December 2012

Sanchez left money on table, and other tidbits

I took a break from my holiday break and made my way to Comerica Park to cover the Anibal Sanchez press conference, the story for which should be up on the site shortly. Agent Gene Mato confirmed it was down to the Tigers and Cubs with dueling offers last Thursday. In the end, Sanchez decided to remain with the Tigers.

“In the end, we were negotiating with both teams,” Mato said. “Fortunately he had a night to sleep on it and he told me he’d make a decision in the morning where he wanted to play. He didn’t want to make a decision based on money. He wanted to make a decision based on where he was going to feel comfortable.”

Here’s an interesting twist, though: When asked if Sanchez left money on the table by accepting the Tigers’ offer, Mato said he did, but not from the Cubs.

“I can say he left money on the table at the Winter Meetings,” Mato said.

That offer came before Zack Greinke signed, a move that supposedly set the market for him. It was from a team other than the Tigers and Cubs, but it was a team where Sanchez didn’t want to play.

“He wasn’t comfortable with that team,” Mato said, “and it wasn’t the Cubs.”

There have been a few major pitching moves to fill starting spots since the Winter Meetings. The Royals traded for James Shields just over a week ago. The Nationals signed Dan Haren before that. The Dodgers, of course, signed Greinke. And now the Blue Jays have traded for R.A. Dickey. The Rangers haven’t done anything on the starting front yet.

For what it’s worth, Mato said the market stayed pretty consistent on Sanchez from the start of the offseason to last week. There wasn’t a whole lot of carryover from the Greinke market.

Other tidbits …

  • Here’s how Dave Dombrowski described the decision the Tigers have to make on their starting rotation, now with six starters for five spots: “We’ll just see what happens here over the next time period. We’re not going to do anything to just do something, but if we can rectify that situation in a good fashion, then that’s something we would contemplate.”
  • Asked how many inquiries they’ve gotten on their pitchers recently, Dombrowski said: “Numerous.”
  • Sanchez’s contract is not backloaded, according to Mato.
  • Dombrowski tried to put to bed the Stephen Drew speculation now that Drew has signed with the Red Sox. Dombrowski said Drew’s name came up in conversation with his agent, Scott Boras, over other players Boras represents. “We never pursued trying to sign Stephen Drew,” Dombrowski said.
  • Dombrowski was about as definitive as he has been about their shortstop situation, interrupting the follow-up question about Peralta about midway through. “Peralta is our shortstop,” Dombrowski said. That’s a slight shift from the Winter Meetings, when Dombrowski said repeatedly, “We’re happy with Peralta.”
  • Asked what’s left to do this offseason, Dombrowski mentioned the right-handed hitting outfield bat, but downplayed anything big coming. “I don’t think we’re going to do anything of major consequence from a dollar perspective,” he said.
  • Dombrowski declined to say whether long-term contracts for Justin Verlander and/or Max Scherzer would be the next priorities to address.
  • Dombrowski said of his bullpen, “We’re content. We like our bullpen where it sits.”

Tigers sign Brayan Pena to be backup catcher (updated)

You had a feeling the Tigers were going to try a veteran backup catcher capable of catching a fair number of games and holding his own, offensively and defensively. Detroit has found its guy, agreeing to terms with switch-hitter Brayan Pena on a one-year Major League contract.

UPDATE: Pena will make $875,000, the same salary he made with the Royals this past season.

Like Dane Sardinha years ago, Pena was once a catching prospect, having come up through the Braves system with a decent bat but little pop. He didn’t find a home in the big leagues until he landed in Kansas City, where he spent four years alternating between a platoon catcher and a backup. He batted .251 over 757 at-bats in his Royals tenure, hitting 12 home runs with 86 RBIs.

Team president/GM Dave Dombrowski’s comments in the press release announcing the deal strongly indicate the backup job is his.

“We are pleased to add an experienced catcher like Brayan Pena to our club,” Dombrowski said in the statement. “As a switch-hitter, he will serve as a solid complement to Alex Avila as our back-up catcher for the 2013 season.”

That would put Bryan Holaday back at Triple-A Toledo for another year of seasoning, making him the insurance option in case Avila or Pena get hurt.

The Tigers had a bind in finding a backup catcher. They weren’t going to come close to matching the two-year deal Gerald Laird received from the Braves, and they knew it far enough out that they said they probably wouldn’t be able to re-sign him. On a team with big time spending at so many other positions, backup catcher is one spot where they try to make up for it.

At the same time, the Tigers have to watch the wear and tear on starting catcher Alex Avila. He was pretty much an everyday catcher for the first half of the season before patellar tendintis forced the Tigers to temper his playing time. By the stretch run, Avila and Laird were just shy of a platoon situation, with Laird garnering most starts against left-handed pitchers.

Pena’s career numbers are a bit stronger against right-handers, but he can hold his own for average against lefties. One AL scout said Monday night to throw out this year’s numbers from Pena due to overuse after injuries put the Royals in a catching bind. In a perfect world, the scout said, Pena is a two-day-a-week catcher.

To make room for Pena on the 40-man roster, the Tigers designated Matt Hoffman’s contract for assignment on Monday, less than a year after Hoffman went to Spring Training with some promise as a lefty reliever in the making. He went 1-2 with a 3.69 ERA at Triple-A Toledo this season, allowing 55 hits over 46 1/3 innings with 16 walks and 32 strikeouts, then pitched in 13 games in the Arizona Fall League with mixed results. There was some buzz over the weekend that the Tigers were trying to trade Hoffman to open a roster spot.

What Greinke deal means for Sanchez, Verlander

Now this offseason market gets real for the Tigers.

I’m off for vacation heading into the holidays, so I won’t be writing about it much the next couple weeks, but I thought it was worth a blog post to set the scene. Because now that Zack Greinke has his deal — reportedly six years and $147 million from the Dodgers — the pitching market is set for others to follow. That includes Anibal Sanchez, regarded by many as the next-best free-agent starter on the market.

For the Tigers’ purposes, that also means Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, both two years away from free agency (when most teams try to lock up the starting pitchers they covet while security is still a big deal for them).

The belief going into the Winter Meetings was that a Greinke deal with the Dodgers would be good for the Tigers, because it would take this offseason’s biggest spenders out of the market for Sanchez. None of the other potential suitors have the financial might that the Dodgers do with new local television money coming.

Well, Greinke is a Dodger, but it’s no longer a certainty that Los Angeles will stop there. Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reports that the Dodgers have interest in both Sanchez and fellow free agent Kyle Lohse. Whether that interest has a financial limit remains to be seen; the Dodgers payroll is picking up speed towards $200 million. But if they’re interested, they’re going to be a major factor that might force the Tigers to make a very difficult decision.

So, too, could the Rangers, if they want to make a pitch for Sanchez after losing out on Greinke. So, too, could a couple other teams. Maybe the Angels, still with room for a starter, try to answer their neighbors’ news. Maybe the Royals, who have made pitching their top priority this winter, could make a run after all. Maybe the Red Sox try to bring back their former prospect. Maybe a contending team in need of a starter has been quietly waiting for the Sanchez bidding to pick up so it can make a move.

Greinke’s contract didn’t get into the $160+ million territory that had been rumored, but it’ll still rank as the highest average annual salary for a right-handed pitcher (CC Sabathia still holds the overall pitching mark at just under $25 million). Sanchez isn’t in that class, but Greinke’s contract will still have a major impact. Sanchez is just four months younger than Greinke, but he has more than 600 fewer Major League innings of wear and tear. He isn’t nearly as proven, but he also isn’t as taxed.

One talent evaluator observing the Sanchez situation at the Winter Meetings said he doesn’t believe Sanchez will get as much money as many might expects. He might get the years, but not the money. That’s all relative, of course, but it’ll be interesting to watch.

But you know who is easily in Greinke’s class, even above it? Justin Verlander. He’s eight months older, and he has more innings, but he has a lot more accomplished on his resume as well. If Greinke is worth just under $25 million, what could Verlander get on the market in two years, still in his early 30s?

It’s the Tigers’ goal to make sure it never gets to that point. It won’t be cheap, but Verlander’s a superstar, and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch loves having superstar players. If it’s going to happen, this is the offseason to do it. But Greinke’s contract shifts the market a little bit, both in money and in years.

Scherzer, too, is two years out from the open market. He doesn’t have nearly the resume, but he’s coming off the best season of his career (though 2010 is close on the secondary numbers). He also has Scott Boras, an agent who eschews long-term contracts before a pitcher hits the open market. If the Tigers are going to make Scherzer a Tiger for years to come, it is not going to be easy. What Greinke’s deal does for Scherzer is show that you don’t have to be a true ace to get a big-time contract. That, too, is dangerous for the Tigers.

TigerFest is back Jan. 26 at Comerica Park

TigerFest is back after a one-year hiatus. The annual winter warmup event that gets Detroit looking forward to baseball season, which was tabled last year due to stadium renovations, will take place on Jan. 26, 2013 from 11am-5pm at Comerica Park.

The Tigers officially announced the return on Saturday morning. While a list of every player scheduled to attend doesn’t come until January, the press release put out Saturday includes Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder and Torii Hunter.

The setup is much the same as before: Lots of opportunities for autographs (including a kids-only line), photos with players, home clubhouse and other tours, seminars and interviews, and ice sculptures. In addition, the Tigers are giving away a Miguel Cabrera Triple Crown pennant to every fan as they make their way through the entrance gate.

If you’ve been to TigerFest before, you know the deal on the weather. Most of the attractions will either be indoors or will be heated and covered, but with passageways in between and some of the events quite popular, it’s best to dress for January in Detroit.

Tickets are $25 for adults and $12 for kids age 12 and under, and go on sale next Friday at 10am online at tigers.com/tigerfest and by phone at 866-66-TIGER.

Dombrowski: “Scott Boras, he’s entitled to his opinion”

The Rule 5 Draft was the unexpected news of the day for the Tigers as they prepared to head out of Nashville, and it overshadowed any reaction from club officials to agent Scott Boras’ remarks from Wednesday on their closer situation and Boras’ client, Rafael Soriano. (Here’s the link if you missed the remarks, or you can just page down.)

It was still worth giving Dave Dombrowski a chance to react. Not surprisingly, he had read Boras’ quotes, including the philosophical cliff of teams knowing what to expect with minor league players call-ups. Though Boras said the Tigers still had decisions to make on their club, Dombrowski indicated they had already decided what they’re doing.

“He’s entitled to his opinion, as everybody else is,” Dombrowski said, “but it’s one of those things where we like our situation. That’s what it comes down to. I can’t really say much more that I haven’t said about the Rondon thing to you guys. We feel comfortable with that and with the other arms we have in our bullpen.”

Dombrowski also read Boras’ remarks on the rarity of young relievers coming up and saving 30 games, and disagreed with the contention.

“There are guys,” Dombrowski said. “The last few years, you had [Andrew] Bailey, you had [Neftali] Feliz, you had [Craig] Kimbrel. The reality is, it can be done. I’m not saying [it will], but if you’re talented in this game and you have the right mental approach, you can accomplished. Again, we’re not anointing people, but this guy, he’s a good pitcher. We like him.”

In terms of young players getting a shot, Dombrowski contended, it has to be done — not necessarily at closer, but somewhere.

“The one thing that I keep saying, because I think it’s important: You’ve got to get some young blood with your club,” Dombrowski said. “Now, when I say that, you don’t want to put young blood in that you don’t think can help you. But you want to put talented young blood into your club. And unless you give them an opportunity, you’ll never get guys up there.

“People forget in 2006, we had a couple guys by the names of Verlander and Zumaya that played pretty important roles, and Granderson came in too. Well, they did all right. This guy’s that type of talent.”

Dombrowski said he’s ready for the second-guessing that will come, not necessary from Boras but from many circles.

“No matter who we have as a closer this year, the one thing is that they will blow a game,” Dombrowski said. “And at that time, when they blow a save, somebody will say, ‘They should’ve had such-and-such.’ If you’ve got a veteran guy, they say, ‘Well, why didn’t they give the young guy a chance?’ If it’s a young guy, they say, ‘Why didn’t they give the veteran guy a chance?’ That kind of comes with the territory, but that’s OK. That’s the way it is, and we feel comfortable where we are at this point.”

Tigers acquire speedy second baseman, lefty pitcher in Rule 5 Draft

For the first time since 2008, the Tigers have selected a player in the Rule 5 Draft. For the first time since 2004, they have two. For a contending team, it’s rare.

The Tigers are getting Jeff Kobernus, a speedy second baseman out of the Nationals farm system. The Red Sox selected him in the Rule 5 Draft, then traded him to Detroit for Triple-A Toledo utilityman Justin Henry. They’re also getting left-hander Kyle Lobstein from the Rays system through a trade with the Mets, who selected them and then dealt him to Detroit for cash considerations.

Both are former second round picks, and both are guys Dave Dombrowski said they targeted going in.

You might remember the Rule 5 as a way the Tigers added prospects when Dave Dombrowski was trying to rebuild the organization years ago. They carried three Rule 5 pitchers in 2003 with Wil Ledezma, Matt Roney and Chris Spurling. In those cases, the Tigers saw upside in the future. In this case, both Kobernus and Lobstein are guys the Tigers feel can help them right now.

The 24-year-old Kobernus hit .282 with a home run, 19 RBIs and 42 stolen bases in 53 attempts over 82 games at Double-A Harrisburg. He has 120 steals in 149 attempts over 290 career games. He has played almost entirely second base in his career, but the Tigers see him as a potential utility guy.

“We not only like his ability to play second, but we think that perhaps — and he hasn’t really done much of it — he could have some versatility where we might be able to move him to the outfield and get some playing time there,” Dombrowski said.

He has played very little shortstop, but he’s not an answer to the Tigers’ potential moves there.

“We didn’t really take him because we think he’s going to play shortstop,” assistant general manager Al Avila said. “We took him because he can play second, we feel he can play some outfield and he’s a pretty decent hitter. If he plays shortstop, that’s kind of icing on the cake for us.”

The 23-year-old Lobstein went 8-7 with a 4.06 ERA over 27 starts at Double-A Montgomery, striking out 129 batters over 144 innings. It’s a pretty good snapshot of his pro career over the last four seasons, but the Tigers like the stuff.

“He’s more of an average fastball guy, good breaking ball and a changeup,” Dombrowski said. “We just like him as an overall pitcher. We look at him as a guy that might be able to come in as a starter and compete, but of course we don’t look at him as ahead of the other guys. He’s a guy that would be protection and maybe a second lefty, because we do like him in that regard.”

Boras: Rookie closers a “philosophical cliff” (updated with stats)

While Tigers officials were meeting with the beat writers this afternoon, Scott Boras held his annual Winter Meetings gathering with media members this afternoon at the opposite end of the Opryland Hotel. The location differences might have been fitting.

Boras was asked about the market for top closer Rafael Soriano. He didn’t mention Bruce Rondon by name, but in talking about young closers in general, it wasn’t difficult to make the connection. Thanks to MLB.com’s Matthew Leach for the transcription:

“It’s a philosophical cliff in baseball that you can bring Minor League talent to the big leagues and know what you’ve got,” Boras said. “The evidence says that there are many young players in our game that are 20, 21 that can hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs and they’re extraordinary talents. Or win 15 games. But there’s never been closers that can come in and get 30 saves. I think you count on one hand the number of closers under the age of 23 that have ever gone to the big leagues and at a young age put together 30 saves, let alone pitch in the postseason and be effective.

“Last year there were three or four teams that, if they had a 90 percent save opportunity ratio out of their bullpens, they would have been in the playoffs, and they weren’t: The White Sox, the Brewers, the Angels. So it really is a position in my mind that few men can do. I think there’s only been 13 men in modern times, in baseball history, that have had 40 saves and an above 90 percent save opportunity ratio twice. It’s a very hard thing to do and a very valued commodity. As time spins it out, I think teams have to evaluate.”

When asked if he was then disappointed in the Tigers’ position about Soriano, Boras said, “I think the Tigers’ position is one where they’re trying to put together their best team and they haven’t made those decisions yet.”

Just for the heck of it, I looked up the numbers on baseball-reference.com. Ten pitchers in history have recorded 30 or more saves in their age 23 season or earlier, half of them since 2010. Just three have done it in their first full big-league seasons, but all of them have done it recently: Neftali Feliz (40 saves) in 2010, and Craig Kimbrel (46) and Jordan Walden (32) in 2011.

Tigers trade Oliver to Pirates for Ramon Cabrera

For the second straight Winter Meetings in Nashville, the Tigers have traded for a Cabrera. This time, it’s a minor-league catcher named Ramon Cabrera in a 1-for-1 swap with the Pirates that sends former Detroit starter Andy Oliver to Pittsburgh.

The deal, the Tigers’ first of these Winter Meetings, ends Oliver’s roller-coaster Tiger tenure. It began with a promising first season that saw him spend a month in Detroit’s rotation in his first year as a pro, and ended with Oliver relegated to the bullpen at Triple-A Toledo at the close of last season.

In between, Oliver showed a power arm for a left-hander, but struggled to harness it into consistent command.

“We couldn’t get him to throw strikes on a consistent basis,” team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. “And if he does, with his arm, he has a chance to be a very fine pitcher.”

Oliver went 0-5 with a 7.11 ERA in seven starts for the Tigers in 2010 and 2011. He had solid numbers at Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo in 2010, but went 13-22 with a 4.79 ERA over the next two years as a Mud Hen, walking 168 batters over 265 innings with 255 strikeouts.

And yet, with his talent, he put himself in a solid position to compete for the Tigers’ open rotation spot last spring with an impressive opening stretch of camp. That bid fell apart in the second half of camp as his walk total rose, landing him back at Toledo for a third season.

“We thought that perhaps a change of scenery would not be a bad thing,” Dombrowski said.

Oliver would have come to camp to compete for a bullpen spot had he stuck with the club. He’ll go to Spring Training with the Pirates to compete for a starting job.

“He seems capable of doing a lot of roles for us,” Pirates general manager Neil Huntington said. “We like the arm, like the fastball, the breaking ball, like how he does things. And as tough as is to give up young switch-hitting catcher that we like, a lot, we felt Andrew was a good addition to our club.”

The 23-year-old Cabrera was a Florida State League batting champion at Class A Bradenton in 2011 before batting .276 with three home runs and 50 RBIs between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis this past season. The 5-foot-8, 195-pounder owns a .292 batting average in his five-year minor league career, but just a .400 slugging percentage.

Lamont: Bench coach move was mutual decision

Gene Lamont has been a third-base coach for close to two decades in baseball. He couldn’t do it anymore, because the condition of his knees wouldn’t allow it.

Lamont told MLB.com in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon that he went to manager Jim Leyland in August and said he’d welcome a move to bench coach. After getting hit by a foul ball during the season and having several other close calls, he wasn’t sure he had the reactions he needed to dodge them anymore.

“I can’t get out of the way as soon as I could [before],” Lamont said. “I got a knot in my left knee. I just can’t move as well.”

Leyland and the club agreed and made the move after the season. The Tigers announced the move on Tuesday, including Tom Brookens’ move to third base coach and Rafael Belliard’s shift to coach at first base.

Lamont, a former catcher who came up through the Tigers organization after being the Tigers’ first draft pick in 1965, has a history of knee issues. Those concerns, plus his age, have limited his mobility.

“I did it for a long time, 18, 19 years,” he said.

Leyland referenced the knee issues when he talked again about the move with reporters Wednesday afternoon, this time with the national media.

“To be honest with you, he’s had a knee operation before,” Leyland said. “Sometimes it flares up on him a little bit. We just thought we’d take a little stress off that. He’s a great baseball mind.  He’ll be really good for me as well on the bench.

“Brookens [is] a little bit younger.  Put him over at third, make him a little more active.  Gene’s knee gets a little sore.  It bothers him sometimes.  He puts pads on them every night.  So it’s getting where they bone on bone a little bit, and it’s a little bit tough for him.”

 

Winter Meetings: Anything going on shortstop front?

Remember when the Tigers came to Nashville looking for a shortstop? It’s still on their list, but right now, it doesn’t sound like there’s much going.

The word around the lobby here at the Gaylord Opryland hotel is that Stephen Drew is going for at least a two-year deal, and the Tigers are looking short term. Given the state of the shortstop market (there is none), the alternative would probably have to be a trade. Cleveland seems more likely to deal Asdrubal Cabrera out of the AL Central, possibly in a reported three- or four-team trade that would include Arizona, than do something with a team the Indians are trying to beat in the division. As appealing as Dodgers speedster Dee Gordon might be, it’s difficult to see the Tigers giving up the kind of prospect package the Dodgers supposedly want for him, especially when he’s not a proven commodity yet.

If Asdrubal Cabrera does go to Arizona, it would be interesting to see how that might affect the Tigers’ plans, not just from the Cabrera trade. Through all the rumors about the Tigers looking at alternatives to Peralta at shortstop, one assumption has been that the Diamondbacks would be a potential destination for Peralta if it got to that point. Take Arizona off the list, and then you’re generally looking at teams seeking something other than everyday shortstops.

At this point, the Tigers might have a better chance of trading a shortstop by the time they leave town than adding one. Detroit has been checking with teams about Ramon Santiago and finding some potential interest, depending on how much money the Tigers would be willing to pick up. The Tigers have also checked around on Brennan Boesch, and a CBSSports.com report yesterday suggests the Mariners could be interested.

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