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.

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