Published July 24, 2016

For a tiny word, “if” packs a lot of punch—especially in baseball.

It all starts in spring training, when the 30 MLB teams gather in Florida and Arizona.

The dawn of a new baseball season makes fans, players, managers and front office people drunk with optimism. Even if the previous year’s record was heinous looking.

And all the sugarplums dancing in their heads are centered around the power of “if.”

You know how it goes in the sun of Florida and the dry heat of Arizona.

“If our pitching comes around…”

“If we can get our guys healthy again…”

“If so-and-so can bounce back from last year…”

“If we hit like we’re capable…”

“If we can get our bullpen settled…”

“If all the moon and the stars align. If this is the same year as Halley’s Comet…”

OK, maybe not the last one—but it may as well be.

It’s OK, and expected, for the tiny I-word to be tossed around in March, when every team is tied for first place with 0-0 records.

But to be using “if” with such luster in late-July, is a tad disconcerting.

Tigers GM Al Avila certainly has a calendar at his avail. He knows that the July 31, interleague non-waiver trade deadline is nigh.

Certainly Avila must know that the season’s hour glass is draining of sand.

The time for playing the “if-game” is winding down rapidly.

But “if” seems to be the best that Avila can do at the moment.

He spoke to the media in Chicago on Saturday, and naturally the topic du jour was whether the Tigers would be players on or around the trade deadline.

Avila filled his remarks with the kind of tenuous optimism that has “if” as its root.

“If our team gets rolling to their capabilities, it’s one of the better lineups in baseball,” Avila said.

Oh boy.

Avila is looking at the Tigers’ glass as being half full because he’s excited about the upcoming return from injury of slugging outfielder J.D. Martinez and starting pitchers Jordan Zimmermann and Daniel Norris.

It’s another gambit, because who knows: a) when those guys will come back, exactly; and b) whether they can get into the groove right away. Oh, and c) Norris is a baby yet.

Avila is having none of that kind of rational talk.

“Those are going to be our major acquisitions,” he said in Chicago. “There’s nobody out there better than Jordan Zimmermann if he comes back healthy. Obviously, J.D. Martinez and Daniel Norris, those are three guys we are focusing on getting back healthy and they will be big acquisitions shortly.”

The notion of injured players returning to the lineup being your trade deadline “acquisitions” is a flawed one.

First, they’re not new. They were on the roster on Opening Day.

Second, see a, b and c above.

The kind of blather that Avila served up is not to be trusted. It is, frankly, snake oil salesman stuff.

Avila is trying to have his cake and eat it too.

On the one hand, he wants the Tigers fan to be prepared for some July 31 disappointment.

“I’m not going to be real sexy at the trade deadline,” Avila told the press on Saturday. “Obviously you guys want to write something sexy and something really exciting. You’re looking for a big trade. But I’m not anticipating that this year.”

OK, so we’ve all been warned to temper our expectations. Fine.

But Avila, instead of stopping there, wants us to buy into the notion of players returning from sick bay as being equal to shiny new acquisitions.

Where does it end?

If Justin Upton goes on a tear, does that count as an acquisition of the real Upton?

If Victor Martinez wakes from his July slumber, did Avila just acquire a new bat?

But the real disconcerting part of Avila’s approach is that he’s delusional.

Granted, the comments were made prior to the Tigers losing Saturday’s suspended game and Sunday’s scheduled game to the White Sox in walk-off fashion, but no doubt Avila would have uttered similar words on Monday morning.

Words such as these, when asked whether he felt the Tigers had a championship-caliber team, sans any tweaks: “I do. I do. And if you talk to most baseball people, they’ll tell you: We have a real good lineup. Now I know we haven’t clicked on all gears throughout the whole season.”

The Tigers have played 99 games in 2016. They’ve never been more than a handful of games above .500. They’re 1-11 versus the first-place Cleveland Indians. They can beat the Minnesota Twins, though.

And beside, in the one area where the Tigers are in the most dire need—starting pitching—Avila himself admitted that it’s not exactly a buyer’s market.

“The asking price is too high, even for a fifth starter,” Avila said. “I looked at some teams where we could maybe upgrade and in talking to our scouts and our staff, the quality of pitchers available doesn’t really put us over the top, over the edge that much to say it warranted a big payback in a trade. Nothing has come up where we feel good that we can get the guy and he’d be the difference.”

Yet despite all this, Al Avila wants us to believe that the Tigers are thisclose to being a contending team.

The contributions of J.D. Martinez and Zimmermann in the season’s final two months are questionable in their significance, at best. By the time they get their sea legs under them, it will likely be too late.

And if there isn’t a new starting pitcher coming down the pike via trade, all bets on the Tigers are officially off.

99 games does not a small sample size make. Without strong starting pitching, the Tigers simply cannot have any sustained success over the final 63 games.

And any snake oil talk about considering players returning from injury as being your trade deadline acquisitions, should be dismissed forthwith.

If Al Avila can’t or won’t find the Tigers another starting pitcher so the rotation is extended beyond Justin Verlander, the rookie Michael Fulmer and the returning Zimmermann, that’s one thing.

There’s no crime in that.

But the GM is playing the “if” card and is spouting spring training-like, hypothetical scenarios in late-July. He still sees a much better Tigers team, somewhere over the horizon, than what we’ve seen for almost 100 games.

To see a glass as being half full is admirable. To mentally fill it halfway then try to sell it to the populace as genuine, isn’t.

No ifs about it.

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