Tigers' role at Deadline still up in air

Tigers' role at Deadline still up in air

DETROIT -- How much can hinge on a game or two in June or early July? For a team straddling the border between contending and rebuilding, it's plenty.

Johnny Damon can sense the pressure like the hot summer air. He had to figure on something like this when he came on board in February, when the Tigers found the extra payroll to take on a veteran corner outfielder with a track record as a winner. Detroit made the one-year deal with contention in mind and prospects in line to take over in 2011.

Now, contention is what they're trying to assure.

"We never like to say make or break the season," Damon said last Wednesday, "but we need to put some wins up in the column. If that's the case, we'll definitely be buyers instead of sellers come the Trade Deadline in a month and a half."

The Tigers are positioned to be one or the other perhaps as well as any team in baseball. The same club that invested in proven talent over the offseason by signing Damon and closer Jose Valverde also underwent a youth movement with Austin Jackson, Scott Sizemore, Alex Avila and Max Scherzer. They made in-season changes to give chances to Brennan Boesch, Danny Worth and now Andy Oliver.

They're winning as much with young talent as veterans. How seriously they contend over the course of July will determine whether they'll be willing to trade players from their improving farm system and their core for the future to make a run now, and how much they're willing to risk the future to do it.

Another starting pitcher could bolster a pitching staff hampered by the struggles of Rick Porcello. Yet, if the 21-year-old Porcello handles his Minor League assignment with the same success as Scherzer a month earlier, they could be back in top form, with enough depth behind ace Justin Verlander to be dangerous in a short series.

The top end of available starters is deep, including the often-cited-in-rumors Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt along with Dan Haren and Ben Sheets. But the Tigers know well how a relatively minor August trade for Carl Pavano helped push the Twins past them over the final six weeks last year -- and without Minnesota having given up top prospects.

Regarding positions, catcher and shortstop will be two areas worth watching, as much for what's on the market as what the Tigers already have. With rookie Avila now garnering an increasing share of time behind the plate and showing signs of an offensive revival, the Tigers could decide to stick with him and Gerald Laird over a likely thin group of available backstops.

Detroit already made a change at short by releasing Adam Everett in favor of Worth, a solid defender whose offensive skills are unproven, and Ramon Santiago. That's one spot where the Tigers could have options on the market -- not just veteran stalwarts but potential longer-term choices, if teams like Arizona decide to make full reloads. That could interest the Tigers, who have struggled to develop homegrown infielders since Omar Infante in 2003.

If things go south in Detroit and the Tigers sell, Damon could be a big piece to offer as a seasoned, versatile left-handed hitter whose contract expires at season's end. Damon would have to approve a deal, but likely wouldn't block a move to contend. Other expiring contracts include Laird, right-hander Jeremy Bonderman and third baseman Brandon Inge. That doesn't mean they will be shopped, but with youngsters emerging, it means the Tigers have options.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.