November 27th, 2012

Is Soriano the next Johnny Damon saga? (Updated)

Does this sound like a familiar scenario: The Tigers say they’re set at a particular position, one where prominent agent Scott Boras has a well-known free agent looking for a market. Boras bypasses team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski and talks with owner Mike Ilitch. The Tigers abruptly change course and get involved.

It happened three winters ago with Johnny Damon. Could it be happening right now with Rafael Soriano? With Tuesday’s report from MLB Network’s Peter Gammons that Boras talked with Ilitch about Soriano on Monday, you have to wonder.

[UPDATE: Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski does not talk about specific free agents. However, he affirmed his team’s stance in response to a question Tuesday afternoon. They still plan to give hard-throwing rookie Bruce Rondon a chance to win the closer’s job, and it would have to be the right scenario for the Tigers to add a closer.

“Our outlook has not changed,” Dombrowski replied in an email.]

The fact that both Ryan Madson and Jonathan Broxton — two big names on the secondary segment of the market — are reportedly close to deals with other clubs back up the Tigers’ stance that they’re not going to pay big for a closer.

Neither Broxton nor Madson have the resume or the arsenal of Soriano, who has topped 40 saves twice in the last three seasons and might have done the same in 2011 if he wasn’t a setup man in New York. With Joakim Soria coming off surgery and likely not back until midseason, Soriano is the sure thing among free-agent closers.

That makes it curious that there is so little buzz about Soriano on the market. Simply put, the appetite for gigantic closers seems tempered. It happened three years ago with Jose Valverde, who was the last closer left on the market when the Tigers swooped in and signed him for better terms than anybody expected.

Valverde wasn’t a Boras client then. He is now, but Valverde’s departure from the Tigers is certain. And clearly, Boras has another client in mind for Detroit.

All along, the expectation was that Boras would try to get the Tigers — and especially Ilitch — involved on Soriano. The question has always been whether Ilitch would listen. Bill Madden of the New York Daily News reported a couple weeks ago that it already happened, and that Ilitch said no. Others have reported that it hadn’t happened yet but they expected it to come. ESPN’s Buster Olney cited executives from other teams expecting it to happen. Now comes Gammons’ report, and you can’t help but think back to Ilitch’s quote from the Prince Fielder press conference last winter:

“As far as Scott Boras, boy, I’ll tell you something: He knows this team better than I do,” Ilitch said at that press conference. “I mean, he knows every player, what their averages are, where they’re from, what they’ve done during their career, who leads the team, what areas are necessary. He just knows everything about the Detroit Tigers. I was flabbergasted. I mean, utility players, everybody, we went through a big discussion and pointed out to me that some of the things that he thought were necessary to win a World Series. He explained why and so on and so forth. There was great salesmanship involved with that, but the guy is an encyclopedia when it comes to knowing the teams and knowing the people that are associated with the organization.

“I got a lot of good information from him. I put the sales aside and I listened to the common-sense approach that he has and the knowledge he has about the game.”

That doesn’t mean Soriano will get the kind of massive deal that he wants, one that torpedoes the Tigers’ long-term plans for Rondon. Time will tell if there’s a compromise to be found somewhere in there. And if it turns out anything like the Johnny Damon saga (six weeks to work out a one-year contract), it won’t be quick.