February 2010

Coke could still end up a starter (updated)

Don’t discount the possibility that Phil Coke still opens the season in the Tigers rotation, despite what seemed like mixed signals on that notion last month.

You might remember that though team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski labeled Coke as a starting candidate at TigerFest, Leyland indicated he preferred to have Coke work out of the bullpen to begin Spring Training and then stretch out as a starter later if necessary.

Part of the reasoning there was that the Tigers already have three candidates for the fifth spot, and they can only stretch out so many pitchers as starters in a normal Spring Training schedule. They could already have to shift some starters to Minor League games on occasion simply to get innings.

On Wednesday, though, Leyland said he’s been “tossing and turning on what to do with Coke.”

Part of the reason is the potential need for a lefty starter if
neither Nate Robertson nor Dontrelle Willis win the job. Another reason
is the abundance of lefty relievers not named Phil Coke, such as Bobby
Seay, Fu-Te Ni, Brad Thomas and Daniel Schlereth.

For now, Leyland said, he’s going to “let that [question] hang for a while.”

In other words, he’s going to start out Coke in the bullpen, but leave open the possibility of stretching him out later in camp if need be. But he won’t make that decision until after the Spring Training games begin.

He’ll discuss the timing with pitching coach Rick Knapp.

“You’ve got to make sure it’s not too soon,” Leyland said, “but you’ve got to make sure it’s not too late.”

What does Coke think? Well, until he hears otherwise, he’s going to prepare as a starter.”

“The title doesn’t mean anything to me,” Coke said Wednesday. “They told me there’s an opportunity that I could start, so until they change my mind, that’s what I’m going to do.”
We might find out more about that from Leyland in the coming days.

Zumaya: "I'm probably on my last string"

I was out on vacation last week, but I’m back to work and back in Lakeland, where it almost feels like I was here a few weeks ago rather than last April. But that doesn’t compare with Joel Zumaya, who has been here since right after New Year’s weekend.

I’ll have more on Zumaya on the site tomorrow, but two things stood out that warranted mentioning. First was that this is the best his arm has felt in about 2 1/2 years, by his estimation. Second was the feeling that this might be his last shot in Detroit.

“I’m coming in to prove something,” Zumaya said Tuesday. “I’ve got a lot to prove. The last two years, I’ve been sitting on the shelf, so I’m probably on my last string right now. And I don’t want that last string to get pulled. That’s why I’m here [so early]. I’ve been here since January. I’ve been throwing and I’ve been getting a lot of complements. I’m actually proving something.”

He feels like he’s proving that he’s in good shape after surgery. And he feels like his health is no longer an issue.

“I’m not worried about the health situation anymore,” he said, “because if I had problems, I would’ve been on a rehab program right now. My offspeed pitches, I’m not really too worried about that, either, because my arm slot is totally different from where I was the last two years. It’s a lot higher. It’s actually where I’m supposed to be. I mean, the last two years, I’ve thrown with my arm slot a little low because I had that little issue. I’ve kept my mouth shut for a while. I just had to get this done and get cleaned up.

“Like I said, I’m fine.  My arm slot’s going to be a lot better. My offspeed is a lot sharper. The ball’s coming down to a point. It’s not coming flat.”

Big Cat to become Miggy's mentor?

bigcat.jpgLooks like the Tigers will be getting another slugger into camp after all. But this one won’t be swinging; he’ll be mentoring.

A report out of Venezuela quotes former Major League All-Star Andres Galarraga saying he has been offered a job by the Tigers to come to Spring Training in an instructional role. Among his duties reportedly would be to serve as a mentor to Miguel Cabrera.

Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski replied Saturday that he wasn’t prepared to discuss Galarraga’s role at this time. (Update: It appears they’re still talking and haven’t finalized it yet, which would explain the hesitation to comment. Still, it sounds like he’s coming.)

If it happens, It would be an interesting match of one of Venezuela’s most revered players and the young star whose talent has drawn comparisons with Galarraga ever since he was a teenager.

Galarraga talked Friday during the Caribbean Series, which matches up the winter ball champions from Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Puerto Rico. This year, it’s being held on Margarita Island in Venezuela.

When Cabrera talked about his battle with alcoholism a few weeks ago, the Tigers talked about having someone with him in Spring Training as part of his counseling program. This sounds quite a bit bigger than that.

Galarraga probably should’ve received a lot more Hall of Fame consideration than he did this year. He was one-and-done when he failed to draw votes from five percent of the total ballots, an amazing fate for someone who hit 399 home runs, put up 1,425 RBIs and was regarded among the best at his position for more than a decade. Magglio Ordonez speaks of him like a national hero, the greatest player to come out of his country. Whenever Ordonez has been compared to him, it’s humbling for him.

Galarraga didn’t find a full-time role until catching on with Montreal at age 26 in 1987, eight years after he signed with the Expos as an amateur free agent, and around the same time Dave Dombrowski was in Montreal’s front office. Cabrera is 26 now, turns 27 in April, and has driven in at least 100 runs on all six of his full big-league seasons. He has  four years with at least a .320 batting average and .940 OPS.

But obviously, Cabrera has some challenges to overcome and some growing up to do.

How to fit Verlander and Cabrera on same payroll

verlander10.jpgFor all of you who emailed the inbox asking which big-name free agents the Tigers could pursue next winter after losing so much payroll in expiring contracts, there’s the Lee Corso line: Not so fast, my friend.

Assuming the report becomes official Thursday or Friday and Justin Verlander gets his contract extension at somewhere around five years and $80 million, the Tigers will have accomplished the monumental task of keeping their ace for the long term. That’s the good news. Their next challenge will be how to manage their roster around it.

If the $80 million figure is correct, assume that around $60 million will be laid out in the final three years from 2012-14, the free-agent years that the Tigers will have bought out. The first two years will be far less because they’re buying out arbitration years. Add that configuration to the Tigers payroll, and in those final three years, Verlander would be the second Tiger making $20 million or more per year, joining Miguel Cabrera. His contract hits the $20 million salary this year and stays there the next, followed by two years at $21 million and 2014-15 at $22 million each.

Just three teams are currently on track to have two players making $20 million a year at the same time: The Yankees have four (of course), the Mets two (Beltran and Santana), and the Phillies will have two of them in 2011, when the salaries on Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay both pick up. The Cardinals will come close if they sign Albert Pujols long term to go with Matt Holliday’s contract at $17 million per year. The Cubs come really close with Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano both making around $19 million this year and two seasons after that.

Once the Cardinals re-signed Holliday this winter, the big question that followed was whether they could afford to keep him and Pujols long term and still field a contending team around them. That’s in St. Louis, where the payroll hasn’t doesn’t top $100 million. The Tigers have topped $100 million the last two years, and it’s looking like their payroll could actually be higher this season than it was in 2009, despite trading Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson and letting their free agents go. You’d have to not count Gary Sheffield’s salary from last year to get to that high total, but still, you get the idea.

cabrera2.jpgDave Dombrowski didn’t talk about slashing payroll this offseason, insisted they weren’t gutting, but he talked about making adjustments given the realities of this economy. Here was surely one adjustment, making room for Verlander’s salary this year. In the context of the economy, and the idea that Michigan will take longer to recover than other areas, finding a way to field a contending team while supporting the salaries of Verlander and Cabrera isn’t as easy as finding free agents willing to play for a contender.

There was a line of thought not long ago that a team cannot win if one player takes up more than 15 percent of payroll. Assuming the numbers above, Verlander and Cabrera could combine to make anywhere from $40 to $45 million from 2012-14. Even if the Tigers hold payroll around $120 million per year, Verlander and Cabrera would take up at least a third of that.

The Tigers have two choices: They can either look to trade Cabrera at some point in the future, or they can invest heavily in their farm system and through trades to start cranking out young talent to put around these guys. It sure looks like they’re trying to do the latter. In this scenario, they would use free agency to fill in a few holes here and there, not to build a team. In other words, you don’t go signing Orlando Hudson when Scott Sizemore is ready to do the job. You might add Johnny Damon to fill a leadoff hole, but you do it as a short-term patch until your younger guys are ready.

Time will tell whether they can pull it off. If they can, it’s going to be a very exciting team to watch. Toiling around the Internet, I found a Tom Verducci piece on SI.com from 2007 listing his top 10 franchise players under 25. Cabrera was first, Verlander eighth.

UPDATE: I asked Dave Dombrowski about this after the Verlander press conference Thursday. His answer kind of reflected what we’re talking about.

“To me, it’s important to have star players if you can. Now, star players cost a lot of money also. So you also have to balance them with other players. But by the moves that we made, we are able to look ahead and be in a position where we can keep that and build around them.

“You can look four years, five years down the road, and I’m sure we’ll be scratching our heads and saying, ‘OK, where does this come?’ But we’ve put ourself in a position to deal with that by what we’ve done and having enough young players come. We all know there’s a new basic agreement after the 2011 season, so how that will come into play, I have no idea. But we’ve put ourself in a position where we think we can have a couple of quality players, some young players coming that are good young players, and be in a position where we have set the foundation for our club to build around for a long time.”

Also confirmed that Verlander will make $20 million a season from 2012-14. He gets a $500,000 signing bonus, a $6.75 million salary this year and $12.75 the next.

Kennedy reportedly eyeing Indians, Nats

Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle reports that she talked with free-agent infielder Adam Kennedy, who told her that he’s in talks with Cleveland and Washington. Nothing is going down, he said, until fellow free-agent second baseman Orlando Hudson signs somewhere. Whatever happens there, though, it doesn’t suggest the Tigers are particularly high on the list of potential destinations, especially when paired with Dave Dombrowski’s remarks this week that they’re not close on any signings right now.

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