The Tigers have enjoyed a scouting and developmental advantage in Venezuela as one of the few Major League teams left with both an academy in the country and a team in the Venezuelan Summer League. They’ll still have the academy, but the VSL is done, postponed for the upcoming season due to lack of participation. The Cubs are reportedly pulling out, which would have left just three teams.
The decision did not catch the Tigers by surprise, given the situation in Venezuela.
“It is disappointing, because it was a good league and it served a real important purpose,” general manager Al Avila said Saturday at TigerFest. “But because of the political situation, a lot of teams have moved out. You can’t have a league with only two or three teams. A lot of teams have a second team in the Dominican Republic with the Dominican Summer League. We’re looking more into adding a team in the [Florida] Gulf Coast League.”
The GCL is a step up from both the Venezuelan and Dominican Summer Leagues, so it’s not necessarily an even exchange. Experienced pro players who would have been in line for the DSL will more likely get a promotion to the GCL, leaving younger players in the Dominican. The Tigers have an academy and a facility in the Dominican, but not necessarily big enough to accommodate two teams.
The Venezuelan academy will remain in place, Avila said. The Tigers will continue to field a team there for the Parallel League, essentially the minor leagues for the Venezuelan Winter League.
“It wasn’t a tough call to keep [the academy] open,” Avila said. “We knew that this was probably coming to come down the road, and we planned to keep it open. It’s a necessity for us.”
New Tiger veterans Francisco Rodriguez and Mike Aviles were absent from TigerFest on Saturday, missing the event for personal reasons according to general manager Al Avila. Bruce Rondon, meanwhile, was kept back in Florida because he’s dealing with a virus.
The virus supposedly came from a mosquito bite back in Venezuela, according to Avila. Reports earlier this week identified it as the Chikungunya virus. There are various viruses being spread around Venezuela and South America; the Zika virus has been in the news lately because it prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a travel alert.
“Even though right now he’s probably OK,” Avila said, “our doctors felt, ‘Why put the other guys at risk?’ Right now he’s in Florida. I think he’s OK by now, and it’s more of a precaution to keep him there. He’s still not 100 percent ready to go, but from everything that our doctors are telling me, he’ll have no issues in Spring Training and be 100 percent healthy by the time he reports.”
The Spring Training prognosis is good for Rondon, who will have to compete for a spot in a Tigers bullpen with one, maybe two spots available. Any momentum he had built up in an extended look down the stretch last season dissipated when he was sent home in mid-September for effort level. He turned his fortunes around on the mound in winter ball until an benches-clearing fight in December led to a suspension. Avila said in October that Rondon had been one of the first players to commit to attending TigerFest and the winter caravan.
TigerFest and the winter caravan provide a great opportunity to catch up with players and coaches who haven’t been seen around town since September or October. There was plenty of catching-up in that respect this week. But few sights were more encouraging than Kirk Gibson, sounding energetic, moving around, and eager to broadcast some games. The Fox Sports Detroit analyst, who did limited broadcasts near the end of the season after missing most of the first half, does not want his battle with Parkinson’s disease to hold him back.
“I don’t know [how many games], more than I did,” Gibson said Saturday at TigerFest. “I did 30-some last year, but I’m planning on doing more. I’ve learned how to maintain a lot more [with] medication and a lot of physical therapy. I do a lot of movement stuff.
“People box, people do yoga, whatever. I’m just really active. I climb trees and I stay up there for hours. I do all kind of different movements. I just stay active and I do my therapy. So far, so good.”
There was an energy to Gibson on Saturday. He kidded around with fans as he reminisced about 1984 with Alan Trammell, with whom he planned to go snowmobiling right after Tigerfest ended.
“I’m going to drive my machine about a thousand or so miles,” Gibson said.
He looked at Justin Upton, the new Tiger signed just a few days ago, and saw a more mature player than the kid he coached and managed in Arizona during his first years in the big leagues. The Diamondbacks traded Upton to Atlanta in 2013 while Gibson was manager and Kevin Towers was the GM, but Gibson said he had nothing but positives to say about him.
General manager Al Avila talked with him before pursing a deal with the free agent a week ago, and indicated he was given the same message.
“J-Up is just a very good player,” Gibson said. I mean, he came up in 2007, we won our division that year, went to the playoffs, beat the Cubs, then lost. But he’s extremely talented. He always has been. He’s learned to harness his ability much more. He understands how to handle the peaks and valleys. A lot of things that he had to learn were a lot of things that I had to learn.”
Gibson noted that Upton played through 2012, his final season in Arizona, with a thumb injury.
“A lot of people say he shouldn’t do this or do that,” Gibson said. “It reminds me a little bit of Lou Whitaker, how people say, ‘Well, he should’ve played like this guy or that guy. He would’ve been the best second baseman off all time.’ All I know about Lou Whitaker: He was a clutch player, he was an impact player and he could win you ballgames in a lot of different ways. And I think J-Up is kind of like that. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about him. I mean, he’s human. He’s going to have his failures. But he makes us a much better team. And I’m excited to cover it.
“I was honored, and it was really cool, that I got to have J-Up. I was his baserunning coach and outfield coach when he first came up. This kid, he’s got a great personality. He laughs. But he’s like me in that he hates to fail. He had to learn how to deal with that. My son’s the same way. I’m like, ‘Ok, you failed, let’s fix it. The game’s still going on.’
“I used to throw my bat, throw my helmet. People say, ‘Oh, that’s BS.’ And I’m like, ‘Why?’ That’s who he is. The guy has passion. He cares. I know there’s been others in the past that say players don’t care. When people make mistakes on that field, nobody cares more than those people. But overall, he’s going to fit in great with these guys. It’s going to be a real good situation for him.”
For all the rejoice over Justin Upton’s arrival, the key to the Tigers offense arguably remains a healthy Victor Martinez, whose knee issues last year led to a decline at the plate that helped doom Detroit. For now, at least, Martinez says he feels fine.
“This year is different,” Martinez said. “I thank God for feeling pretty good. It feels good to come here and see everybody.”
Martinez was healthy at this point last year. He tore the medial meniscus in his left knee while working out at his Orlando area home shortly after TigerFest. He recovered from surgery in time to take his spot in the Opening Day lineup, but looked like a shell of his 2014 form, eventually spending time on the 15-day disabled list to strengthen his knee.
Martinez batted .245 with a .667 OPS last year, both career lows. The knee hampered the switch-hitter more when he batted left-handed, evidenced by his .219 average and .616 OPS against right-handed pitching. By contrast, he hit .348 with an .870 OPS off lefties.
“You know what, it was frustrating, but it’s over,” Martinez said. “It’s 2016. Let’s talk about 2016. Last year is over. That’s it.”
With the Tigers potentially starting right-handed hitters in the other eight spots in their lineup, Martinez’s left-handed swing gains further importance. Though Upton provides another option for the middle of the order, Martinez is likely to remain in the cleanup spot or around it to help break up the right-handed bats and give opposing managers something to think about when warming up right-handed relievers.
“I think at times, the toughest pitchers for right-handed lineups are the hard-throwing right-handers with sliders,” Ausmus said. “That’s going to be the toughest pitchers, I think, for our lineup. That being said, some of our guys’ splits aren’t that bad. Miggy hits lefties better than righties, but Miggy hits righties better than most righties. I’m not concerned about it.”
Justin Upton’s signing provided another example why it’s difficult to rule out the Tigers from big moves in a given offseason. Maybe, just maybe, this offseason could still include a contract extension for J.D. Martinez.
Not long ago, Martinez appeared to be in line for the biggest contract for a Tigers outfielder this winter. The question now is whether Upton’s six-year, $132.75 million contract rules out a long-term deal for Martinez.
“It’s definitely something we’re still talking about,” Martinez said Thursday as the Tigers began their winter caravan. “It’s something I think both sides are still interested in. We haven’t come to something where we both feel comfortable yet.
“I love this team. I want to be part of this team. I would love to be a Tiger for life. We’ve just got to see how it goes.”
Currently, Martinez is in line for free agency in two years, in the same offseason Upton could exercise his opt-out and hit the open market again. Ian Kinsler and Anibal Sanchez have club options at the same time. Mike Pelfrey and Mark Lowe will be up for free agency.
More immediate, Martinez and the Tigers are in line to go to arbitration, $2 million apart in their salary proposals submitted last week. The Tigers haven’t gone to an arbitration hearing since Randy Smith was the general manager in 2001.
Even if the Tigers won an arbitration hearing, their $6 million salary offer would be in luxury tax territory, something Tigers owner Mike Ilitch accepted when he authorized a deal for Upton. Detroit already has more than $165 million in contracts guaranteed for 2017; the current collective bargaining agreement puts the luxury tax threshold at $189 million, including player benefits estimated anywhere from $12-15 million, but a new CBA will be part of next offseason.
Martinez said he’s confident they can avoid a hearing next month, but the ultimate goal remains a contract well beyond 2016.
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” he said. “This team gave me an opportunity. I would love to stay here as long as I can and hopefully my career next to Miggy, next to Victor and stuff like that. That would be awesome. That would be something I would love.”
General manager Al Avila declined comment on negotiations when asked Wednesday, but still expressed optimism.
“I hope for the best, because we love J.D. Martinez,” Avila said. “As you know, I have a good history with him, and I think he’s a very important part of this team. Obviously we have him for this year and next year through arbitration, but we’re hoping we can make a deal with J.D., and we’re hoping for the best.”
Al Avila flew out to Arizona last Friday on what he called a recruiting visit to talk with Justin Upton about joining the Tigers. Brad Ausmus got the call from his boss and hopped on the next flight out.
Torii Hunter was at home in Texas, enjoying his first offseason as a retired ballplayer. He hasn’t been part of the Tigers organization in over a year. Yet for the Tigers’ recruiting pitch, he might have provided one more assist, arguably out of left field.
Upton and Hunter have the same agent, Larry Reynolds, who played a bigger role in getting Upton to Detroit than he did in getting Hunter to Detroit. Hunter knew he wanted to come to Detroit well before he signed after the 2012 season, seeing what he felt was his last, best chance at a World Series. Upton knew somewhat about Detroit, but until now has spent his entire career in the National League. He was already well along in talks with the Tigers when he got a call from Hunter, but he was still learning about his new home.
“Torii gave me a call two or three nights ago,” Upton said at Wednesday’s introductory press conference. “I think it was Monday night. He had nothing but great things to say. I think his first comments were that, being a Minnesota Twin for years, he hated Detroit, he hated everybody here and every time he came here, he just wanted to win every game. But he said when he played here, it was one of the best experiences he ever had.
“He said the team itself, it’s a winning atmosphere. They love their players. The fans love their players. He said if you go out and you play the game the right way and smile every day, the people of Detroit will respect you and love having you here. So that’s my plan, to go out and give the city what I have, bring what I can to the table and enjoy my time here. I’m excited to see what Detroit has to offer.”
Hunter, who played two seasons here, said in a text message that he has known Upton since he was a teenager.
“I just told him my experiences here,” Hunter said. “He’s a good guy.”
His message for Upton, he said, was pretty simple.
“Told him to just be yourself and don’t hide who you are,” Hunter said. “Detroit fans can spot a fake a mile away. Stay genuine.”
Tigers fans won’t have to wait long to get a glimpse of their retinkered squad. The Spring Training broadcast schedule, announced Weddnesday, includes six telecasts on Fox Sports Detroit and 20 local radio broadcasts. Several of those broadcasts fall early in the Grapefruit League slate, a slight change from past trends that have leaned toward late in the spring when rosters are closer to Opening Day expectations.
Six of the Tigers’ first seven Grapefruit League games will be on the air in Detroit, including the opener against the Pirates on March 1 in Lakeland on 97.1 FM at 1:05 pm ET. The Tigers’ March 2 split-squad game against the Yankees in Tampa, also a 1:05 start, will be on AM 1270 as well as FSD, picking up the feed from the YES Network. The other split-squad game against the Pirates in Bradenton is the only game that week that won’t be aired in some form.
Fox Sports Detroit resumes its slate March 8 against the Rays at Joker Marchant Stadium, which is also one of three consecutive games on AM 1270. The next week, FSD picks up three games in four days — March 15 against the Braves, then a home-and-home series March 17-18 against the Cardinals.
The FSD slate closes March 31 with a 1:05 game against the Yankees in Lakeland.
A few other games are likely to be picked up by MLB Network and ESPN, which have yet to announce their Spring Training slates. MLB Network can pick up broadcasts from other markets. Several, too, are likely to end up on MLB.TV, while MLB Gameday Audio is expected to carry Tigers radio broadcasts once again.
Full broadcast schedule (all games 1:05 starts):
March 1 vs. Pirates (97.1)
March 2 at Yankees (1270, FSD)
March 3 at Braves (1270)
March 4 vs. Yankees (1270)
March 5 at Nationals (97.1)
March 6 vs. Marlins (97.1)
March 8 vs. Rays (1270, FSD)
March 9 vs. Nationals (1270)
March 10 at Phillies (1270)
March 13 at Pirates (97.1)
March 14 vs. Mets (1270)
March 15 vs. Braves (1270, FSD)
March 17 vs. Cardinals (FSD)
March 18 at Cardinals (FSD)
March 20 vs. Nationals (97.1)
March 21 vs. Phillies (1270)
March 24 at Blue Jays (1270)
March 26 at Phillies (1270)
March 27 vs. Astros (97.1)
March 29 vs. Blue Jays (1270)
March 31 vs. Yankees (1270, FSD)
April 2 at Braves (97.1)
Once again, the Tigers have pounced on a January deal. After weeks of insisting they didn’t have the room for a long-term contract with a prominent free-agent outfielder, they spent Monday coming to terms with slugger Justin Upton on a six-year contract worth $132.75 million, a source told MLB.com.
The deal, first reported by Bob Nightengale of USA Today, is pending a physical and includes a player opt-out after the second season. The Tigers have not yet confirmed the agreement; an announcement could come as soon as Wednesday.
The right-handed-hitting Upton, one of the biggest names in free agency this offseason, batted .251/.336/.454 last year. His youth made the 28-year-old a prime candidate for a long-term deal, but the longer the free-agent outfielder market lingered, the further that seemed to fall into question. Although many teams were tied to Upton, many were believed to be seeking a short-term contract.
Upton’s agent, Larry Reynolds, released a statement a week and a half ago saying his client was targeting a long-term contract, a proclamation that seemed to rule out the Tigers. Though owner Mike Ilitch said in November that he didn’t care about the money in his long-running pursuit of a World Series title, general manager Al Avila told a Detroit radio station last month that a long-term deal with an outfielder like Upton or Yoenis Cespedes could turn their payroll situation “pretty ugly.”
The Tigers were believed to be focused on a short-term deal until last week, when Ilitch supposedly gave the go-ahead to explore long-term contract talks. From there the deal came together over the past couple days, with Avila and manager Brad Ausmus traveling to Arizona to talk with Upton in person. Former Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter, who has the same agent and has known Upton since he was in high school, also put in a good word about his experience in Detroit and what to expect playing in the Motor City.
The Tigers’ other advantage was structural. Upton, who turned down the Padres’ qualifying offer at the start of the offseason, is tied to Draft-pick compensation, but Detroit has a protected first-round pick and already ceded its second-rounder to sign Jordan Zimmermann. That means the Tigers will only need to sacrifice a third-round pick to sign Upton, and will get at least his age-28 and 29 seasons in return. If Upton plays out the full six-year deal, he’d still hit free agency at the relatively young age of 34.
The deal, worth a straight $22.125 million per season, will put the Tigers into luxury-tax territory for 2016, possibly beyond, depending on the future threshold under a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Detroit crossed the threshold in 2008 but will pay the first-time rate of 17.5 percent since it was under a previous CBA.
That’s a major impact on a Midwestern market. On the field, however, Upton’s impact figures to be great for a team that had been projected to go into Spring Training with a mix of Tyler Collins and Anthony Gose in left. While Upton tilts the Tigers lineup further right-handed, his career .805 OPS against right-handed pitching — including .848 last year — easily outpaces both. All but 10 of his 68 walks last year came from right-handed hurlers.
Upton figures to slot into the middle of a batting order that already includes Miguel Cabrera and Martinez. Upton is a reliable presence, having played at least 149 games in each of the past five seasons, and is a serious power threat with five seasons of 25-plus home runs.
Upton joins a long line of January deals that helped build a contender in Detroit, following in the footsteps of Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Jose Valverde, Johnny Damon and Prince Fielder. Only Fielder received a larger contract than Upton, whose contract ranks as the third-largest for a position player in franchise history behind Fielder and Miguel Cabrera.
Al Alburquerque posts on Instagram about most anything (on the road, at the gym, on the road again, on the town), to the point that it’s entertaining. Then came a post late last night that indicated he’s about to go to work.
Sure enough, word came this morning from MLB Network’s Jon Heyman …
AL Albuquerque has an agreement for an MLB deal with angels. Pending physical.
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) January 15, 2016
The Tigers nontendered Alburquerque a month and a half ago as part of their bullpen makeover. The 29-year-old right-hander gave up 29 runs on 63 hits over a career-high 62 innings with 33 walks and 58 strikeouts.
The Tigers have avoided arbitration with infielder Andrew Romine, agreeing to terms on a one-year contract worth a $900,000 base salary plus incentives based on games played. Jon Heyman of MLB Network first reported the contract, later announced by the club.
Romine was eligible for arbitration for the first time after spending the last two full seasons in Detroit. The slick-fielding switch-hitter, who turned 30 years old on Christmas Eve, batted .255 (47-for-184) with two home runs and 15 RBIs. He played five different defensive positions over the course of the season, including multiple starts at every infield spot.
Romine is expected to play a similar role in 2016, even after the Tigers signed former Indians utilityman Mike Aviles. The depth provides Detroit with insurance behind starting shortstop Jose Iglesias and defensive fortifications behind Nick Castellanos at third base.
Romine is the second Tigers player to avoid arbitration in as many days, following Justin Wilson’s one-year, $1,525,000 deal from Wednesday. Iglesias, too, is eligible for arbitration along with slugging outfielder J.D. Martinez. Both remain unsigned ahead of Friday’s deadline for exchanging salary proposals. The Tigers have not gone to an arbitration hearing with a player in 15 years since Dave Dombrowski took over as general manager.