December 9th, 2013

Winter Meetings Day 1: LF mystery continues, bullpen waiting game begins

Winter Meetings Day 1 017The Tigers’ first day at baseball’s Winter Meetings was busy, Dave Dombrowski said, with talks with teams and free-agent discussions galore. None of the free-agent talks, he cautioned, were at the top of the market.

“When I say free agents, I’m not talking about the big, big ones,” Dombrowski said late Monday afternoon, “but we’ve talked about some other people.”

By category, that would seem to rule out Shin-Soo Choo, whose agent (Scott Boras) reportedly had the Jacoby Ellsbury contract (which Boras negotiated last week) as a guidepost. By name, of course, nobody has ruled out Choo. Add in the payroll space the Tigers created by trading Prince Fielder and Doug Fister, and therein lies the mystery behind the Tigers wafting through the lobby of the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort.

Could the Tigers be involved with Choo? Could they be involved at the level of competing with the other interested clubs? Dombrowski’s words at this point would suggest not. But the Prince Fielder signing a couple offseasons ago showed how sentiments can change on an owner’s decision.

If the Tigers don’t sign Choo, they have two options: They can try to swing a trade for a left fielder good enough to play everyday (preferably left-handed to balance out the lineup), or they can look for a right-handed hitter to platoon with Andy Dirks. They’re two vastly different markets.

“We’ll just see what ends up happening,” Dombrowski said. “Sometimes you have to be careful that everybody doesn’t always think there’s going to be an All-Star at every position. I mean, there are some clubs doing pretty darn well with some platoons at different spots too. So they do work at times. Just because it’s not per se an All-Star somewhere doesn’t mean that you can’t get the production that you’re looking to have out of certain spots. Sometimes they’re more productive for you.”

Of course, the Tigers had a platoon in left field this past season, and while it was productive at times, the .708 OPS Detroit’s left fielders posted ranked 11th in the 15-team American League, and last out of the playoff teams. If they’re going to have a better offense, no matter what fashion, they have to get better production out of left.

Other notes from Day 1:

  • Fortifying the bullpen might end up being a waiting game. Dombrowski said they’re not in on the top end of the bullpen market right now, because those guys are looking for closer jobs, and the Tigers have already filled theirs. He has not eliminated the idea of revisiting that market once the closer jobs are filled and others are left looking for setup work. He also floated the possibility of taking a flyer on a reliever as insurance if Bruce Rondon isn’t ready.
  • Nick Castellanos is taking ground balls at third base, but he’s going to get a visit from new first-base and infield coach Omar Vizquel. Manager Brad Ausmus confirmed they’re trying to set up Vizquel to travel to Castellanos’ South Florida home and work with him sometime after the holidays.
  • Casey Crosby will go to Spring Training to compete for a bullpen job, rather than simply work as an insurance starter. “We can always switch him back if we think it’s best,” Dombrowski said, “but we think right now he’s in a spot where he’s developed some. A lot of our people think he’s cut out for a bullpen role, and so that’s how we’ll bring him in.” Assistant GM Al Avila believes Crosby could be a standout reliever.
  • One guy who doesn’t appear to be in line to compete for a bullpen job is Melvin Mercedes, who ended last season closing at Double-A Erie. He’s expected to open the season back there, possibly alongside promising relief prospect Corey Knebel in Knebel’s first full pro season.
  • Robbie Ray, the lefty starter prospect the Tigers acquired for Doug Fister, will start next season at Triple-A Toledo. He split last season between high-A and Double-A in the Nationals system, so he’ll get a bump. If Jose Alvarez and Kyle Lobstein open the season there as expected, then the Mud Hens will have three left-handed starters, which might explain the timing behind Crosby getting a look as a reliever.