January 2012

Could Tigers still be in on Cespedes?

Might not want to eliminate the Tigers from the Yoenis Cespedes bidding just yet. Jim Bowden of MLB Network Radio writes on Twitter that the Tigers are one of “six clubs that have been the most serious in negotiations with Cespedes’ agents.”

The Marlins, Cubs, White Sox and Orioles are also in the group, Bowden says.

Cespedes officially became a free agent last week around the same time the Tigers came to agreement with Prince Fielder on a nine-year, $214 million contract. The Tigers have been watching and waiting on Cespedes since last fall, but owner Mike Ilitch’s huge commitment to Fielder as a replacement for injured DH Victor Martinez seemingly put their pursuit into serious question.

Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski kept his comments guarded on the matter when the question came up after the Fielder press conference last Thursday at Comerica Park.

“I don’t want to say on that,” Dombrowski said. “Most likely [they're out], but you never can tell.”

The Tigers have been extremely guarded in their comments about Cespedes, which have almost entirely come from up top with Dombrowski. How seriously the Tigers pursue him likely depends on the guy above him, owner Mike Ilitch. After all, it’s his money the Tigers have been spending.

Cespedes is free to talk with teams now that he has established residency in the Dominican Republic. He has still to clear one more hurdle here in the United States, though, before he can sign.

Can the Tigers still fit him into their lineup? Well, if he were to sign with Detroit, they could start him out in the minors while the Tigers lineup gets sorted out, depending on Cabrera at third and Delmon Young in left field or DH. At some point, the Tigers would have some decisions to make, but not necessarily right away.

Two surgeries, same timetable for V-Mart (updated)

Victor Martinez has more damage to his left knee than previously thought, and will end up having two surgeries to repair the damage from his workout accident. But the added procedure shouldn’t affect his timetable for returning next season.

After getting a second opinion from noted specialist Dr. Richard Steadman, Martinez underwent microfracture surgery and meniscus repairs last Friday, and is still awaiting reconstructive surgery on his anterior cruciate ligament. He’s still expected to miss the upcoming season, but he should be ready for Spring Training next year.

It’s worse than the original diagnosis, but it’s not really a surprise. According to multiple sources, it’s also not as bad as it sounds. Essentially, the surgeries will get everything repaired around the same time.

Martinez blew out his left ACL little more than two weeks ago, when his right foot slipped during an agility drill. According to Tigers head athletic trainer Kevin Rand, the impact of the fall also caused damage to his medial and lateral meniscus. He also suffered a chondral defect, which Rand compared to a divot on the end of one of the bones in the joint.

“When he tore his ACL, he had some collateral damage,” Rand said.

That isn’t unusual. Will Carroll, who writes about sports injuries for SI.com, said it’s very rare for ACL injuries to not include other damage. He compared the microfracture surgery to fixing the shocks on a car ahead of the other work.

Dr. Victor Khabie, chief of sports medicine at Northern Westchester Hospital in New York, agreed.

“When you tear your ACL, it’s not uncommon to also tear some meniscus,” Dr. Khabie said in a phone conversation. “What’s a little unusual is the microfracture. That’s not totally unusual. That just signifies a more severe injury than meets the eye. …

“A lot of athletes will get microfractures along with the ACLs. It just doesn’t get the attention.”

If the divot analogy sounds familiar, it’s the same type of injury that former Tiger Carlos Guillen suffered when Brett Gardner slid into his knee in August 2010. That, too, required microfracture surgery, albeit from a different surgeon. The relatively new procedure promotes healing by creating small fractures around the injury, promoting the creation of cartilage to cushion the bone.

Dr. Steadman, an innovator in the procedure, operated on Martinez last Friday at his clinic in Vail, Colo. Once Martinez recovers enough from that surgery, a process that’s expected to take six to eight weeks, he’ll have his ACL rebuilt. By having the microfracture surgery now and waiting on the next surgery, his rehab from the ACL procedure should be easier than if he had both surgeries at the same time.

“Dr. Steadman said you have much better outcomes if you repair the collateral damage first,” Rand said.

Dr. Steadman performed microfracture surgeries in 2010 on Tigers outfielder Clete Thomas and Indians All-Star Grady Sizemore. Thomas came back from midseason surgery to full workouts last Spring Training, while Sizemore’s recovery took about 10 months.

It’s a little less predictable than ACL repairs, but it’s becoming more common.

“In terms of science, it’s a good operation,” Dr. Khabie said. “It’s actually withstood the test of time. It’s one of the first things you think of when you hear about cartilage damage.”

The Tigers were already expecting Martinez to miss the upcoming season, so this doesn’t change anything in their plans. Detroit replaced one star hitter with a bigger one last week by signing All-Star first baseman Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million contract.

Any thought about Martinez catching again, however, is almost surely gone, though it might be physically possible for him to do it. Tigers officials were already planning on Martinez — who turned 33 last month — being a designated hitter for the rest of his contract, which runs through 2014. Detroit signed former Tiger Gerald Laird in November to take over backup catching duties behind All-Star Alex Avila, with whom Laird shared catching duties in 2009 and ’10.

Those plans came together soon after Martinez sprained his knee on a slide at home plate last August at Kansas City. Rand said an MRI exam taken near season’s end showed no structural damage from that injury, so the Tigers don’t believe that injury caused any damage revealed now. When Martinez’s right foot slipped during an agility drill two weeks ago, Rand said, his weight all fell on his left leg before he could brace himself.

“It seems that when these things happen, a lot of times they happen not during play, but during workouts,” Dr. Khabie said. “With these big guys, when their knees go, they just go.”

Victor Martinez has microfracture surgery

As expected, the second opinion on Victor Martinez confirmed a torn anterior cruciate ligament, which will require reconstruction surgery. He also apparently had damage to his medial and lateral meniscus. Martinez underwent microfracture surgery Friday, as performed by Dr. Richard Steadman.

According to a statement from the Tigers, Dr. Steadman is optimistic that Martinez will be ready for ACL surgery in 6-8 weeks. That timetable should pretty well rule him out for this coming season.

Dombrowski rules out Oswalt, rules in Smyly

You might have read on the blog yesterday the quote from Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski saying they’re only likely to go for a non-roster invite if they do add a pitcher to compete for the open rotation. He pretty much repeated that Friday to MLB Network Radio, ruling themselves out of the Roy Oswalt hunt.

“I don’t think we’ll get Roy Oswalt, no,” Dombrowski told host Jim Bowden. “I don’t think that’s a potential. But I do think that we have other guys internally, guys that don’t get much attention at this point, but guys that could fill a fifth starter spot.”

That wasn’t really a surprise, since reportedly Oswalt spurned any interest from the Tigers earlier. CBSSports.com’s Jon Heyman reported late Friday night that the Tigers offered Oswalt a one-year, $10 million contract well before they moved aggressively to sign Prince Fielder. Oswalt rejected the offer, even though it supposedly met the agent’s asking price.

Dombrowski again sounded like someone leaning towards letting his organizational products compete for the fifth spot. He gave an extra plug, however, to left-hander Drew Smyly, who won Tigers minor league pitcher of the year honors in his first pro season.

“He was a second-round pick for us a couple years ago,” Dombrowski said, “and a lot of people think that he’s ready to pitch here right now. We’ll see. He pitched very well last year, and also pitched well internationally this wintertime [at the Pan Am Games]. He was the top pitcher on the team there.”

Dombrowski also mentioned Adam Wilk and Duane Below as options if Jacob Turner doesn’t get the job, which was the question Bowden asked.

“Those are the possibilities,” Dombrowski said, “and I also wouldn’t discount signing someone that is a non-roster invitee and bringing him to camp and seeing if they can challenge for it.

What’s left? Pitching invites, maybe Cespedes?

Here’s the deal: Whatever follows this first paragraph, take it with a grain of salt. As we saw on the Prince Fielder thing, plans change around these parts.

That said, the Tigers don’t sound like they have another major move in store.

Positionally, team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said they’re pretty well set. Yes, there’s still some free agent DH/outfielder types, but if the Tigers added somebody there, they’d essentially be locking themselves into Miguel Cabrera as a third baseman before seeing how he handles the position in spring training.

But there’s a big-name hitter still out there who has been connected with Tigers interest since November. When Dombrowski was asked about Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, he crafted his response to allow some leeway should somebody above his pay grade decide he’s worth pursuing.

“I don’t want to say on that,” Dombrowski said. “Most likely [they're out], but you never can tell.”

Not lately, no.

Their outlook on pitching sounds a little more secure. Though the Tigers reportedly went after Roy Oswalt earlier, Dombrowski gave a pretty strong indication that they’re not looking for that kind of deal anymore. They’re still looking for veteran pitching, but Dombrowski is now downplaying expectations to the level of non-roster invitees. The 40-man roster is full, though they’ll open a spot by Opening Day by placing Victor Martinez on the 60-day disabled list.

Martinez, by the way, was scheduled to have a second opinion on his left knee Thursday afternoon from Dr. Richard Steadman. No news was available as of Thursday night, but the Tigers are expecting to hear he’ll need surgery for a torn ACL.

That would open up a roster spot for a non-roster pitcher who comes to camp. At this point, though, Dombrowski sounds more open than ever to having one of his young pitcher take the fifth starter job, especially if he’s going to get an uptick in run support.

“We’re having some conversations with a few guys,” Dombrowski said. “I don’t know if it’ll happen for not. But I don’t want it sound like we’re signing some guy to a long-term contract, or even in a position to be giving a big one-year deal. We’re talking more [to] bring a guy into camp, and if our youngsters don’t make it, then we can maybe lean on that guy to do it.”

The added run support the Tigers can expect from this offense gives them some leeway.

“You’re trying to win, and I think you can do that,” Dombrowski said. “But we have four veteran starters, a better offense. So it’s conducive to breaking that [young] guy in there if you can. At some point, you’re trying to break young guys in, because you want a guy or two to break in on a yearly basis somewhere. I know people write about payroll and I know we have a high payroll, but even the Yankees try to break young guys in, because you need to have somebody making lesser salaries. … It’s important, and I think it’s a good place to do it for us. But I don’t want to feed somebody to the wolves if they go to spring training and then they don’t look like they can handle it. That’s why you’re trying to protect yourself if you can.”

I said this on twitter earlier, but at this point, I would be surprised if one of the youngsters heading to camp — Duane Below, Jacob Turner, Adam Wilk, Andy Oliver or Drew Smyly — doesn’t win the open rotation spot. There’s more talent in that group than in the lower ranks of the free agency market right now. It’s the experience that’s lacking.

Leyland on Inge: “He’s not the happiest camper”

Four years ago, Miguel Cabrera was a man on the move, and Brandon Inge was man without a position, hoping to find a starting job somewhere. The trade that was expected that winter never happened, and Inge ended up back at third base.

Now, the Tigers and Inge might be back in the same spot.

Because Miguel Cabrera was the only player given a heads-up about the signing, Inge found out about being replaced through the media, not the team. Manager Jim Leyland said he finally talked with Inge Thursday once the signing was official.

“I basically apologized [to him] that this got out on the airwaves obviously prior to us wanting it to,” Leyland said. “I’m sorry he had to hear it other than from the horse’s mouth, but at that particular time, I was not at any liberty to discuss this whatsoever.

“I have talked with Brandon. He’s not the happiest camper. We certainly understand. We try to deal with these issues as we’re supposed to be.”

Leyland suggested there still could be a role for Inge on the team. He had Inge penciled in for some starts at third when Cabrera’s DHing or off. He did not indicate any change of positions for Inge.

Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said he has not talked with Inge yet, or his agents. If Inge wants a trade or release, he hasn’t heard about it. At this point, he isn’t preparing to make a move.

“I can understand he wouldn’t be thrilled,” Dombrowski said, “but I also think at this point, probably the best thing for him to do — he’s not coming off a big year, the market is pretty well set — probably the best thing is to let him come to spring training, let him play well and let’s see what happens. I think he still can play a very important role on our club. Like I said, we’re trying to win.

“I respect his situation. We’ll do what we can. We’ll see what happens, but I think he’s a very important part of our club. He is in good shape, and he’s worked hard, and I think he’s got a chance to put up some nice numbers this year.”

Inge has $6 million in guaranteed money this year — $5.5 million in salary, plus a $500,000 buyout assuming the Tigers don’t pick up his $6 million option for 2013. The Tigers were willing to eat that money last summer when they designated him for assignment for make room for Wilson Betemit. Inge accepted a minor-league assignment after some encouragement from Tigers owner Mike Ilitch.

On the other hand, if Miguel Cabrera’s move to third base doesn’t work out — remember, the Tigers moved him out of third a few weeks into the 2008 season — the Tigers would then need a third baseman. If Inge is gone, the Tigers’ best option at third is Don Kelly. So even if the Tigers could find another team for Inge, or could afford to eat his contract, they have a motivation not to. He’s an insurance policy, or Plan B, or the fallback option, whatever term you want to use.

On a semi-related note, Dombrowski was asked whether Cabrera’s move to third makes top position prospect Nick Castellanos, one of the top third base prospects in the game, expendable? Dombrowski said no.

“We’re in a position where you just take your time with him,” Dombrowski said. “He’s at third base. He’s a tremendous player. He’s going to be a tremendous player. We’re not looking to trade him. He’s just made the [MLB.com] Top 100 players prospectwise along with [Jacob] Turner and [Drew] Smyly.

“So for me, it’s just really a matter of you want to have young players. A guy like Castellanos will be a fine big-league player. He’ll fit in great eventually.”

Getting the picture here?

Leyland strongly defends Cabrera to third

If you haven’t seen it already, we have a good package of stories on the site from the Prince Fielder press conference, including what it means for the batting order, lineup and the Scott Boras legacy in Detroit (more than $400 million in contracts since 2004). But in confirming Miguel Cabrera as not only a third baseman, but the starting third baseman, Jim Leyland took a strong stance on the plan.

“Mr. Ilitch and Dave have given me a lot of nice pieces to this puzzle,” Leyland said. “It’s my job, along with the coaches, to figure out how to put that puzzle together. I don’t think that’s going to be an issue whatsoever. It’s a pretty nice problem to have.

“Miguel Cabrera’s going to play third base. I’ll make that perfectly clear today. Obviously we’re going to start [working] in Spring Training. I feel very comfortable with it. I think that we need to, right from the get-go, shoot straight from the hip: He’s not going to have the agility defensively, most likely, that Brandon Inge had. You give up a little something, but you get a whole lot in return. We’re going back to the old-fashioned baseball. We’ve got big-time power on the corners. … Putting the puzzle together is not going to be a problem. Whenever you have great players, it’s a nice problem to have.”

Leyland added that he has no plans to use a defensive replacement for Cabrera late in games.

“We will monitor that,” Leyland  but as we speak today, I don’t think that you defense for those star players very often.”

The Tigers did a very diligent job of telling as few people as possible about their talks with Fielder, trying to keep their interest as quiet as possible. Cabrera might have been the only player given a heads-up, so that the team could make sure he was on board with moving away from first base. If he wasn’t, Dave Dombrowski said, they probably wouldn’t have pursued the deal.

“He’s 100 percent on board. He feels real good about it,” Leyland said. “He’s going to shed a little bit of weight — I hope not too much. I think a couple years ago he got a little too thin.”

For comparison’s sake, even infield coach Rafael Belliard didn’t know the Tigers were closing in on Fielder and pondering a shift of Cabrera to third.

“I said, ‘What do you think about Miguel playing third base?’ He said, ‘Oh, I think he can play third base,'” Dombrowski said.

“I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Yeah, Miguel told me his goal was to play at 40 games at third base this year.’ And I said, ‘Well, do you think he can do it?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’

“He said, ‘What I have to do is narrow his base a little bit, but his hands are good, his arm is plenty good, his instincts are fine.'”

Dombrowski said he checked with Leyland to make sure he felt the same, and that Jim felt the advantages outweighed the negatives.

The enthusiasm for Cabrera towards playing third base, too, made a difference.

“We talked about Miguel being our third baseman if we played in the World Series last year,” Dombrowski said. “And this past wintertime, Miguel has told me numerous times, ‘I’m going to play third base. I want to play third base.’ Because he likes to play there. So his goal was to play.”

Cabrera already has lost weight this winter, Dombrowski said, as part of an overall goal regardless of where he played. When he weighed in last week, he was lighter than last year, enough so that he shouldn’t have to do a crash-course weight loss plan to get to where he wants to be.

“He’s already lost a lot of the weight that would need to go towards doing it,” Dombrowski said. “Now, he’s a big man. This guy’s big. He’s not going to be 180. But there’s been other big guys that have done it.

“Again, those perfect players don’t exist in too many spots. And so, you give and take on certain things. I think he’ll be fine at third. Do I think he’ll win the Gold Glove? No, but I think he’ll be fine. But when you put his offense there, there’s not many guys that can put up those numbers that he can put up. You start thinking how many clubs in baseball might get 70 home runs, 230 RBIs out of the corners? There’s not many. Maybe he’ll have a couple more errors, but again, the team is not perfect.”

Dombrowski said the move shouldn’t put more responsibility on shortstop Jhonny Peralta to make up for the difference.

“Jhonny can only do what he can,” Dombrowski said. “I mean, Jhonny is a steady shortstop, catches what he gets to, makes the throws. In the ninth inning with one out in a one-run game, you want the ball hit to Jhonny, because you feel real good he’s going to make the play. He doesn’t have the greatest range, but he’s ok. But again, he can hit .280-.300 and hit 15-20 home runs and knock in 70 runs, that’s a pretty good choice overall for you.”

 

Tigers announce Fielder signing, 2pm press conference

Prince Fielder is officially back in town. The Tigers officially announced the nine-year contract Thursday morning and scheduled a press conference for 2 p.m. at Comerica Park, where Fielder will be introduced and don the Old English D for the first time since he was better known as Cecil Fielder’s son two decades ago.

“Prince Fielder is one of the premier offensive players in the game of baseball, and we are extremely excited to add an all-star caliber player like him to our lineup,” team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said in a press release. “The addition of Prince is a testament to the organization’s continued commitment to fielding a championship club.”

Both Fielder and Dombrowski are expected to speak at the press conference, which should provide a little more insight about how the Tigers will fit Fielder and Cabrera into the lineup together. Fielder is expected to become Detroit’s primary first baseman this year, with Cabrera getting time at third base, designated hitter and third.

The press conference will be broadcast live on MLB.com and MLB Network.

Fielder press conference Thursday

The Tigers usually don’t have an in-person press conference to introduce a player unless it’s a big one. They haven’t had one for a new player, in fact, since Dontrelle Willis signed his three-year contract shortly after his trade to Detroit in 2007. Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez weren’t introduced until TigerFest, and Johnny Damon didn’t sign until spring training.

Prince Fielder’s return to Detroit, however, is very big. Thus, the Tigers will introduce their newest slugger to the public in a press conference Thursday, according to AP.

Details of the contract are also coming out in the report — $23 million in each of his first two seasons, followed by a $24 million annual salary for the ensuing seven years. He also has plenty of incentives: $500,000 for AL MVP with $1 million if he’s a repeat winner, $200,000 for second thru fifth place, $100,000 for top 10, $100,000 if he’s an All-Star starter, $50,000 for a reserve spot, and $100,000 each for a Hank Aaron award, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, or Sporting News or Baseball America postseason All-Star honors.

Tigers’ reactions to Prince Fielder signing

Justin Verlander told his followers on Twitter he was playing a bad round of golf when he got the call on Prince Fielder. His game didn’t get much better, but his day did.

“The Prince news turned my day around! Still played bad, but who cares,” Verlander tweeted. “Really excited about 2012, especially with the new addition.”

He wasn’t the only Tiger looking at the 2012 season with a little brighter outlook, once the sense of shock over Fielder’s signing tapered off.

“I had just got done working out, hitting, and a few of my friends texted me,” superutilityman Don Kelly said. “I seriously thought they were joking. I got online and checked it out and it was all over MLB.com and whatever.”

Austin Jackson, who’s now set to be leading off for a more formidable Tigers lineup, had the same reaction when his phone started going off while he was sitting at home. Shock gave way to mere amazement, then gave way to the thought of a lineup with two of the most formidable all-around hitters in baseball.

“It’s crazy to think about him and Cabrera hitting next to each other in the lineup,” Jackson said. ‘You do those type of things on MLB2K or something. You never really see two hitters like that get a chance to hit on the same team.

“It’s going to be a very interesting season. I think everybody’s pumped up to get going.”

The news that the Tigers had signed Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million contract sent shock waves around baseball, but it sent excitement around Detroit. Tigers players were no different. Some likely realized it was a possibility, but most didn’t know at all.

“No,” Kelly said. “I mean, everybody was under the impression that it wasn’t a real good fit from what Prince was looking for and what the Tigers were looking to do. But obviously, it ended up [working out].”

Jackson compared it to a holiday gift.

“To be honest with you, I thought it was a long shot,” he said. “I think myself and a lot of other people were probably putting it on a wish list. You think about things like that. You think about what a guy like him could contribute to this team, but you always think those things are long shots. When it actually happened, it was like, ‘All right, I can see this team is really serious about moving in the right direction.”

Miguel Cabrera, the man Fielder is expected to move out from first base, had an idea it was a possibility. He told Venezuelan reporter Marfa Mata that the Tigers had approached him during last week’s winter caravan to let him know it was a possibility and to see how he felt about it, including the possibility of changing positions.

Not only was Cabrera on board, he was excited.

“Some people forget that this is my [old] position, third base,” Mata quotes Cabrera, translated through Google. “I want a better team.”

So do most of the Tigers, even those whose roles might be impacted. Kelly was looking at a potential platoon role at third base going into the season, the kind of set role he hasn’t had in the big leagues. If Cabrera moves to third, there’s a good chance that changes.

That wasn’t among Kelly’s chief concerns Tuesday night.

“Looking at it, when you have a team and you can add a guy like Prince Fielder to that team, your team’s obviously going to be better,” he said.

Even Tigers who haven’t made it to Detroit yet were looking forward to the possibility. Top pitching prospect Jacob Turner was heading into the season looking to compete for the fifth spot in the Tigers rotation. His run support picture now looks much different. He retweeted the news almost as soon as it hit Twitter.

Fellow Tigers pitching prospect Drew Smyly, who’s expected to compete for the same rotation spot, learned about his new teammate soon afterwards.

“That’s one hell of an offense,” he tweeted.

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