January 2011

Tigers, Penny agree to terms on one-year deal

The Tigers and Brad Penny closed in Monday evening on what is expected to be have agreed to terms on a one-year contract, MLB.com has learned. The deal is pending a physical.
Foxsports.com reported early Tuesday morning that the one-year deal should be worth $3 million in base salary plus incentives. The Tigers would not confirm an agreement, per their policy of not commenting on specific free agents.
Penny tweeted on his official account Monday night that he was “getting closer to finding my new home. Should know by the end of the day.” He did not tweet which team, but indications later confirmed he has decided on the Tigers. 
That possibility seemed dim Monday, when the team released its list of non-roster invitees that was expected to would finalize its Spring Training roster. Their chances at adding a starting pitcher suddenly improved Monday evening, when Penny closed in on a decision.
The Tigers’ interest in Penny has been known since last month. They also have been linked to free agent starters Jeremy Bonderman — who pitched for Detroit the past eight years — and Freddy Garcia, but always appeared more focused on Penny. Talks never progressed far on Garcia or Bonderman.
Penny, who has seen his Twitter following more than double since the New Year, ranks among the better free agents left on the market in these final weeks of the offseason. He certainly has a familiarity factor in the Detroit front office. Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski gave Penny his first shot in the big leagues more than a decade ago as general manager of the Florida Marlins, who acquired Penny from Arizona in a trade for Matt Mantei in 1999 and put him in their rotation a year later. 
Since then, the right-hander has spent all but 24 starts of his 11-year career in the National League, including nine solid starts last year with the Cardinals before a strained right lat in late May persisted into a season-ending injury. His lone American League experience was a stretch in 2009 with the Red Sox, where he posted a 7-8 record and 5.21 ERA before getting his release and promptly finding his form in a late-season stint for the Giants.
Still, as long as he’s healthy, there are reasons to believe the 32-year-old is more than a National League pitcher with AL struggles.  First, the AL experience was less than a full season in Boston, with a hitter-friendly home ballpark and a selection of formidable lineups in the AL East. His .487 slugging percentage allowed with the Red Sox was by far the highest mark of his career, while his .838 OPS allowed in the same stretch was 97 points above his career number in that category.
Just as important, at this point in his career, coming off injury, he fits the profile of a low-risk, high-reward signing that would fit the Tigers’ needs. Dombrowski said last week that any signing they did make would most likely be with a one-year contract. That would especially follow for starting pitching as long as they hold onto top pitching prospects Andy Oliver and Jacob Turner, both of whom could be ready for the big leagues by season’s end and compete for rotation spots in 2012. 
The deal with Penny is expected to finish out the Tigers’ offseason dealings. Detroit is believed to be set with its position players, including invites, barring an unforeseen development. They briefly had interest in Fred Lewis earlier this offseason as a reserve outfielder, but talks didn’t progress far.

Pickles, pizza, fries, dancing: Welcome to the caravan

The Tigers winter caravan has gotten creative in recent years, from Magglio Ordonez checking in passengers at Detroit Metro Airport last winter to training exercises at the Detroit Fire Department’s academy a couple years ago. This year, the Tigers have some other diversions in store.

Ordonez, who served coffee at a local Starbucks to raise money for charity a couple years ago, will be serving french fries at a local McDonald’s with Jose Valverde. A dance-off at the Compas Artistic Center in Southwest Detroit will pit Valverde (presumably not doing his closer dance) against Tigers broadcaster Rod Allen and others (Magglio, perhaps?). Other players will be serving pizza to the homeless as part of the 25th anniversary of the Little Caesars Love Kitchen. Another bus will take players to the Hausbeck Pickle and Peppers plant in Saginaw.
This year’s caravan runs Thursday and Friday, Jan. 20-21, ahead of TigerFest on Jan. 22. With TigerFest sold out, the caravan might be the one way left for local fans without TigerFest tickets to run into their favorite players. Look for more details in a few days. 
There’s also a non-caravan event with Mud Hens Fandemonium on Wednesday, Jan. 19, which will include Jim Leyland and Rick Porcello. Tickets for that event are still on sale at mudhens.com.

Young Leyland among Tigers spring training invites

(UPDATED below)

Patrick Leyland used to spend a few days every year hanging out at Spring Training with the Tigers during spring break from his high school. I still remember his dad, Tigers manager Jim Leyland, working him out after a long March afternoon and working with him on his throws from behind the plate.

Patrick Leyland will be back again next month, but he’ll be in uniform this time. The catching prospect was one of 18 players officially announced as minor-league invites to Spring Training, and he’ll be quite possibly the youngest player in camp.

It’s not an extensive list of invites at this point, and it could soon expand by a name if the Tigers add a starting pitcher. Lefty John Bale and righty Chris Oxspring were confirmed last month, as were Max St. Pierre and Enrique Gonzalez before that. Lefty Adam Wilk goes to camp with the big club after a very good 2010 season at Lakeland and Erie, while Aussie right-hander Brendan Wise gets a long-awaited chance in Major League camp.

Also interesting is that three encouraging outfield prospects will get their taste of Major League camp, including Andy Dirks and 19-year-old Avisail Garcia.

The Tigers always invite a bunch of catchers to camp so that they have enough to catch all the pitchers in camp early on. It’s much more time efficient to do that and run six or seven bullpen sessions at once than to do three or four bullpen sessions at a time and have pitchers waiting around into the early afternoon to throw. Once the first round of camp cuts arrive in mid-March, at least a few catchers usually are re-assigned to minor-league camp, with others joining them soon.

That said, for Leyland to be in camp a year out of high school is pretty nice. And keep in mind, Jim Leyland usually tries to get everybody in camp into a game before they’re sent down, so there’s a very good chance we’ll see Jim Leyland managing his son in a game, possibly for the first time in his life.

Also coming to camp is highly-regarded former college catcher Bryan Holaday.

So is this it for the invites, or are there more to come? The Tigers aren’t ruling out another deal, for what it’s worth. 
They could still sign Brad Penny or somebody else to a guaranteed contract, put that player on the 40-man roster and then add a non-roster invite to whoever they take off the 40-man. But it sure seems to indicate they aren’t going to do something with what’s left on the market just to do something. Not quite sure what it means for Jeremy Bonderman, who would seem ticketed for a non-roster invite than a guaranteed contract at this point in the offseason.

Here’s the full list by position:

Pitchers — John Bale, Enrique Gonzalez, Fu-Te Ni, Chris Oxspring, Adam Wilk, Brendan Wise
Catchers — Rob Brantly, Bryan Holaday, Patrick Leyland, John Murrian, Omir Santos, Max St. Pierre
Infielders — Argenis Diaz, Brandon Douglas, Scott Thorman
Outfielders — Andy Dirks, Avisail Garcia, Ben Guez

Could Freddy return to Detroit? Maybe, but not likely

The Tigers helped get Freddy Garcia back on the mound a few years ago after shoulder surgery, then watched him help thwart their division hopes with the White Sox the following season. Now that Garcia is a free agent again and the Tigers need some starting competition, would a reunion in Detroit be possible, or has he burned his bridges here?

It’s possible, though unlikely at this point. Tigers officials at least pondered the idea this offseason, and Garcia is believed to be open to it. But all indications point towards Brad Penny and Jeremy Bonderman getting more consideration from the Tigers right now as they look for a veteran starter to push Armando Galarraga for the fifth starter spot.

On the list of back-end starting options, the Tigers certainly could do worse.

Garcia went 1-1 with a 4.20 ERA in three starts down the stretch for Detroit in 2008 after missing more than a year rehabbing from labrum surgery. More shoulder trouble in winter ball helped keep the Tigers off him that offseason. He rejoined the White Sox, where he helped win a World Series in 2005, and went 15-10 in Chicago over the last two seasons, but with a 4.56 ERA and 27 home runs allowed over 213 combined innings.

Garcia throws with even less velocity now than he had a few years ago, but he gets more results out of less pure stuff than a lot of pitchers in his situation. As one scout put it, he pitches like he can throw 95 mph. He also has as much experience with AL Central hitters as anyone on the market — 36 plate appearances against Justin Morneau (6-for-29), 35 PAs versus Joe Mauer (13-for-31), 36 with Travis Hafner (15-for-33) and 34 against Jim Thome (5-for-23).

There’s also the 18-7 record he sports against the Tigers, including 2-1 with a 4.39 ERA in five meetings with Detroit last year. His seven innings of one-run ball with seven strikeouts at Detroit on the final Saturday of the 2009 season was a major blow in the Tigers’ division collapse, dropping them into a tie with the Twins.

Dombrowski on starting ranks, late moves

Tigers decision makers were back in the office and back at work Monday following the holiday break. That includes president/general manager Dave Dombrowski, who has been pretty busy the last couple years coming out of the holidays (Jose Valverde and Johnny Damon last year, Brandon Lyon the year before).

If there’s a late offseason surprise to come from the Tigers this time around, though, it probably won’t be a big one. While Dombrowski said they’re still open to moves, he said, he echoed sentiment that they don’t have a glaring need to fill, unlike past offseasons at this point.
That includes the rotation. Again, he didn’t rule out a move, but his comments got a little stronger that they’re prepared to take what they have into spring training.
“We feel our five guys are pretty well set,” Dombrowski said Monday.
That doesn’t mean the rotation is set going into the season. Remember, they were saying they were prepared to go into last season without an established closer before adding Valverde. And at this point last year, they weren’t even showing interest in Johnny Damon.
They’re going to give Andy Oliver a chance to compete in camp and try to take a spot, and the list of non-roster invites they announce in the coming days will probably include pitchers who can start. But any other move is not a given.
Would a free-agent signing like, say, Brad Penny, be defined as a surprise? Good question. For what it’s worth, Dombrowski said any move the Tigers make in any area at this stage of the offseason would most likely be a short-term fix, rather than any big commitment.
“Really, I guess the best way to say it is that we’re open minded,” Dombrowski said. “You always have a feel for where you are [in the market]. It’s not like you stop analyzing just because you’ve signed guys.”