December 2013

Could the Tigers make a run for Shin-Soo Choo?

The Tigers made the two biggest trades of the offseason to date to create flexibility out of a top-five payroll. They wouldn’t address the reinvestment end of that money until they took care of their most pressing need and signed a closer. Now that Joe Nathan is about to become a Tiger, it’s time, and the Tigers might well spend it making one good run at one of the biggest free agents on the market again.

Both Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News and Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com report the Tigers have shown interest in multi-tooled Shin-Soo Choo, the most prominent left-handed hitting outfielder available now that Jacoby Ellsbury is headed to the Yankees. Feinsand cites a source that Choo is Detroit’s top free-agent target.

Choo fits the profile of hitter the Tigers are known to be seeking, balancing out a predominantly right-handed hitting lineup while also adding speed and on-base percentage back into Detroit’s offense. The Tigers saw him up-close for years in Cleveland, where he was a teammate of Detroit DH Victor Martinez. And unlike other speedy leadoff hitters who have hit the market, hitters the Tigers have traditionally judged on how their game would mature as they age and lose speed, Choo brings a skill set that doesn’t hinge on his speed.

The question for the Tigers with Choo is financial, how far they’re willing or able to go to sign him. They just shed the burden of a megacontract by trading Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler. With several players nearing free agency, Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera foremost among them, they can’t afford to put themselves in the same bind, though Choo isn’t expected to approach the nine-year deal Fielder signed with the Tigers two winters ago.

Three things on the Doug Fister trade

First things first: it’s rarely a good idea to judge winners and losers in a trade minutes after a trade is announced. For one thing, it’s hard to judge prospects and their impact so immediately. More important, it’s better to judge a trade’s context in the bigger picture of a team’s entire offseason.

What made trading Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson work for the Tigers wasn’t just the talent they got in return, from Max Scherzer to Austin Jackson to Phil Coke. It was the payroll it freed up for Detroit to sign Jose Valverde a month later, and extend Justin Verlander’s contract a couple weeks after that. Taken in context, a trade that at first signaled the closing of the Tigers’ contending ways ended up extending their window for several more years.

If the Tigers do end up re-signing Scherzer — still not a safe assumption, but no longer a lost cause — along with Miguel Cabrera and add a closer plus another bat, the trade takes on a different light. Dombrowski, for his part, insisted they’re not cost-cutting.

“We’re not cutting payroll,” he said. “We have a very, very hefty payroll. It’s one of the highest in baseball and it’s going to continue to be that way.”

Second point: Hard-throwing left-handed pitchers are always going to draw Dave Dombrowski’s attention. Always. It’s like Charlie Brown and The Little Red-Haired Girl. In this case, lefty starting prospect Robbie Ray looms as that guy.

“He’s the key piece,” one American League talent evaluator texted Monday night after news of the trade spread. He graded Ray as a legit prospect, potentially a third or fourth starter.

Ray was Washington’s seventh-rated prospect by MLB.com’s rankings, but he’d rank higher on Detroit’s list. That’s because trades, injuries and call-ups had so depleted the pitching depth in the organization that four of the five pitchers on Baseball Prospectus’ Tigers top 10 rankings released earlier Monday had been drafted in the last year and a half. Only Drew VerHagen had pitched above Low-A ball. None of them are left-handed.

“We have depleted our starting pitcher [depth] because we made some deals at the upper levels,” Dombrowski said. “You look at some arms that we’ve moved and again you can’t have everything. We have depleted ourselves in that regard and we don’t feel we have anybody knocking on the door other than Smyly. We did address that ourselves internally by drafting a lot of starting pitchers in the draft and a lot of college pitchers who we feel can move quickly.”

The more Dombrowski talked about Ray, the more he sounded like he had just acquired an impact pitcher in the big leagues. With a low to mid-90s fastball and the makings of a four-pitch arsenal, Ray’s stuff has the Tigers thinking highly of him.

“I think it was a key for us,” Dombrowski said of Ray’s inclusion. “It’s not only what you see in the minors. You see throughout Major League Baseball that young starting pitchers that are on the verge of pitching in the big leagues and being No. 3 or better starters, they’re hard to find and they’re becoming harder to deal [for].

“We felt it was important to get a guy who was knocking on our door to pitch at the big league level. We think this guy’s a premium young left-handed pitcher on the verge of pitching in the big leagues, and they’re not easy to find.”

Lastly, the longer this offseason continues, the more the Tigers look and act like a team that’s looking beyond the next year or two for a window. It doesn’t mean the win-now mentality has died, but it definitely signals at least an attempt to keep a winning team on the field for the future.

It began with the Jose Iglesias trade in July. It continued with the hiring of a first-time manager who not only hasn’t managed before, but whose playing career ended just a few years ealier. It continued with the Fielder trade, freeing up millions of dollars over the next seven years.

The future mentality hit its stride, though, with the Doug Fister deal. Detroit filled immediate needs in lefty relief and utility infield, but it now has its replacement for Scherzer if he leaves next winter, or Rick Porcello if he leaves a year later.

Hard to tell what it means for the franchise going forward, though a bloated payroll and an aging roster seem like two things they’re now trying to avoid. It seems like a strong hint, though, that the Tigers are now trying to extend their window of contention once more against a potentially aging roster and several superstar contracts. It could be a nod towards keeping this team in contention long enough to negotiate a new cable deal in a few years and reap the benefits other clubs are now enjoying. It could be an acknowledgement that keeping this team pitching staff together past the next year or two is fiscally impossible, given the escalating prices on pitching (though the Tigers didn’t have any talks with Fister about a contract extension, according to a source). Remember, collecting young, cost-controlled pitching (signing Verlander before free agency, trading for Scherzer and Fister) is how this team was built. Add Sanchez to that trio, and four of MLB’s top nine pitchers in Wins Above Replacement over the last three years wore Tigers uniforms according to Fangraphs. That same quartet also owned four of the top 21 spots in Fielding Independent Pitching over that same stretch.

Whatever it is, you can sense a shift in mentality helping provide a push.

Tigers trade Doug Fister to Nationals for three players

The Tigers are no longer a team with six starting pitchers for five spots. What they are without Doug Fister in their rotation remains to be seen. Detroit pulled off its second major trade in two weeks Monday night, sending Fister to the Nationals for lefty reliever Ian Krol, infielder/outfielder Steve Lombardozzi and lefty starting prospect Robbie Ray.

The move adds more flexibility on the Tigers payroll while adding some badly-needing young arms to a Tigers system that had been low on left-handed pitching. The immediate impact on the Tigers for next year, however, might not be known until the Tigers are done dealing this offseason.

It’s not a deal that addresses several short-term needs, as might have been anticipated had Detroit dealt reigning AL Cy Young winner and potential 2014 free agent Max Scherzer as rumors suggested earlier this offseason. Instead, the return package fills some smaller holes now and some long-term concerns later, while providing another sign the Tigers will try to keep the rest of their rotation intact, Scherzer included.

Fister was one of three Tigers starters who were arbitration eligible with free agency on the horizon. Like fellow starter Rick Porcello, he was two years away from free agency with a salary that was heading up. He was projected to make $6.9 million in arbitration according to MLB Trade Rumors.

However, Fister delivered as a Tiger, going 32-20 with a 3.29 ERA in 68 Tiger starts and two relief appearances. His 8-1 record and 1.79 ERA down the stretch in 2011 reflected his significant role in helping the Tigers to their first of three consecutive American League Central titles. Those numbers leveled out over the next two seasons, but his 14-9 record, 3.67 ERA and 208 2/3 innings pitched this year reflected a workhorse role within a loaded Tigers rotation.

In the postseason, meanwhile, Fister was a cornerstone of the dominant pitching that led Detroit to four postseason series wins over the last three years. His 3-2 record and 2.98 ERA in eight career playoff appearances includes a sub-2 ERA in the ALCS and World Series. He picked up only one playoff win the last two years, but delivered six quality starts in as many outings in that stretch, including six innings of one-run ball with seven strikeouts against the Red Sox.

Drew Smyly, who spent this past season as a lefty setup reliever, will slot into Fister’s old rotation spot, giving Detroit a lefty starter. With his pre-arbitration salary, the move will shed about $6.4 million from team payroll. The rest of the rotation is expected to remain intact for next year while the Tigers try to pursue long-term deals.

Smyly’s relief role, meanwhile, will be filled by Krol, who broke into the big leagues this year as a young lefty setup man. The 22-year-old wasn’t a specialist, though left-handed hitters batted .220 (11-for-50) against him with one home run, four walks and 10 strikeouts.

Lombardozzi is a switch-hitting, contact-batting role player with decent speed who can play infield and outfield. He batted .259 with 15 doubles, two home runs and 22 RBIs in 118 games for the Nationals in 2013.

The key arm in the deal, however, might end up being Ray, a hard-throwing lefty starter who ranked as the seventh-best prospect in the Nationals system from MLB.com’s midseason prospect rankings. The 22-year-old went 11-5 with a 3.36 ERA in 27 starts between high Class A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg, allowing 116 hits over 142 innings with 62 walks and 160 strikeouts.

Ray isn’t expected to compete for a Major League job right away anywhere on the staff, likely needing more seasoning at Double-A this coming year. In a system that has traded away several starting prospects over the past few years, however, he provides a much-needed youth infusion.

Ian Kinsler to wear number 3

Nearly two decades after Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker made their place in history as one of baseball’s best double-play combinations, the Tigers will field a middle-infield tandem with the same jersey numbers. The team announced Monday on Twitter that their new second baseman, Ian Kinsler, will wear Trammell’s famous number 3.

The team expects Kinsler to man second base opposite shortstop Jose Iglesias, who donned Whitaker’s old number 1 when he became a Tiger at last summer’s Trade Deadline. The numbers should look familiar, albeit in reverse order, to Tigers fans who watched Trammell and Whitaker as teammates up the middle for nearly 20 years, from 1977 into the early ’90s. The two set an American League record for appearing in 1,918 games as teammates, and turned more double plays than any middle-infield tandem in Major League history.

Given their longevity and their success, the fact that any player can still wear those numbers on a Tigers uniform has always been a difficult topic in Detroit. The Tigers have only retired the jersey numbers of Hall of Famers with the exception of Willie Horton’s number 23. The Hall of Fame voting process has not been kind to Whitaker, who was knocked off the ballot after one year, or Trammell, who has not yet come close to the 75 percent selection needed for induction.

That said, no Tiger has worn number 47 since Jack Morris, a teammate of Trammell and Whitaker from 1977 to 1990. He has come closer to induction than any other 1984 Tiger, but still needs a boost this year in his 15th and final time on the ballot.

While Iglesias became the first player since Whitaker to wear number 1 in Detroit, Kinsler won’t be the first number 3 in Detroit since Trammell. Gary Sheffield donned the number during his Tiger tenure in 2007 and 2008.

Kinsler’s old number 5, which he wore for all eight of his seasons in Texas, is off limits in Detroit. That number was retired with Hank Greenberg, so Kinsler needed a new number. He wore number 22 at the University of Missouri.

Tigers sign Don Kelly to one-year, $1 million deal

The one question for the Tigers at Monday’s nontender deadline has been answered. Utilityman Don Kelly agreed to terms with the Tigers on a one-year, $1 million contract, thus taking him off the potential nontender list.

Kelly confirmed the deal in a text to inquiring reporters. The Tigers announced the deal shortly thereafter.

The $1 million salary represents the first seven-figure deal for Kelly. He made $900,000 in each of the past two seasons, including this past season on what was initially a minor-league contract with a Spring Training invite he signed just before camp after being taken off the 40-man roster. He essentially had to win his roster spot back, and he beat out Quintin Berry to do it.

As the Tigers headed towards Monday’s deadline for tendering contracts to arbitration eligible players, the question was whether they’d try to do the same thing this winter. The team traditionally waits until January to wrap up deals with arbitration-eligible players, but their one-year deal with Phil Coke a week and a half ago noted a change in approach. With some players, they wanted a deal in place before approaching the offseason. Kelly fell in that category, though his salary is by far the smallest of the eight arbitration-eligible Tigers.

Kelly’s versatility is well-known, and he currently stands as a left-handed hitter on the bench of a team that has a righty-heavy lineup at the moment in the wake of the Prince Fielder trade. The one factor that could change his role is the positional shuffle around the Tigers infield and outfield, notably if fellow left-handed hitter Andy Dirks becomes the primary reserve outfielder.

The roster picture, especially in left field and third base, remains a big question, but the Tigers can keep Kelly on the roster and then take a wait-and-see approach in Spring Training. If Detroit decides he’s no longer a fit, he can be released by March 15 or thereabouts for one-sixth of his salary, or just under $167,000. If the Tigers release him at the end of camp, they would owe him $250,000, one-fourth of his salary. Remember, Detroit took a similar approach with Brennan Boesch a year ago.

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