22-13)
- Cleveland Indians (21-14)
- Houston Astros (19-14)
- New York Yankees (19-14)
- Minnesota Twins (20-16)
Each of these teams was expected to be in the top eight before the season began, and so far, there’s no reason to believe otherwise.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Seattle Mariners, Kansas City Royals, Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels are all at least five games out of the final wild card spot. They could technically rip off a long winning streak and get back in the race, but for the sake of this breakdown, we’ll say those five are out of the running.
The Baltimore Orioles are 3.5 games back, but they just traded away Tommy Milone and Miguel Castro. It appears they’re fading from the race after losing 11 of 13 games.
Sports world to Detroit fans: No, you have not yet suffered enough
That leaves the Tigers and the Toronto Blue Jays -- two teams battling for one spot. It might not end up being that simple, but that’s the comparison we’ll focus on here.
Toronto has played 33 games while Detroit has played 32. The Tigers are currently one game behind the Blue Jays in the loss column and have two fewer wins, putting them 1.5 games back in the standings.
Can they be two games better than the Blue Jays over the next four weeks? That’s what we’re going to try to figure out.
First of all, we have to take a look at the remaining schedules. That’s important because with geographically based scheduling, teams aren’t playing an even level of competition this season.
The Tigers have an extremely difficult road ahead. Of their 28 remaining games, half will come against the White Sox, Indians and Twins. An additional eight will come against the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals -- two playoff hopefuls in the National League. (NOTE: Two of the Tigers’ previously canceled games against the Cardinals still haven’t been officially rescheduled, so right now, the Tigers only have 26 scheduled games remaining.)
The only games against remaining for the Tigers against a non-playoff contender are six matchups with the Royals, and while those should be considered easier games, they’re always tough battles for the Tigers.
Toronto has a much easier road. Other than 10 games against the Yankees, none of the Blue Jays’ other 17 games will come against teams with winning records. They play two games against the Miami Marlins and four games against the Philadelphia Phillies -- both .500 teams at the moment -- but 11 of their remaining 27 games will come against the Red Sox, Orioles and New York Mets. That should add up to a lot of wins.
The debate between these two starting rotations is a fascinating contrast between stability and upside.
After making three trades to address the pitching staff this week, Toronto’s starting five should end up looking something like this down the stretch:
- Hyun-Jin Ryu
- Ross Stripling
- Taijuan Walker
- Robbie Ray
- Chase Anderson/Tanner Roark/Matt Shoemaker
The Blue Jays didn’t make a huge splash by trading for Mike Clevinger or Lance Lynn, but they added three pitchers who should provide a little stability.
Ryu is an ace, and he’ll give the Blue Jays a chance to win every time he takes the mound. Beyond him, though, there are a lot of question marks.
Stripling has allowed a major-league leading 12 home runs and only has 27 strikeouts in 33.2 innings. He takes a 5.61 ERA over to Toronto, and his 7.23 FIP suggests he’s lucky it isn’t worse.
Walker only pitched in four games between 2018 and 2019, but he’s off to a solid start in 2020. His 4.62 FIP and 7.9 K/9 show he hasn’t exactly been dominant, though.
Ray issued an MLB-leading 31 walks in 31 innings with Arizona this season, posting a 2.00 WHIP and 7.23 FIP to go with a 12.5 K/9. The alarming walk rate along with 27 earned runs, nine homers and a league-leading six wild pitches tell the story of a pitcher who simply doesn’t have it this season.
All three of the Blue Jays’ deadline acquisitions have been very good in the past and could be so again, but they’re far from safe.
The Tigers are counting on similarly unproven starters:
- Spencer Turnbull
- Matt Boyd
- Tarik Skubal
- Casey Mize
- Michael Fulmer
Turnbull has been good this season, though not quite to the level of Ryu. He has strikeout stuff that hasn’t translated to many strikeouts, but if it does, he could emerge as a true ace of this staff.
While nobody has allowed more runs than Boyd this season, he’s given up just three earned runs in 11.1 innings his last two starts, striking out 12 and allowing just nine hits and one walk.
Boyd is still missing bats at a 13% clip for the year, so he could get back on track for the final month.
Skubal and Mize are the true X-factors. Both are elite pitching prospects getting their first tastes of the big leagues, and both have struggled. Skubal held the potent Twins’ lineup to two runs across five innings his last time out, and Mize has struck out 13 in 10.2 innings. The signs are there for both to be difference makers.
If all 10 pitchers in these rotations continue pitching exactly how they have so far this season, the Blue Jays would probably have a slightly better rotation. But if Boyd has regained his early 2019 form and the two Tigers prospects steadily improve, there’s a good chance Detroit will end up with the better rotation.
Opinions might differ on which team has the better starting rotation, but it’s pretty clear the Blue Jays have a better offense.
From the top of the order to depth to upside, the Blue Jays simply have more exciting players in their lineup than the Tigers.
Cavan Biggio has a .377 OBP at the top of the lineup. Teoscar Hernandez and Randal Grichuk both have OPSs north of .900, and Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Lourdes Gurriel could explode at any moment.
When Bo Bichette returns to the lineup, he might be the best hitter of them all.
The Tigers have some nice pieces in Jonathan Schoop, Jeimer Candelario and JaCoby Jones. They’re all having strong seasons, but none have an OPS north of .870.
Willi Castro and Isaac Paredes have put together some of the best at-bats on the team, but they don’t play every day. Victor Reyes, Austin Romine, Miguel Cabrera and Niko Goodrum have had hot stretches, but none have even been above average overall this season.
If everything goes right, the Tigers can have a solid offense. But there’s a lot more downside.
Toronto has power and speed up and down the lineup, as well as potential stars in Guerrero, Bichette and Biggio. This comparison isn’t particularly close.
This is going to sound strange, but the strength of the Tigers so far has been the back end of the bullpen.
Gregory Soto and Jose Cisnero have been a dominant duo, giving the Tigers 35 combined innings with 39 strikeouts and WHIPs under 0.90.
Bryan Garcia and Buck Farmer have both been reliable more times than not, though their strikeout rates are shockingly low at this point in the season.
Joe Jimenez has really hurt the length of the bullpen, and neither Rony Garcia nor John Schreiber have been reliable. But at the very least, Ron Gardenhire has four players he really trusts in the late innings.
Toronto is one of the few teams that might have an even better bullpen than Detroit. Of the seven relievers who have made at least 10 appearances for the Blue Jays, six have sub-3.00 ERAs. Five of them strike out well over a batter per inning. Four have WHIPs below 1.00.
Jordan Romero is the best of the bunch, with 21 strikeouts in 14.2 innings, but Anthony Bass and A.J. Cole have both been essentially untouchable. Bass, Romero, Cole, Rafael Dolis, Ryan Borucki and Thomas Hatch have combined to allow just 19 earned runs in 90.1 innings.
As good as Soto and Cisnero have been, the edge has to go to the Blue Jays.
It’s possible the Tigers have a slight edge in the starting rotation even after the trade deadline, but the Blue Jays are obviously better both offensively and in terms of bullpen depth. Add in the much easier remaining schedule and it looks like it’ll be a tall task for the Tigers to overcome the Blue Jays for the final wild card spot.
But it’s still encouraging to see the Tigers playing meaningful games into September, especially one year after finishing 47-114 -- by far the worst record in baseball. Detroit spent nearly a half-decade trending in the wrong direction, and now it looks like the franchise might be ready to turn a corner.
Baseball is an unpredictable game, and the best teams don’t always come out on top. If the Tigers can continue getting timely hits and squeezing just enough out of their top four starting pitchers, it wouldn’t be a shock to see them give the Blue Jays a scare deep into this month.