Hours after the Tigers freed up more money on their payroll and promised they weren’t done dealing, they went about spending some of it on a closer. The reigning American League Central champions have an agreement with Joe Nathan on a reported two-year contract worth $20 million, and will introduce their new closer at a 3:30pm press conference at Comerica Park.
Jon Heyman of MLB Network and CBSSports.com reported a two-year deal in the works Tuesday after FOXSports.com reported the two sides nearing an agreement. The move addresses the top priority Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski took into the offseason, and kept at the top after trading Prince Fielder to Texas two weeks ago and Doug Fister to Washington Monday night.
“We hope to get a closer and we’re still trying to do that,” Dombrowski said Monday night, “so that will be our number one need and it’ll continue to be until we find someone.”
That didn’t take long. The Tigers had their share of candidates on the open market, topped by Nathan and Brian Wilson, but a slow-moving segment of free agency. The market finally came together Tuesday, with Wilson reportedly in talks to re-sign with the Dodgers. The Tigers had been in discussions with Wilson, MLB.com learned, before those talks broke off Monday.
Interest in Nathan included a recruiting pitch from Torii Hunter, his Twins teammate from 2004 to 2007. Hunter, not surprisingly, was ecstatic about the news.
“We needed him,” Hunter wrote Tuesday in a text message to MLB.com. “I had to sell the vision of winning it all to him.”
If a proven closer was the goal, Nathan is the guy. He has saved 340 games over the last 10 years and owns 341 saves over s 13-year Major League career. The vast majority of those saves came with the Minnesota Twins during their reign over the Tigers atop the AL Central.
Nathan has never blown a save against the Tigers, going 36-for-36 in his opportunities while allowing just 33 hits over 62 2/3 innings with 23 walks and 75 strikeouts. For that matter, Nathan has converted 90 percent of his save chances over his career, the highest conversion rate of any Major League pitcher with at least 200 career saves, just ahead of Mariano Rivera.
Just as important, at age 38, his statistics remained strong. He allowed 10 runs on 36 hits over 64 2/3 innings with 22 walks and 73 strikeouts for the Texas Rangers this past season, racking up 43 saves in the process.
Nathan pitched three consecutive days on four different occasions this past season, and pitched four days in a row twice down the stretch. The one restriction the Rangers had on him was that he rarely pitched multiple innings in a game.
The Tigers made the two biggest trades of the offseason to date to create flexibility out of a top-five payroll. They wouldn’t address the reinvestment end of that money until they took care of their most pressing need and signed a closer. Now that Joe Nathan is about to become a Tiger, it’s time, and the Tigers might well spend it making one good run at one of the biggest free agents on the market again.
Both Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News and Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com report the Tigers have shown interest in multi-tooled Shin-Soo Choo, the most prominent left-handed hitting outfielder available now that Jacoby Ellsbury is headed to the Yankees. Feinsand cites a source that Choo is Detroit’s top free-agent target.
Choo fits the profile of hitter the Tigers are known to be seeking, balancing out a predominantly right-handed hitting lineup while also adding speed and on-base percentage back into Detroit’s offense. The Tigers saw him up-close for years in Cleveland, where he was a teammate of Detroit DH Victor Martinez. And unlike other speedy leadoff hitters who have hit the market, hitters the Tigers have traditionally judged on how their game would mature as they age and lose speed, Choo brings a skill set that doesn’t hinge on his speed.
The question for the Tigers with Choo is financial, how far they’re willing or able to go to sign him. They just shed the burden of a megacontract by trading Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler. With several players nearing free agency, Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera foremost among them, they can’t afford to put themselves in the same bind, though Choo isn’t expected to approach the nine-year deal Fielder signed with the Tigers two winters ago.
First things first: it’s rarely a good idea to judge winners and losers in a trade minutes after a trade is announced. For one thing, it’s hard to judge prospects and their impact so immediately. More important, it’s better to judge a trade’s context in the bigger picture of a team’s entire offseason.
What made trading Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson work for the Tigers wasn’t just the talent they got in return, from Max Scherzer to Austin Jackson to Phil Coke. It was the payroll it freed up for Detroit to sign Jose Valverde a month later, and extend Justin Verlander’s contract a couple weeks after that. Taken in context, a trade that at first signaled the closing of the Tigers’ contending ways ended up extending their window for several more years.
If the Tigers do end up re-signing Scherzer — still not a safe assumption, but no longer a lost cause — along with Miguel Cabrera and add a closer plus another bat, the trade takes on a different light. Dombrowski, for his part, insisted they’re not cost-cutting.
“We’re not cutting payroll,” he said. “We have a very, very hefty payroll. It’s one of the highest in baseball and it’s going to continue to be that way.”
Second point: Hard-throwing left-handed pitchers are always going to draw Dave Dombrowski’s attention. Always. It’s like Charlie Brown and The Little Red-Haired Girl. In this case, lefty starting prospect Robbie Ray looms as that guy.
“He’s the key piece,” one American League talent evaluator texted Monday night after news of the trade spread. He graded Ray as a legit prospect, potentially a third or fourth starter.
Ray was Washington’s seventh-rated prospect by MLB.com’s rankings, but he’d rank higher on Detroit’s list. That’s because trades, injuries and call-ups had so depleted the pitching depth in the organization that four of the five pitchers on Baseball Prospectus’ Tigers top 10 rankings released earlier Monday had been drafted in the last year and a half. Only Drew VerHagen had pitched above Low-A ball. None of them are left-handed.
“We have depleted our starting pitcher [depth] because we made some deals at the upper levels,” Dombrowski said. “You look at some arms that we’ve moved and again you can’t have everything. We have depleted ourselves in that regard and we don’t feel we have anybody knocking on the door other than Smyly. We did address that ourselves internally by drafting a lot of starting pitchers in the draft and a lot of college pitchers who we feel can move quickly.”
The more Dombrowski talked about Ray, the more he sounded like he had just acquired an impact pitcher in the big leagues. With a low to mid-90s fastball and the makings of a four-pitch arsenal, Ray’s stuff has the Tigers thinking highly of him.
“I think it was a key for us,” Dombrowski said of Ray’s inclusion. “It’s not only what you see in the minors. You see throughout Major League Baseball that young starting pitchers that are on the verge of pitching in the big leagues and being No. 3 or better starters, they’re hard to find and they’re becoming harder to deal [for].
“We felt it was important to get a guy who was knocking on our door to pitch at the big league level. We think this guy’s a premium young left-handed pitcher on the verge of pitching in the big leagues, and they’re not easy to find.”
Lastly, the longer this offseason continues, the more the Tigers look and act like a team that’s looking beyond the next year or two for a window. It doesn’t mean the win-now mentality has died, but it definitely signals at least an attempt to keep a winning team on the field for the future.
It began with the Jose Iglesias trade in July. It continued with the hiring of a first-time manager who not only hasn’t managed before, but whose playing career ended just a few years ealier. It continued with the Fielder trade, freeing up millions of dollars over the next seven years.
The future mentality hit its stride, though, with the Doug Fister deal. Detroit filled immediate needs in lefty relief and utility infield, but it now has its replacement for Scherzer if he leaves next winter, or Rick Porcello if he leaves a year later.
Hard to tell what it means for the franchise going forward, though a bloated payroll and an aging roster seem like two things they’re now trying to avoid. It seems like a strong hint, though, that the Tigers are now trying to extend their window of contention once more against a potentially aging roster and several superstar contracts. It could be a nod towards keeping this team in contention long enough to negotiate a new cable deal in a few years and reap the benefits other clubs are now enjoying. It could be an acknowledgement that keeping this
team pitching staff together past the next year or two is fiscally impossible, given the escalating prices on pitching (though the Tigers didn’t have any talks with Fister about a contract extension, according to a source). Remember, collecting young, cost-controlled pitching (signing Verlander before free agency, trading for Scherzer and Fister) is how this team was built. Add Sanchez to that trio, and four of MLB’s top nine pitchers in Wins Above Replacement over the last three years wore Tigers uniforms according to Fangraphs. That same quartet also owned four of the top 21 spots in Fielding Independent Pitching over that same stretch.
Whatever it is, you can sense a shift in mentality helping provide a push.
The Tigers are no longer a team with six starting pitchers for five spots. What they are without Doug Fister in their rotation remains to be seen. Detroit pulled off its second major trade in two weeks Monday night, sending Fister to the Nationals for lefty reliever Ian Krol, infielder/outfielder Steve Lombardozzi and lefty starting prospect Robbie Ray.
The move adds more flexibility on the Tigers payroll while adding some badly-needing young arms to a Tigers system that had been low on left-handed pitching. The immediate impact on the Tigers for next year, however, might not be known until the Tigers are done dealing this offseason.
It’s not a deal that addresses several short-term needs, as might have been anticipated had Detroit dealt reigning AL Cy Young winner and potential 2014 free agent Max Scherzer as rumors suggested earlier this offseason. Instead, the return package fills some smaller holes now and some long-term concerns later, while providing another sign the Tigers will try to keep the rest of their rotation intact, Scherzer included.
Fister was one of three Tigers starters who were arbitration eligible with free agency on the horizon. Like fellow starter Rick Porcello, he was two years away from free agency with a salary that was heading up. He was projected to make $6.9 million in arbitration according to MLB Trade Rumors.
However, Fister delivered as a Tiger, going 32-20 with a 3.29 ERA in 68 Tiger starts and two relief appearances. His 8-1 record and 1.79 ERA down the stretch in 2011 reflected his significant role in helping the Tigers to their first of three consecutive American League Central titles. Those numbers leveled out over the next two seasons, but his 14-9 record, 3.67 ERA and 208 2/3 innings pitched this year reflected a workhorse role within a loaded Tigers rotation.
In the postseason, meanwhile, Fister was a cornerstone of the dominant pitching that led Detroit to four postseason series wins over the last three years. His 3-2 record and 2.98 ERA in eight career playoff appearances includes a sub-2 ERA in the ALCS and World Series. He picked up only one playoff win the last two years, but delivered six quality starts in as many outings in that stretch, including six innings of one-run ball with seven strikeouts against the Red Sox.
Drew Smyly, who spent this past season as a lefty setup reliever, will slot into Fister’s old rotation spot, giving Detroit a lefty starter. With his pre-arbitration salary, the move will shed about $6.4 million from team payroll. The rest of the rotation is expected to remain intact for next year while the Tigers try to pursue long-term deals.
Smyly’s relief role, meanwhile, will be filled by Krol, who broke into the big leagues this year as a young lefty setup man. The 22-year-old wasn’t a specialist, though left-handed hitters batted .220 (11-for-50) against him with one home run, four walks and 10 strikeouts.
Lombardozzi is a switch-hitting, contact-batting role player with decent speed who can play infield and outfield. He batted .259 with 15 doubles, two home runs and 22 RBIs in 118 games for the Nationals in 2013.
The key arm in the deal, however, might end up being Ray, a hard-throwing lefty starter who ranked as the seventh-best prospect in the Nationals system from MLB.com’s midseason prospect rankings. The 22-year-old went 11-5 with a 3.36 ERA in 27 starts between high Class A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg, allowing 116 hits over 142 innings with 62 walks and 160 strikeouts.
Ray isn’t expected to compete for a Major League job right away anywhere on the staff, likely needing more seasoning at Double-A this coming year. In a system that has traded away several starting prospects over the past few years, however, he provides a much-needed youth infusion.
Nearly two decades after Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker made their place in history as one of baseball’s best double-play combinations, the Tigers will field a middle-infield tandem with the same jersey numbers. The team announced Monday on Twitter that their new second baseman, Ian Kinsler, will wear Trammell’s famous number 3.
The team expects Kinsler to man second base opposite shortstop Jose Iglesias, who donned Whitaker’s old number 1 when he became a Tiger at last summer’s Trade Deadline. The numbers should look familiar, albeit in reverse order, to Tigers fans who watched Trammell and Whitaker as teammates up the middle for nearly 20 years, from 1977 into the early ’90s. The two set an American League record for appearing in 1,918 games as teammates, and turned more double plays than any middle-infield tandem in Major League history.
Given their longevity and their success, the fact that any player can still wear those numbers on a Tigers uniform has always been a difficult topic in Detroit. The Tigers have only retired the jersey numbers of Hall of Famers with the exception of Willie Horton’s number 23. The Hall of Fame voting process has not been kind to Whitaker, who was knocked off the ballot after one year, or Trammell, who has not yet come close to the 75 percent selection needed for induction.
That said, no Tiger has worn number 47 since Jack Morris, a teammate of Trammell and Whitaker from 1977 to 1990. He has come closer to induction than any other 1984 Tiger, but still needs a boost this year in his 15th and final time on the ballot.
While Iglesias became the first player since Whitaker to wear number 1 in Detroit, Kinsler won’t be the first number 3 in Detroit since Trammell. Gary Sheffield donned the number during his Tiger tenure in 2007 and 2008.
Kinsler’s old number 5, which he wore for all eight of his seasons in Texas, is off limits in Detroit. That number was retired with Hank Greenberg, so Kinsler needed a new number. He wore number 22 at the University of Missouri.
The one question for the Tigers at Monday’s nontender deadline has been answered. Utilityman Don Kelly agreed to terms with the Tigers on a one-year, $1 million contract, thus taking him off the potential nontender list.
Kelly confirmed the deal in a text to inquiring reporters. The Tigers announced the deal shortly thereafter.
The $1 million salary represents the first seven-figure deal for Kelly. He made $900,000 in each of the past two seasons, including this past season on what was initially a minor-league contract with a Spring Training invite he signed just before camp after being taken off the 40-man roster. He essentially had to win his roster spot back, and he beat out Quintin Berry to do it.
As the Tigers headed towards Monday’s deadline for tendering contracts to arbitration eligible players, the question was whether they’d try to do the same thing this winter. The team traditionally waits until January to wrap up deals with arbitration-eligible players, but their one-year deal with Phil Coke a week and a half ago noted a change in approach. With some players, they wanted a deal in place before approaching the offseason. Kelly fell in that category, though his salary is by far the smallest of the eight arbitration-eligible Tigers.
Kelly’s versatility is well-known, and he currently stands as a left-handed hitter on the bench of a team that has a righty-heavy lineup at the moment in the wake of the Prince Fielder trade. The one factor that could change his role is the positional shuffle around the Tigers infield and outfield, notably if fellow left-handed hitter Andy Dirks becomes the primary reserve outfielder.
The roster picture, especially in left field and third base, remains a big question, but the Tigers can keep Kelly on the roster and then take a wait-and-see approach in Spring Training. If Detroit decides he’s no longer a fit, he can be released by March 15 or thereabouts for one-sixth of his salary, or just under $167,000. If the Tigers release him at the end of camp, they would owe him $250,000, one-fourth of his salary. Remember, Detroit took a similar approach with Brennan Boesch a year ago.
The rumor began circulating on Twitter Thursday evening from someone who cited his brother who was an air traffic controller that Robinson Cano and his well-known agent, Jay-Z, had just landed in Canton.
By Friday morning, the rumor had been circulated enough that fans were tweeting he was still in town meeting with Tigers personnel.
By Friday evening, the buzz drew a speculative report in the Detroit News, centering around a charter jet owned by a private aircraft rental service that had taken off from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey and landed at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti Friday morning, just after 8:30. The flight stuck around until 2pm, when it took off back for Teterboro. Because it’s a private jet, there was no identifying who was on the flight, which keeps the intrigue going.
By late Friday night, it drew a question and response from Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski, who has a policy of not talking about specific free agents from other teams but told MLive.com, “We plan on having Ian Kinsler as our second baseman next year.”
It became quite a rumor, but there are some serious holes.
First, the rumor originated Thursday evening with the talk of Jay-Z and Cano landing in the area. Jay-Z was spotted shortly after that … in Oklahoma City. He was with his wife, Beyonce, courtside for the Clippers-Thunder game to watch his top sports client, Kevin Durant. Here’s Jay-Z at the game celebrating a fan hitting a half-court shot.
Second, I checked with a source late Friday morning when the rumors were building, and it was business as usual at Tigers offices. If Cano was in Detroit, the answer went, he wasn’t with them. It doesn’t mean Cano couldn’t have arrived after that for a quick meeting on short or no notice, but that seems like a lot for an early-morning charter jet to a city for spontaneous talks. And if he was on that aforementioned jet at Willow Run, which took off for Teterboro just after 2pm, it would have made for a real quick trip. The airport is about 10 miles further west of Detroit than Metro Airport.
But there’s a third, more fundamental problem here: For Robinson Cano, a secret visit makes no sense.
By all accounts, Cano is looking for a standard-setting contract as the top free agent on the market, but the question — especially in New York — is whether there’s enough of a market to drive up the price. If Cano is getting on a plane and visiting a team, what’s the point of keeping it a secret? It serves his purposes more to get it out as much as possible, especially in New York media. When Jay-Z and agent Brodie Van Wagenen had dinner with the Mets earlier in the week, it was reported all over, with Mets personnel even commenting on it. Even if nobody wants to comment, a public sighting somewhere in town — eating lunch, getting into a car, getting off of a charter jet at Metro, anything — serves the purpose. A leak in New York does the same. A secondhand tweet does not.
There are free agents who have pulled this off to their advantage. Carl Pavano flew to Detroit to visit the Tigers when he was a free agent after the 2004 season, and his agent, Scott Shapiro, made it part of a multi-city tour to visit several teams.
Bottom line, it was a rumor that made for a fun Friday, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Prince Fielder talked with Dallas media tonight on a conference call, where he was asked why he accepted the trade that sent him out of Detroit and to the Rangers. His response sounded like somebody who was ready for a fresh start.
“Obviously it’s another great team,” Fielder said. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Obviously I thought it would be good for everybody. I want everybody to be happy.”
Fielder did not express hard feelings toward Detroit.
“I understand baseball is a business,” Fielder said. “It was all good. We didn’t win the World Series…it happens. It was good. I enjoyed it. I’ll miss the fans and miss my teammates but I’m happy to start new in Texas.”
On this past season and what happened, Fielder said, “Whatever I did last year, I’ll do the opposite this year. It was cool. The season went fine. It is what it is. You can’t take it back. We went to the playoffs. We didn’t go as far as we wanted to go but everybody is still alive.”
The Tigers went into the offseason needing to solve second base for 2014, but needing to solve payroll concerns for well beyond that. They’re solving both needs in one incredibly big, yet beautifully simple move.
It’s a 1-for-1 deal, but with Prince Fielder and Ian Kinsler, the Tigers and Rangers pulled off a blockbuster that changes the course of both teams for years to come.
Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com and MLB Network first reported the talks Thursday evening, followed by an agreement soon after. Considering how swiftly the Tigers’ free-agent contract with Fielder came together, maybe it’s fitting. News of the trade even caught Tigers players off-guard.
“Wow!!! Big news,” Justin Verlander tweeted Thursday night. “We traded Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler.”
The Tigers will send $30 million to Texas, according to a source, to help bridge the gap in money remaining on the two contracts. Fielder has seven years left at $24 million each on the mega-contract he signed in January 2012, barely a week after Victor Martinez’s catastrophic knee injury left Detroit in desperate need of offense and left owner Mike Ilitch aggressively looking to fill Martinez’s void. Kinsler, by contrast, has five years and $69 million total left on his deal if his $12 million club option for 2018 is included.
After all this, the biggest task will be the Tigers re-adjusting the rest of their roster in turn. It’ll lose a huge power presence in the cleanup spot, but recover the kind of financial flexibility that will put the Tigers back in control of their long-term destiny.
The Tigers had a dream offensive lineup in 2013 with Fielder at first base, Miguel Cabrera at third and Victor Martinez as the designated hitter. But while the offense put up mighty numbers over the course of the season, the game-to-game results weren’t consistent. That inconsistency came back to bite them in the postseason, when a series of low-scoring duels put pressure on Detroit’s vaunted rotation and not-so-solid bullpen to hold slim leads.
Fielder, fairly or otherwise, became the flashpoint for that. For most players, his .279 average, 25 home runs and 106 RBIs would’ve been a good season. After a .313 average, 30-homer debut season in Detroit, however, a 121-point drop in OPS stood out. His deep struggles in the postseason, followed by his comments after the dramatic ALCS Game 6 loss that eliminated them from the postseason,
The biggest pressures on the Tigers, however, were the financial stats. With Fielder’s contract, Justin Verlander’s recently-signed deal, Max Scherzer and Victor Martinez a year away from free agency and two-time AL MVP Miguel Cabrera among a handful of prominent Tigers up for free agency in two years, Detroit’s long-term payroll looked like an unsolvable puzzle.
Trading Fielder, even with the offensive gap it creates, became the solution, which is surely why talks came together quickly.
With first base open, the Tigers have the option of moving Cabrera back to first, where he played his first four seasons in Detroit before Fielder’s arrival, or moving Martinez out from designated hitter. Top prospect Nick Castellanos, who was slated to compete for a spot in left field, is an option to move back to his original position at third. Or the Tigers could
The payroll, meanwhile, now has a lot more flexibility to consider contract extensions for Cabrera and Scherzer. Detroit could save as much as $8 million in each of the next two seasons, and more after that, depending on how the money is spread out.
Kinsler has been a mainstay at second base in Texas, and at age 31 should remain so. With the Rangers enjoying an embarrassment of riches in young infielders, however, Kinsler was expendable. And with the Rangers desperately looking for offense, by all accounts, Fielder was an attractive bat.
The Rangers were an option for Fielder as a free agent two years ago, and carried the bonus of no state income tax. Now, the prospect of Fielder regaining his power bat in a much more power-friendly park looms for American League opponents.
The Tigers used their open roster to add seven minor leaguers and protect them from next month’s Rule 5 draft. Futures Game rep and Triple-A all-star Jordan Lennerton is on the list, as is right-hander pitcher September signing Justin Miller. So are Toledo left-hander Kyle Lobstein (a Rule 5 Draft pick last year), Double-A Erie outfielder Daniel Fields and shortstop Eugenio Suarez, Class A Lakeland outfielder Steven Moya and Lakeland closer Jose Valdez.
No moves were made to take anybody off the 40-man roster, so it stands at 39 players. They left a spot open to add another player if something comes together in the coming days (an addition of a closer, perhaps?), but they’ll have to designate or release somebody if they add any more than that. The question over arbitration-eligible players, meanwhile, now shifts to the non-tender date two weeks from now.
Lennerton and Miller were kind of mysteries going in. Though Lennerton is an older player (he’ll turn 28 in February), he’s coming off an all-star season that drew notice. Because he’s a first baseman, he doesn’t have a role in Detroit unless somebody gets hurt, but he also isn’t easy to replace if another team were to take him in the Rule 5. And by the sounds of it, that was a strong possibility. The Tigers had talked about him enough in potential trade discussions that the chance to snag him for $50,000 might have been too tempting.
“I think they candidly gauged enough legitimate interest to put him on,” one AL talent evaluator said of Lennerton.
Miller is an interesting case. The Tigers signed him in September after the Rangers had released him coming off a season shortened by recovery from 2012 Tommy John surgery. His last full, healthy season was 2011, but it was outstanding, with a 9-1 record, 1.81 ERA and 13 saves at Double-A Frisco.
It would seem that the odds of a team using a Rule 5 pick on a pitcher who has pitched just 27 innings the past two years would be long. But teams are interested to take a chance on pitchers in that type of situation. The Tigers got Wil Ledezma a decade ago coming off an injury history in the minors.