November 2013

About that Robinson Cano rumor

The rumor began circulating on Twitter Thursday evening from someone who cited his brother who was an air traffic controller that Robinson Cano and his well-known agent, Jay-Z, had just landed in Canton.

By Friday morning, the rumor had been circulated enough that fans were tweeting he was still in town meeting with Tigers personnel.

By Friday evening, the buzz drew a speculative report in the Detroit News, centering around a charter jet owned by a private aircraft rental service that had taken off from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey and landed at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti Friday morning, just after 8:30. The flight stuck around until 2pm, when it took off back for Teterboro. Because it’s a private jet, there was no identifying who was on the flight, which keeps the intrigue going.

By late Friday night, it drew a question and response from Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski, who has a policy of not talking about specific free agents from other teams but told MLive.com, “We plan on having Ian Kinsler as our second baseman next year.”

It became quite a rumor, but there are some serious holes.

First, the rumor originated Thursday evening with the talk of Jay-Z and Cano landing in the area. Jay-Z was spotted shortly after that … in Oklahoma City. He was with his wife, Beyonce, courtside for the Clippers-Thunder game to watch his top sports client, Kevin Durant. Here’s Jay-Z at the game celebrating a fan hitting a half-court shot.

Second, I checked with a source late Friday morning when the rumors were building, and it was business as usual at Tigers offices. If Cano was in Detroit, the answer went, he wasn’t with them. It doesn’t mean Cano couldn’t have arrived after that for a quick meeting on short or no notice, but that seems like a lot for an early-morning charter jet to a city for spontaneous talks. And if he was on that aforementioned jet at Willow Run, which took off for Teterboro just after 2pm, it would have made for a real quick trip. The airport is about 10 miles further west of Detroit than Metro Airport.

But there’s a third, more fundamental problem here: For Robinson Cano, a secret visit makes no sense.

By all accounts, Cano is looking for a standard-setting contract as the top free agent on the market, but the question — especially in New York — is whether there’s enough of a market to drive up the price. If Cano is getting on a plane and visiting a team, what’s the point of keeping it a secret? It serves his purposes more to get it out as much as possible, especially in New York media. When Jay-Z and agent Brodie Van Wagenen had dinner with the Mets earlier in the week, it was reported all over, with Mets personnel even commenting on it. Even if nobody wants to comment, a public sighting somewhere in town — eating lunch, getting into a car, getting off of a charter jet at Metro, anything — serves the purpose. A leak in New York does the same. A secondhand tweet does not.

There are free agents who have pulled this off to their advantage. Carl Pavano flew to Detroit to visit the Tigers when he was a free agent after the 2004 season, and his agent, Scott Shapiro, made it part of a multi-city tour to visit several teams.

Bottom line, it was a rumor that made for a fun Friday, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Fielder on trade: I thought it would be good for everybody

Prince Fielder talked with Dallas media tonight on a conference call, where he was asked why he accepted the trade that sent him out of Detroit and to the Rangers. His response sounded like somebody who was ready for a fresh start.

“Obviously it’s another great team,” Fielder said. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Obviously I thought it would be good for everybody. I want everybody to be happy.”

Fielder did not express hard feelings toward Detroit.

“I understand baseball is a business,” Fielder said. “It was all good. We didn’t win the World Series…it happens. It was good. I enjoyed it. I’ll miss the fans and miss my teammates but I’m happy to start new in Texas.”

On this past season and what happened, Fielder said, “Whatever I did last year, I’ll do the opposite this year. It was cool. The season went fine. It is what it is. You can’t take it back. We went to the playoffs. We didn’t go as far as we wanted to go but everybody is still alive.”

Tigers, Rangers complete Fielder-Kinsler deal

The Tigers went into the offseason needing to solve second base for 2014, but needing to solve payroll concerns for well beyond that. They’re solving both needs in one incredibly big, yet beautifully simple move.

It’s a 1-for-1 deal, but with Prince Fielder and Ian Kinsler, the Tigers and Rangers pulled off a blockbuster that changes the course of both teams for years to come.

Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com and MLB Network first reported the talks Thursday evening, followed by an agreement soon after. Considering how swiftly the Tigers’ free-agent contract with Fielder came together, maybe it’s fitting. News of the trade even caught Tigers players off-guard.

“Wow!!! Big news,” Justin Verlander tweeted Thursday night. “We traded Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler.”

The Tigers will send $30 million to Texas, according to a source, to help bridge the gap in money remaining on the two contracts. Fielder has seven years left at $24 million each on the mega-contract he signed in January 2012, barely a week after Victor Martinez’s catastrophic knee injury left Detroit in desperate need of offense and left owner Mike Ilitch aggressively looking to fill Martinez’s void. Kinsler, by contrast, has five years and $69 million total left on his deal if his $12 million club option for 2018 is included.

After all this, the biggest task will be the Tigers re-adjusting the rest of their roster in turn. It’ll lose a huge power presence in the cleanup spot, but recover the kind of financial flexibility that will put the Tigers back in control of their long-term destiny.

The Tigers had a dream offensive lineup in 2013 with Fielder at first base, Miguel Cabrera at third and Victor Martinez as the designated hitter. But while the offense put up mighty numbers over the course of the season, the game-to-game results weren’t consistent. That inconsistency came back to bite them in the postseason, when a series of low-scoring duels put pressure on Detroit’s vaunted rotation and not-so-solid bullpen to hold slim leads.

Fielder, fairly or otherwise, became the flashpoint for that. For most players, his .279 average, 25 home runs and 106 RBIs would’ve been a good season. After a .313 average, 30-homer debut season in Detroit, however, a 121-point drop in OPS stood out. His deep struggles in the postseason, followed by his comments after the dramatic ALCS Game 6 loss that eliminated them from the postseason,

The biggest pressures on the Tigers, however, were the financial stats. With Fielder’s contract, Justin Verlander’s recently-signed deal, Max Scherzer and Victor Martinez a year away from free agency and two-time AL MVP Miguel Cabrera among a handful of prominent Tigers up for free agency in two years, Detroit’s long-term payroll looked like an unsolvable puzzle.

Trading Fielder, even with the offensive gap it creates, became the solution, which is surely why talks came together quickly.

With first base open, the Tigers have the option of moving Cabrera back to first, where he played his first four seasons in Detroit before Fielder’s arrival, or moving Martinez out from designated hitter. Top prospect Nick Castellanos, who was slated to compete for a spot in left field, is an option to move back to his original position at third. Or the Tigers could

The payroll, meanwhile, now has a lot more flexibility to consider contract extensions for Cabrera and Scherzer. Detroit could save as much as $8 million in each of the next two seasons, and more after that, depending on how the money is spread out.

Kinsler has been a mainstay at second base in Texas, and at age 31 should remain so. With the Rangers enjoying an embarrassment of riches in young infielders, however, Kinsler was expendable. And with the Rangers desperately looking for offense, by all accounts, Fielder was an attractive bat.

The Rangers were an option for Fielder as a free agent two years ago, and carried the bonus of no state income tax. Now, the prospect of Fielder regaining his power bat in a much more power-friendly park looms for American League opponents.

Tigers add seven to 40-man roster

The Tigers used their open roster to add seven minor leaguers and protect them from next month’s Rule 5 draft. Futures Game rep and Triple-A all-star Jordan Lennerton is on the list, as is right-hander pitcher September signing Justin Miller. So are Toledo left-hander Kyle Lobstein (a Rule 5 Draft pick last year), Double-A Erie outfielder Daniel Fields and shortstop Eugenio Suarez, Class A Lakeland outfielder Steven Moya and Lakeland closer Jose Valdez.

No moves were made to take anybody off the 40-man roster, so it stands at 39 players. They left a spot open to add another player if something comes together in the coming days (an addition of a closer, perhaps?), but they’ll have to designate or release somebody if they add any more than that. The question over arbitration-eligible players, meanwhile, now shifts to the non-tender date two weeks from now.

Lennerton and Miller were kind of mysteries going in. Though Lennerton is an older player (he’ll turn 28 in February), he’s coming off an all-star season that drew notice. Because he’s a first baseman, he doesn’t have a role in Detroit unless somebody gets hurt, but he also isn’t easy to replace if another team were to take him in the Rule 5. And by the sounds of it, that was a strong possibility. The Tigers had talked about him enough in potential trade discussions that the chance to snag him for $50,000 might have been too tempting.

“I think they candidly gauged enough legitimate interest to put him on,” one AL talent evaluator said of Lennerton.

Miller is an interesting case. The Tigers signed him in September after the Rangers had released him coming off a season shortened by recovery from 2012 Tommy John surgery. His last full, healthy season was 2011, but it was outstanding, with a 9-1 record, 1.81 ERA and 13 saves at Double-A Frisco.

It would seem that the odds of a team using a Rule 5 pick on a pitcher who has pitched just 27 innings the past two years would be long. But teams are interested to take a chance on pitchers in that type of situation. The Tigers got Wil Ledezma a decade ago coming off an injury history in the minors.

Projecting the Tigers 40-man roster

I wrote a piece on the site tonight about the decisions looming tomorrow for the Tigers 40-man roster. Any minor-leaguers who are eligible for the Rule 5 Draft have to be added to the roster by tomorrow night (midnight ET) to be protected. And as I wrote on the site, while there aren’t highly-touted prospects to add, there are some key decisions to make:

  1. How good are the prospects they have left at the upper levels who aren’t yet on the 40-man roster?
  2. Just how much do they value their insurance options at the upper levels?

On the first question, the Tigers value what they have, more for potential than what they’ve done in the minors already. While Daniel Fields just started putting up strong offensive numbers this year, batting .284 with a .791 OPS at Double-A Erie, he’s still relatively young with room for growth and enough potential that I’d expect the Tigers to protect him rather than risk losing them. He’s coming off a wrist injury that cut short any plans for fall or winter ball, but should be ready for the start of Spring Training. Potential rules, too, for raw but talented Steven Moya and A-ball level pitcher Endrys Briceno, and probably shortstop Eugenio Suarez.

On the second question, the problem for the Tigers is that it hasn’t been easy for them to fill gaps with minor-league free agents the past couple years. Four-A players tend to want to go someplace where they can compete for a big league job, not sit at Triple-A and wait for an injury. The Tigers have gotten some value out of minor-league free agents, Matt Tuiasosopo and Jose Alvarez being good examples, but they’ve also missed on others.

That’s where the question gets complicated for guys like Kyle Lobstein, Jordan Lennerton and Blaine Hardy. None are top 20 prospects, but all have a path to Detroit next season if there’s an injury at the big league level.

I would be very surprised if Kyle Lobstein isn’t protected after the Tigers traded Curt Casali to get his full rights last spring, especially at age 24. I think there’s a case to be made for Lennerton and Hardy, both of them older but both of them potential Rule 5 Draft bait for a team looking for cheap talent. That doesn’t mean either will be protected, but there are points for it.

The Tigers don’t have a similar type prospect to Lennerton ready for the upper levels. Maybe Aaron Westlake gets there, but it won’t be immediate. That said, the Tigers tried to market Lennerton as a prospect in trade talks with teams this year and didn’t find much interest. The interest might, however, be different as a Rule 5 pick.

As for the fate of the current roster, it would be a surprise if the Tigers sent off any arbitration-eligible players at this point. When the Tigers released Ryan Raburn at the deadline last offseason, it opened a spot for them. Unless the Tigers protect a few more guys than expected, they won’t need the space. That would push those decisions to the non-tender deadline just before the winter meetings in a few weeks.

Wait, the Tigers hired a defensive coordinator?

News of the Tigers hiring Omar Vizquel as their first-base coach was the headline move of the Tigers coaching staff on Monday. News of the Tigers hiring Wally Joyner as hitting coach and Mick Billmeyer as bullpen coach was a big headline Sunday evening, soon after Joyner stepped down from the Phillies, and then became official on Monday.

Then, in Monday’s press release announcing the hiring, was the hiring of former Tigers minor league manager and instructor Matt Martin as “the club’s defensive coordinator.”

Wait, what? Did somebody cut and paste from a football press release?

Actually, it’s been done. Yes, in baseball. And fairly recently.

“I believe that preparation is the most important part of this game,” new Nationals manager Matt Williams said a few weeks ago in introducing Mark Weidemaier as his “defensive coordination advance coach.”

The description of the roles are similar. From the Tigers press release today:

Martin will assist Brad Ausmus and his staff with all on-field arrangements as well as with the coordination of all advanced scouting information for the Tigers.

Like in Washington, the idea of a defensive coordinator came from the manager. Like Williams, Ausmus made an impression with a blend of old and new ideas, and wanted somebody to coordinate their information in advance scouting and implement it in strategy.

“Brad Ausmus had talked about how he’d like to have somebody help him with doing this,” Dave Dombrowski said Monday. “We felt defensive coordinator was an appropriate title. He can help us on the field before games, but his main thing is going to be coordinating.”

Ausmus went into more detail why he wanted it.

“It’s very important to me that the infield defense, outfield defense and pitching are on the same page,” he explained. “Matt will be a big part of that coordination, in addition to assisting Omar [Vizquel] with infield, baserunning and bunting.”

That said, Martin will not be in uniform during the game. That’s one difference between what the Tigers are doing and what the Nationals are doing. Major League teams are allowed seven coaches in uniform during games thanks to a rule change last year, and the Tigers’ seventh spot is expected to go to their assistant hitting coach. Dombrowski said the Tigers haven’t determined where Martin will be when the game starts, but he won’t be in the dugout.

Another difference is the background. Martin has an instructional background, having been a roving infield instructor with the Dodgers and Orioles since 2007. He was a roving instructor, coach and manager in the Tigers farm system from 1998-2003. Weidemaier was an advance scout and special assistant in Arizona last year.

The philosophies on advance scouting are also different. The Tigers have done the bulk of their advance work through video and scouting services, and Martin will take a lot of that on. David Laurila had a very good explanation from Dombrowski on their advance scouting in a Fangraphs piece from October:

“During the regular season, we don’t [have advance scouts] for every series. I think most clubs have gotten away from that. We do our advance work through video and statistical information. We videotape basically every game that’s played and break down those tapes, hitter by hitter and pitcher by pitcher. Then we supply that information to Jim [Leyland] and his staff.

“Another thing with our staff is that Jim has been in the league so long that he knows a lot of the information himself. Occasionally, if we don’t know a team real well, or if we don’t know a manager real well — their tendencies — we’ll send somebody in advance of a series.”

The Nationals do use an advance scout during the season. It’s not a dig against the Tigers scouting staff that they don’t, because after all, these are the same scouts that have provided the background info behind Detroit’s many trades and free-agent signings over the years. It’s just a philosophy.

Whatever the route, it’ll be up to the coordinators to process a ton of information and put it to use defensively. The Tigers did not use a lot of infield shifts under Leyland, who left it up to his pitchers whether they wanted to shift against a particular hitter. It remains to be seen how Ausmus handles that, but Martin’s appointment strongly suggests he plans to use shifts and positioning aggressively.

Joe Nathan loves Tigers, but preaching patience

The good news for the Tigers is that Joe Nathan is going on national radio professing his love for them. The bad news is that it doesn’t sound like he’s signing a contract anywhere quite yet, or at least for a little while until the Yankees and perhaps some other teams begin making moves.

From the conversation he had with Jim Bowden and Casey Stern on MLB Network Radio this afternoon, it sounded very much like a waiting game.

“Right now,” he said, “it’s just waiting to see how what options are going to be out there, what teams are really going to be interested and then take those phone calls and try to make the best decision we can as far as what location we’re looking for and what team we feel can be a good fit and most importantly what team can have the best chance we feel to go into a postseason.”

As he talked, he pointed out a mutual benefit to that approach.

“I think the fortunate thing is I think a lot of teams are going to try to figure out what they’re going to do with guys as far as arbitration and other pieces that they’ve got to figure out, as far as are they going to try and trade somebody and do this and do that, free up money,” Nathan said. “So I think there are going to be a lot of teams that this process kind of allows me to patient [with], so it gives me a chance to see what clubs are trying to do. So it’ll be nice. I think that helps with the Yankees situation and gives us a sense of what they’re going to do.”

Bowden earlier presented Nathan with three teams he saw as fits for him, starting with the Tigers and then including the Angels and Yankees. As the above quote showed, he sounds willing to wait out the Yankees and see how their roster and payroll shake out.

“I think that’s one of the good things that this has been a slow process and we do have the ability to be patient and kind of watch how this thing plays out, because we do know the Yankees have a lot of pieces to try to fix and a lot of pieces to fill in and the Yankees do obviously go out there and make moves,” he continued. “So It’ll be interesting to see how they try to piece their team together and fill in some of the holes that they have. … It’ll be nice to be patient and see how this thing plays out, but again, it’s fun and just knowing that there are going to be teams out there that have a chance to go to the postseason is exciting for us.”

On the Tigers, it doesn’t sound like patience is a huge motive.

“I definitely love the Tigers, know them very well, having competed against that squad for so many years when I was with the Twins, knowing some of the guys over there, knowing how deep they are, rotation deep,” Nathan said. “Their lineup and offense obviously are impressive. I think one of the things is that their defense has definitely improved. It’s a good ballpark to play in, a good crowd to play in front of. Detroit’s definitely a very appealing and attractive team to look at, I think.”

One of the guys he knows, of course, is his old Twins teammate, Torii Hunter, who has apparently started his recruiting effort.

“With the way the game is today, that is one of the fortunate things that we have,” Nathan said. “Most of the time you know somebody that plays for the club that’s trying to get you over there, so you can kind of already get a sense of how things work, how it is inside the clubhouse, how the teammates are, how the guys are around there, how the staff is, basically how they like to do things in the organization. Fortunately I was able to have a quick little text with Torii Hunter, and obviously he was trying to make sure I was keeping Detroit in my sights and see if I can come over there and join their club.”

The Yankees don’t necessarily have that. What they have is location; Nathan went to high school and college in New York, the latter at Stony Brook University on Long Island. That said, Nathan downplayed the location factor in general.

“Location does play a factor,” he said, “but I think it definitely takes a back seat to whether the team can win and whether the team has a chance to seriously contend, not just to get to the postseason but contend to get to where we ultimately want to be, and that’s the World Series.”

Bottom line, the interview doesn’t do anything to change the view that the Tigers and Nathan are a fit. But it also makes clear that Nathan is willing to wait and see what kind of fit the Yankees can create financially and competitively.

Vizquel joining Tigers as first base coach

Add another former Major Leaguer to Brad Ausmus’ coaching staff in Detroit, and a nice get for the Tigers. Omar Vizquel will be Ausmus’ first base and infield coach. Venezuelan media first reported the move, which was later confirmed by MLB.com’s Alden Gonzalez.

Add Vizquel to the hirings of hitting coach Wally Joyner and bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer, and the core of the Tigers coaching staff is essentially set. It’s not clear yet whether they’ll have a second hitting coach again, but if they do, that’s a position yet to be filled.

It’ll be Vizquel’s first post as a big league coach, but his resume gives him instant credibility. He played 24 years in the Majors before retiring in 2012. In those 24 seasons, he won 11 Gold Gloves and three All-Star selections. He played more games at shortstop than anyone in Major League history, and his .985 fielding percentage there ranks second all-time, according to baseball-reference.

The move is a boon for Jose Iglesias, who will take over as Detroit’s full-time shortstop next season.

The 46-year-old Vizquel spent this past season as a roving infield instructor in the Angels organization. When the Angels hired him, Mike Scioscia reportedly said he had no doubt that Vizquel had the potential to manage in the big leagues one day.

Vizquel also was an underrated baserunner, stealing 404 bases in his career. He also was caught 167 times, but there was an aggressiveness to his game.

Wally Joyner to be next Tigers hitting coach

While you were watching that Lions-Steelers trading touchdowns (or another NFL game), the Phillies announced this afternoon that assistant hitting coach Wally Joyner had stepped down to “pursue other opportunities.” It’s the second time he has done so in about a month; he declined an offer to return at season’s end, only to change his mind a week or so later.

The Tigers didn’t have an opening the first time he went out on the market. They do now, and he’s expected to fill it, industry sources told MLB.com.

Also expected to make the jump from Philly is Mick Billmeyer, who was a catching coach on the Phillies staff. He’s expected to be named bullpen coach.

Like the Tigers this past season, the Phillies used two hitting coaches this year, with Joyner supporting top hitting coach Steve Henderson. Joyner received a good share of credit in Philly for the emergence of Domonic Brown, who grew up from perennial prospect status to legitimate Major League hitter in 2013. He hit .272 with 27 home runs and 83 RBIs.

Joyner has been in the top job before, serving as Padres hitting coach from July 2007 to September 2008. After stepping down from the job, he spent four years as the lead hitting instructor for Major League Baseball’s international elite-level development programs, coaching players in Italy, Brazil and the Netherlands.

Ausmus didn’t join the front office in San Diego until after Joyner left, but they were teammates with the Padres in 1996.

Scherzer: I realize I’ve got a good thing going

Two days after Max Scherzer said on his Cy Young Award conference call that he’s open to a contract extension with the Tigers, both Scherzer and agent Scott Boras went into a little more detail Friday on MLB Network Radio with Jim Bowden. Long answer short, Scherzer understands why the Tigers would consider trading him if they can’t re-sign him, he’s open to re-signing, but they haven’t had any talks yet.

“When you’ve been traded before in your career, you get the business side of the game,” Scherzer said, “and you also get the payroll obligations that we have in Detroit. I get it. I get there’s an element where there’s a possibility where it would make sense for Detroit to trade me. But at the same time, I don’t want to be traded. I’ve got a great thing going in Detroit. We have a great team. I hope they don’t mess with it. I want to be a Detroit Tiger and hopefully get back to the playoffs and try to do the ultimate goal and win something for the city of Detroit.”

On talks with Boras and the Tigers about an extension, Scherzer said, “We’ve talked about it, an extension, just that we’re open to it. No actual dialogue has been talked or anything like that. I realize I got a good thing going here in Detroit. We’ve got a great team. We’ve got great guys around, I’ve got great teammates around me. And then we’ve got Miguel Cabrera. I mean, who would want to leave and actually want to face that guy? (laughs)  For me, I like Detroit. It’s just gonna see how the business game works out and whether or not we go down that path.”

Boras, for his part, characterized the trade rumors as due diligence on Dave Dombrowski’s part.

“Dave is over there managing the crown jewels there. and I’m sure he’ll invite a number of people to come in and look at all of his diamonds,” Boras said. “But in the end. I don’t think Dave is in the business of anything other than what Mr. Ilitch’s goal is, and that is to win a world championship. And I’m sure it is Dave’s goal.

“It is very understandable, as you know, that when a great young player, one of the best pitchers in the game, is on a one-year contract and will be a free agent, these discussions are always had, whether they are public or not. And the reason they are had is that it is good due diligence on the part of any general manager to know what teams are willing to do, because it allows you then to know, if you want to make any other trades of any of your other players, who really is available from them. So, to me, it is a way to invite discussion on who is available on other teams so that you really know what you could do if you didn’t want to trade Max and you may want to trade others.”

Boras represents several other Tigers players, notably Austin Jackson and Prince Fielder, but Scherzer is the one Boras client among the starting pitchers. Rick Porcello’s original contract out of the draft was negotiated by Boras, though Porcello is currently represented by Jim Murray.

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