January 18th, 2012

Tigers’ options without Victor Martinez

I wrote all about Victor Martinez’s injury on the site, followed by an article chronicling some of the Tigers’ options on replacing him. But I figured I’d go over some of the options here in a more organized form — because, basically, the options break down into a few categories.

The crazy idea: Sign Prince Fielder (at all costs)

There’s a category for free-agent hitters, and then there’s a category for Fielder all by himself. He’s one of the best hitters in baseball, and he’s the guy who got left stranded without a lifeboat this winter once Albert Pujols signed. After all, there were too many first basemen on the market for this offseason when the big-market teams had their guys already. But other than Pujols, nobody hits like Fielder, a classic power hitter with low strikeout totals and a good average.

By no means would agent Scott Boras wish ill upon Martinez, but for him, Detroit is a blessing. With the market stagnant on Fielder between Washington and Texas, there’s suddenly a team with a desperate need for offense at a position (DH) where Fielder can fit. And no agent uses a team with a desperate need like Boras, who has a talent for negotiating directly with an owner and bypassing the front office. If the Tigers do end up signing Fielder, there’s a good chance it’ll involve Boras negotating straight with Mike Ilitch and appealing to his competitive nature like he did two years ago with Johnny Damon.

But there are a few significant reasons why the Tigers wouldn’t be a fit, no matter how desperate they look. Boras is rumored to be looking for a long-term deal for Fielder, along the lines of Pujols’ 10-year deal, and that’s just not going to come from Detroit. They can’t shuffle guys around to make room for everybody in the lineup once Martinez comes back next season (Dombrowski ruled out any idea of shifting Miguel Cabrera to third base), so any first baseman the Tigers might sign (and there are a slew of them out there) would have to be a short-term deal. Fielder would have to want to sign short-term and bounce back on the market maybe next winter, when the Dodgers might have an owner looking for a franchise player.

Then, of course, there’s the Cecil factor, as mentioned before. The relationship between father and son is not particularly strong after some bad history, and if Prince Fielder were to come to Detroit, it’s hard to imagine the comparisons to Cecil not coming up, whether from media or from fans. I have no information how big of a factor that might be, if at all. But it’s hard to dispute, playing in Detroit would be different than playing somewhere else, or anywhere else.

The less crazy idea: Sign Yoenis Cespedes (at all costs)

By every indication, this was a goal a while ago. Now, Martinez’s injury puts a lot more urgency on it. Even if the five-tool Cuban outfielder isn’t ready to start the season in the big leagues, there’s a good chance he wouldn’t be far off. Whenever Cespedes arrives in the big leagues, Delmon Young can shift to designated hitter, with Cespedes taking over in left field. Simple, right?

Two other factors come into play. First, it’s difficult to envision Cespedes hitting behind Miguel Cabrera in the order. More realistic is the idea of Cespedes batting somewhere else, with a more experienced hitter (maybe Young, despite his free swinging ways) moving behind Cabrera.

Second, of course, is the large list of suitors Cespedes has. The Marlins are widely expected to make a huge push to sign him, lured by the potential of a Cuban star in the South Florida market that could change the course of the franchise. Then suddenly, Cespedes told an AP reporter in the Dominican Republic that the Cubs have shown the most interest. Even if the Tigers want to pay the most money, will it matter?

The rental idea: Sign another free agent to a one-year deal

The one silver lining about Martinez’s injury, as I wrote earlier, is that it leaves an opening at DH, rather than at a specialty position like shortstop or catcher. Even this late in the offseason, the market is full of hitters who can fill the role. They all have flaws, but the vast majority have their strengths as well, experience among them.

Carlos Pena is a pure power option. Casey Kotchman is more of an all-around hitter who had an underrated season in Tampa Bay. Both are left-handed hitters. Vladimir Guerrero has a right-handed bat, but still a quick one with enough to turn on a fastball and send it somewhere for a quality hit. Derrek Lee is another right-handed hitter who got his first everyday job with the Marlins under Dave Dombrowski and Jim Leyland in 1998, and still has some power left. Hideki Matsui is a classic left-handed hitter with a solid track record of run production, even with Oakland’s miserable offense last year. Johnny Damon is another left-handed hitter with a history in Detroit, though not really a fifth hitter. Raul Ibanez has a slowing bat with his 40th birthday coming up in June, but still has left-handed power. J.D. Drew remains a respectable left-handed hitter with power when he’s healthy. Magglio Ordonez is still out there, though he has to convince clubs he’ll be ready for Opening Day. Another former Tiger, Cody Ross, is still available, though he’s coming off a subpar year in San Francisco.

That pretty much covers the list. None of them will come anywhere close to matching the production or intimidation of Martinez, but there are some productive bats in there.

The trade route: Acquire an expensive bat from somebody looking for salary relief

The Astros have Carlos Lee entering the final year of his lucrative deal, and an express desire to shed payroll and quicken the youth movement. The Cubs have a really bad contract with Alfonso Soriano, three more years at $18 million each, and a strong motivation to move him, especially if they sign Yoenis Cespedes. The Angels have more hitters than they have spots, which could make Bobby Abreu expendable with $9 million in his final year. Get the picture?

The Tigers have been mindful of their finances this winter, knowing arbitration raises were going to bump up the payroll before a potential Cespedes pursuit. But assuming insurance covers part of Victor Martinez’s $13 million salary this year, they’ll have the financial wiggle room to pay a replacement — an extra $6.5 million if insurance covers even half of Martinez’s salary.

Carlos Lee, a right-handed hitter, draws positive reviews. One National League scout says he could drive in 100 runs on a good team. Plus, he’ll be in a contract year. He would have to waive his no-trade rights to go anywhere, but some believe he’d do that for a chance to win.

The other trade route: Give up top talent for a good young player

Here’s where the road goes off somewhere, because there aren’t many obvious candidates left. The Angels, again, could have an extra bat, but Kendrys Morales or Mark Trumbo would command a high price, since the Halos are planning on hanging onto them going into camp. Reports suggest the Braves have decided to hang onto Martin Prado, who can play left field or second base. David Wright’s price isn’t getting any lower from the Mets regardless.

Any prospect-type trade would almost surely cost the Tigers at least one of their top pitching prospects, possible Jacob Turner. The problem is that if the Tigers trade Turner, in a way, they swap one void for another. Detroit has other young pitchers, but none as highly regarded as Turner. It would be a major leap of faith that some combination of Duane Below, Adam Wilk, Drew Smyly and/or Andy Oliver could fill the role. Or, it would be a void that the Tigers would have to fill with one of the remaining free-agent starters and hope for the best.

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