February 14th, 2009

Spring trade? Possible, but not quite likely

The Tigers could have spare players to trade this spring — if a lot of things go right.

If Dontrelle Willis rebounds from disastrous season, when he struggled mightily to find the strike zone, and Nate Robertson’s new shape allows him to regain his slider, the Tigers could have six solid candidates at starting pitcher.

willis.jpgThose scenarios could facilitate a trade. To call it likely, however, is to think everything will go right. A best-wish plan might be more appropriate. And that’s before finances really come into consideration.

The Tigers thought enough of their chances of getting some production out of Willis and/or Robertson that they left the fifth spot in the rotation open for them to compete with swingman Zach Miner. But they wanted to protect themselves enough that they traded talented young outfielder Matt Joyce to Tampa Bay for Edwin Jackson.

And while Willis and Robertson have prompted encouragement leading into Spring Training, it hasn’t progressed to anywhere near an expectation yet.

“I certainly don’t want to sound like Dontrelle Willis and Nate Robertson are rookies,” manager Jim Leyland said Thursday. “They’ve establshed some things in their careers. I don’t want to slight that or make light of that. If you could get those two guys back to what they really are, you’d have six starters. But we don’t know. We don’t know for sure.

“I have the utmost respect for both of those guys. That’s one of my prayers, that one of those guys — at least one of them — gets back to form. That could be a big bonus for us. But is it going to happen? I don’t know. That’s why we’re just going to let things unfold.”

If only one gets back to form, there’s no trade. If both get back to form, there’s the chance for a trade. But the other obstacle that comes into play is financial. Both Willis and Robertson are under contract through 2010 — Robertson for $17 million, Willis for $22 million. Even with baseball’s need for strong starting pitching, those are difficult salaries to move in this economy. Will a solid spring training prove enough of an incentive for a team to take one on? Will a merely encouraging spring training? Will one starter need to pitch in relief in some regular-season games to show he’s back for another team to take him on?

Other starters could be on the market. As one example, the Giants have Jonathan Sanchez and Noah Lowry possibly fighting for the same spot. Sanchez, who looked good for the first half last season before falling off, is under one-year contract. Lowry, who won 14 games in 2007 but missed all last year following surgery, makes $4.5 million this year with a $6.5 million club option for 2010.

The Tigers could help facilitate a trade by picking up much of the salary in a deal. But this is a team dealing with payroll considerations, a team that stood its ground on a one-year deal for closer Brandon Lyon rather than matching a two-year offer he had from another club.

Possible? Yes. Likely? Hard to say that.

I think back to 2007, when the Tigers had more starters than starting spots. Chad Durbin, a very good starter for Triple-A Toledo the previous year, was headed for a long relief role once Mike Maroth showed he was healthy. Andrew Miller was going to the minors. Then came Kenny Rogers’ blood vessel constriction and surgery that kept him out until June. When asked if a trade for a starter was possible, president/GM Dave Dombrowski said at the time that teams were calling them about starting pitching.

Durbin stepped into the rotation, held on until Rogers returned. At the same time, Miller was called up and Maroth traded. Durbin went on to make good money and earn a World Series ring with the Phillies last year.

Two words come to mind for likelihoods last year: Armando Galarraga.

Possibilities abound when spring training opens. But seven weeks out before Opening Day, history shows that likelihoods can be deceptive.

First day question: What's that hanging from Rodney's neck?

Now, I know, Fernando Rodney has had a lot of quirks over his years as a Tiger — the crooked hat, the singing, the big hair, the shaving of the head one afternoon last summer before a game at Baltimore. Somewhat surprisingly, he didn’t really stand out when he reported to spring training this year. Then when he was getting ready for the Tigers’ first workouts Saturday, he put on this necklace with something hanging off of it. It looked like some sort of animal tooth, but it had to have come from one big animal. So I asked Rodney what it was.

Well, according to Rodney, it’s an alligator tooth. When I asked him how he got it, he said he got it from a gator back home in the Dominican, wrestled one in the river.

Before you want gator wrestling added to Rodney’s contract, it’s probably a tall tale. His hometown in the Dominican is along the coast, not inland, so he’s more likely to encounter a shark than a gator. And if you look online, you can find jewelry involving alligator teeth. Nevertheless, it’s Rodney, and he wore that gator tooth all morning, so I figured it was worth telling.

First day roundup

The first day went about as any other first day goes. After some early morning meetings, Tigers pitchers took to the back fields, did about a half-hour of stretches and agility work, then hit the infields for fundmental work like pickoff throws, fielding ground balls and covering first base. Pretty routine stuff. Jim Leyland and the coaching staff do their best to try to make it fun, but as Leyland pointed out, pitchers have been throwing to first base for the past 100 years.

From there, half the pitchers went to the back mounds for the first round of formal bullpen sessions. The early sessions are always tricky, Leyland points out, because some pitchers are further ahead in their throwing than others depending on their offseason programs. The coaches told the pitchers to throw as the level where they’re comfortable right now, rather than overdo it and risk injury. Dontrelle Willis was one of those throwing and looked relatively well, for what it’s worth. His delivery might be a little different, but not that much. One thing new pitching coach Rick Knapp says he has emphasized to Willis early on is to be himself.

It’s interesting to watch how different pitchers with different mechanics generate their velocities. Non-roster reliever Scott Williamson is not a big guy, and he has a herky-jerky motion. But watching him from 30 feet away, it works for him as far as throwing hard — not the 99 mph fastballs he used to throw, but still seemingly hard.

Once guys are done throwing, they do some cool-down runs and head back to the clubhouse. Those who didn’t throw today will throw Sunday, unless they’re on a different program.

That’s the schedule for pitchers. For the next several days, it’s time to go golf or fish and hang out with the family, eat dinner, go to bed, get up, go to the clubhouse early in the morning, and repeat.

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