January 2014

Tigers avoid arbitration with Avila

The Tigers have avoided arbitration hearings for another year, reaching a deal with Alex Avila on a one-year, $4.35 million contract that includes a club option for 2015.

The deal finishes the Tigers’ arbitration dealings just before hearings were scheduled to begin for players next week. Avila and the Tigers exchanged salary figures two weeks ago after struggling to reach an agreement. Avila expressed confidence a week ago that the two sides would reach an agreement before hearings would be scheduled next week. It took some creative contract work, but they finished it up late Friday.

Avila will make a base salary of $4.15 million this season. If he makes the All-Star team, wins a Silver Slugger Award (he did both in 2011) or finishes in the top 15 in MVP balloting, his $5.4 million option for 2015 will automatically vest. If not, the Tigers will decide whether to pick up the option or buy it out for $200,000 (hence the $4.35 million guaranteed). A buyout would leave Avila eligible for arbitration one more time before becoming a free agent after the 2015 season.

The deal also reportedly includes escalators that would bump up the salary on Avila’s option if he has a high number of plate appearances.

Avila made $2.95 million in 2013. He filed for a $5.3 million salary two weeks ago, with the Tigers countering with a $3.75 million offer. The new deal put the base salary closer to the team offer, but offers the enticement of the second year. If Avila is an All-Star and a Silver Slugger winner in 2014, a $5.4 million salary should be a decent deal.

Avila batted a career-low .227 last year with 11 home runs, 47 RBIs and a .693 OPS. Within those numbers, however, were two distinctly different half-seasons. His .177 average before the All-Star break was the lowest among AL players with at least 200 plate appearances. His .303 batting average after the break was the 16th highest, and his .876 OPS ranked just outside the AL’s top 10, despite missing time in August with a concussion.

Though Avila’s father is Tigers vice president and assistant general manager Al Avila, the family and the Tigers have maintained a stance that the elder Avila would not be involved in contract situations involving his son. Team legal counsel John Westhoff handles negotiations with input from team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski.

“A lot of work went into it,” said Jim Murray, who along with fellow Excel Sports Management agent Matt Laird negotiated the deal. “I credit David, John and their staff for being open-minded and as professional as can be throughout the entire process. It was a positive result for all involved.”

Tigers look to Lance Parrish to manage at Erie

What began as an ill-timed managerial opening in the Tigers farm system just before Spring Training is now shaping up to be an opportunity to bring a former Tiger back into the organization. Tigers officials were in talks with former catcher and coach Lance Parrish to take over as manager at Double-A Erie.

Credit the Detroit News with the initial report. A deal and an announcement could come by the end of the week, possibly as early as Thursday.

The move would solve an opening that was becoming a challenge for the Tigers to fill. Parrish would replace Chris Cron, who left about there weeks ago to take over as minor-league hitting coordinator for the Arizona Diamondbacks, a move that kept him closer to home. He managed at Erie for the last four seasons.

Though the Tigers had in-house candidates such as minor league hitting coordinator Bruce Fields and Class A Lakeland manager Dave Huppert, neither was interested in leaving their current posts. With those options closed, Dave Dombrowski said Saturday at TigerFest that they would most likely fill the post from outside the system.

Also at TigerFest, coincidentally, was Parrish, one of the former Tigers brought back for the event along with former reliever Mike Henneman. Parrish had been looking to get back in the game after two seasons managing in the Los Angeles Dodgers farm system in 2006 (Ogden, Utah at rookie level Pioneer League) and 2007 (Great Lakes Loons in Midwest League).

Before those seasons, Parrish spent three years on Alan Trammell’s staff in Detroit, serving as bullpen coach.

The opportunity to return to his old organization presented itself on short notice.

The difficulty in filling the job at Erie isn’t for lack of talent. The team returns the makings of a solid pitching staff, including starting prospect Drew VerHagen and Warwick Saupold and closer Melvin Mercedes, and is expected to add positional prospects such as second baseman Devon Travis and outfielder Steven Moya.

Dombrowski: We anticipate Verlander being ready

No sooner did the headline of Justin Verlander possibly not being ready for the start of the season emerge than Verlander got in touch with Dave Dombrowski on Friday to let him know how he’s progressing in his rehab from core muscle surgery. He has been cleared to start his throwing program, and will begin by playing catch on Monday in Lakeland.

Even before that news, Dombrowski sought to reign in the headlines. If Verlander’s rehabilitation goes as planned, Dombrowski said, Verlander’s status for the start of the season won’t be a question. Dombrowski isn’t willing to guarantee it yet because he doesn’t want to prompt Verlander to push himself to the risk of re-injury. Nor is manager Brad Ausmus.

“All the reports from [head athletic trainer] Kevin Rand are he’s doing great,” Ausmus said Saturday at TigerFest. “I’ve talked and texted with Justin, and he’s telling me he’s going to be ready. But you have to be smart about it.

“At this point, I’m not concerned. The reports have been so good, maybe I’m naïve, but I’m not concerned.”

That caution, Dombrowski said Saturday, was the point of his remarks earlier in the week.

“If it’s a natural healing process, I anticipate him being ready,” Dombrowski said.

The natural healing process means no setbacks. If it happens, it also means no worries.

“I do not anticipate him not being ready,” Dombrowski said, “but I also don’t want him to rush. I want him to make the normal progression.”

Though Verlander has been healthy for virtually his entire eight-year Major League career, never missing a start for injury, nobody knows Verlander, and how hard he pushes himself in workouts, than the Tigers and their staff. For that reason, Dombrowski and manager Brad Ausmus are trying to avoid giving Verlander a reason to risk a chunk of the season trying to be ready for season’s start.

“Primarily, I’m going to listen to Kevin Rand. That’s his area,” Ausmus said. “But from a practical standpoint, I think what you said is dead-on: We’d rather he start a little slow and be sure he feels well. And if he does, he can crank it up the farther away he gets from the surgery date.

“For the most part, I’m going to rely on Kevin and Justin. And we need Justin in be honest. Justin takes a lot of pride in not missing a start, but he has to be honest about how he feels, because we don’t want to push him past that breaking point where all of a sudden we’ve lost him until May.”

For that reason, they’ll have a fallback plan. They’ll have an extra starter stretching out in Spring Training regardless, given the number of pitchers from Triple-A Toledo in camp. With three off-days in the season’s first two weeks, they can map out their rotation to require a fill-in starter only once.

“There’ll be a point in Spring Training where we’re going to have to be sure, or have the insurance policy that if Justin can’t make a start, we have somebody else to do it,” Ausmus said. “There’ll be that kind of tipping point.”

Dombrowski on another big move: “I’d be surprised”

One of the regular TigerFest appointments for those of us on the Tigers beat is Dave Dombrowski’s session on the stage. Sometimes he’ll answer a question from fans with more insight than expected. There weren’t any massive revelations this year, but he provided some insight to the rest of the offseason when asked about Nelson Cruz.

Dombrowski didn’t address Cruz by name, but he indicated that the team is pretty well set.

“I would be surprised if we made any major moves,” Dombrowski said.

That would seem to rule out Cruz, whose status would require the Tigers to give up their first-round pick to sign him. It does not rule out the Tigers from doing a minor deal or two for reinforcements.

“Perhaps for depth purposes, you might pick somebody up,” Dombrowski said.

Most likely, Dombrowski added, such a signing would be a minor-league contract with a Spring Training invite. They’d rather not shuffle their 40-man roster at this point.

The Tigers were linked to Luis Ayala in one report earlier this week. They had some interest in him two years ago as well, before they signed Octavio Dotel. Dombrowski said they’d have interest in Dotel when he’s ready, but he hasn’t resumed pitching yet.

Scherzer: “This is the place I want to be”

The Tigers had a slew of players available at Comerica Park this afternoon for an hour-long media session to lead off their winter caravan, but from the moment the doors opened, Max Scherzer was the headliner. He did not disappoint. Actually, judging by his willingness to discuss his contract situation, he might have surprised a little.

“We’ve had conversations,” he said. “The biggest thing was hammering out 2014 and getting the arb case settled. That was important for me to have that secured. …

“Honestly, this is the place I want to be. I’m comfortable here. I love being part of the Tigers. So hopefully we can get something done before Spring Training, otherwise I’m confident after the season we can completely resolve this.”

Those rank as the most upbeat quotes from either side on the chances at a contract extension. Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski has maintained that they want to keep Scherzer, but has left it at that. Scherzer’s agent, Scott Boras, has acknowledged Scherzer’s interest in staying in Detroit but has otherwise kept quiet, perhaps uncharacteristically so.

Scherzer decided coming in that he was going to be up-front about his situation, at least until he starts pitching again.

“I don’t have anything pressing,” Scherzer said. “Nothing’s pending or anything, but I’m sure conversations will pick up, and that’s something the front office and Scott will discuss at great length.”

They’ll discuss it in the few weeks leading up to Spring Training, and maybe as camp unfolds. Once the season begins, however, Scherzer doesn’t want to talk about a new deal, either with the Tigers or the press.

“Absolutely not,” Scherzer said. “That would be too much of a distraction to be sitting here thinking about that. If it doesn’t get done soon, then I’m more than comfortable playing 2014 on a one-year deal.”

Another strong season in 2014 could propel Scherzer into position as the top free agent in next winter’s market. He doesn’t need reminding of the ramifications. The former business economics student at the University of Missouri has served as the Tigers’ union representative, so he knows what each new standard-setting contract means for players and teams alike.

When asked his reaction to Clayton Kershaw’s record-setting contract, Scherzer laughed. But he also acknowledged the impact for others, including him.

“He’s on such a different planet, how good he is,” Scherzer said. “He’s in a different realm. I think that was a good thing for all of Major League Baseball.”

He also wasn’t going to deny the enticement of free agency, being able to choose where to play and let the market play out.

“That’s every player’s strategy. I mean, every player wants to be a free agent,” Scherzer said. “But at the same time, you realize we’ve got a good thing here in Detroit. We’ve got a great team, great teammates, so much talent and a chance to win it all. So for me, this is a place where I want to be.

“Going forward, I’m hopeful we can come to some terms on what we can do in the future. But if it doesn’t happen in the near term, I’m sure we can get this done in the offseason.”

Red Sox DFA Villarreal to sign Grady Sizemore

The Tigers weren’t seriously involved on Grady Sizemore, who was looking for a Major League contract. Sizemore got it from the Red Sox, who designated former Tigers reliever Brayan Villarreal for assignment to make room.

Villarreal, of course, was a secondary piece of the three-team trade that brought Jose Iglesias to Detroit and sent Avisail Garcia to the White Sox. His Red Sox tenure in 2013 consisted of one batter, an ill-advised appearance August 20 in which he entered with a bases-loaded jam in the ninth inning of a tie game and walked the only batter he faced.

Villarreal is out of minor-league options, so this might have been his fate eventually anyway. That said, he’s 26 years old with a healthy arm, a strong fastball and at least some track record of success in the big leagues from his midsummer stretch with the Tigers in 2012.

Does that mean he could end up back in Detroit? Well, most of the teams in the American League will have its chance to make a waiver claim on him before Detroit’s spot comes up, based on last year’s standings. Moreover, Villarreal would still be out of options, meaning the Tigers would have to try to get him through waivers to put him back at Triple-A Toledo unless he made the team out of Spring Training.

Villarreal made the Tigers’ Opening Day roster last year, but pitched in just seven games in April before being sent to Triple-A Toledo. He walked eight of the 28 batters he faced, gave up eight hits and struck out six.

Tigers put names to places on winter caravan

Jose Iglesias fielded just about everything in sight down the stretch at shortstop for the Tigers last season. On Friday, he’ll be trying to field orders at National Coney Island in Warren.

The Tigers released their winter caravan schedule last week, but didn’t have names listed for most of the stops. Those are out now, so if you’re planning on making a stop or two, you’ll know who you’re running down.

Among the highlights is Friday morning’s visit to National Coney Island on Van Dyke in Warren, where Iglesias and Torii Hunter will serve as celebrity waiters. Hunter proved pretty fast as handling orders at the counter at Dunkin Donuts last year.

On Thursday, Hunter and his good buddy Joe Nathan will climb into a driving simulator for the AAA Employee Safe Driving Rally. That stop won’t be open to the public, but it should be interesting nonetheless.

This year will be a little different from past caravans in that a lot of players are headed on the West Bus to Grand Rapids and Holland. Among them are Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Drew Smyly, Austin Jackson, Joba Chamberlain, Al Alburquerque, Andy Dirks, Bruce Rondon, Don Kelly and Bryan Holaday.

Miguel Cabrera will be staying in town, as will Hunter, Iglesias and Nathan (obviously), Victor Martinez, Anibal Sanchez, Ian Krol and manager Brad Ausmus.

One prominent name not listed on the winter caravan roster is Justin Verlander, who had surgery earlier this month. No roster has been released for TigerFest yet, but it sounds like his travel is limited at this point while recovering from surgery, so it appears unlikely he’ll be there.

Here’s a list of the public stops along with players on the trip …

METRO BUS

Thursday, 5 p.m. — Tigers Kids Rally at Ford Community and Performing Arts Center in Dearborn (tickets required)

  • Alex Avila, Miguel Cabrera, Daniel Fields, Jose Iglesias, Ian Krol, Kyle Lobstein, Evan Reed and Anibal Sanchez

Thursday, 4-6 p.m. — Photos at Hockeytown Authentics (photos in exchange for canned food donation to Salvation Army of Metro Detroit)

  • Victor Martinez, Omar Vizuqel

Thursday, 6-7:30 p.m. — Toledo Mud Hens Helping Hens Charity Dinner at Fifth Third Field (tickets on sale at mudhens.com)

  • Torii Hunter, Brad Ausmus

Friday, 11-11:45 a.m. — Celebrity waiters at National Coney Island

  • Torii Hunter, Jose Iglesias

Friday, 3-4 p.m. — North American International Auto Show

  • Alex Avila, Rajai Davis, Daniel Fields, Ian Krol, Kyle Lobstein, Victor Martinez, Joe Nathan, Evan Reed, Anibal Sanchez, Rod Allen

Friday, 3:15-3:45 p.m. — Tigers tour Michigan United and 555 Gallery in Detroit

  • Miguel Cabrera, Omar Vizquel

WEST BUS

Thursday, 5:45-9 p.m. — West Michigan Whitecaps Winter Banquet (tickets required)

  • Dave Dombrowski, Al Alburquerque, Mick Billmeyer, Nick Castellanos, Joba Chamberlain, Dave Clark, Darnell Coles, Andy Dirks, Bryan Holaday, Austin Jackson, Jeff Jones, Wally Joyner, Don Kelly, Steve Lombardozzi, Matt Martin, Justin Miller, Hernan Perez, Rick Porcello, Luke Putkonen, Bruce Rondon, Max Scherzer, Drew Smyly, Dan Dickerson

Friday, 10-10:45 a.m. — Hudsonville Creamery and Ice Cream Company tour (tickets required — sold out)

  • Dave Dombrowski, Al Alburquerque, Mick Billmeyer, Nick Castellanos, Joba Chamberlain, Dave Clark, Darnell Coles, Andy Dirks, Bryan Holaday, Austin Jackson, Jeff Jones, Wally Joyner, Don Kelly, Steve Lombardozzi, Matt Martin, Justin Miller, Hernan Perez, Rick Porcello, Luke Putkonen, Bruce Rondon, Max Scherzer, Drew Smyly, Dan Dickerson

Arbitration updates: Dirks, Porcello, Jackson, Scherzer, Alburquerque sign

The Tigers were talking all the way up to and past the 1 p.m. deadline for arbitration-eligible teams and players to exchange numbers. Before that, they were able to get three of their six cases out of the way, and they’ve reached two more deals after that.

  • The biggest case, Max Scherzer, has agreed to terms on a one-year deal worth $15,525,000. That’s huge for the Tigers, who didn’t agree to terms with Scherzer last year until early February, just before a scheduled hearing.
  • First-time arbitration eligible outfielder Andy Dirks agreed to terms on a $1.625 million deal for 2014. That’s right around the $1.7 million estimate MLB Trade Rumors had posted earlier this offseason.
  • Right-hander Rick Porcello, eligible for the third time, agreed to an $8.5 million contract. MLB Trade Rumors had estimated him around $7.7 million. He made $5.1 million last year.
  • Outfielder Austin Jackson agreed to terms on a one-year deal worth $6 million.
  • Reliever Al Alburquerque agreed to terms on a one-year deal worth $837,500. That’s a bump from the $700,000 projection MLB Trade Rumors had on him earlier this offseason.

That leaves catcher Alex Avila, who exchanged arbitration figures with the Tigers later Friday. Avila filed for $5.35 million, while the Tigers countered at $3.75 million. If the two sides can’t agree before hearings in February, an arbitrator will decide between one or the other. The Tigers haven’t gone to an arbitration hearing since Dave Dombrowski took over as president and GM in 2002.

Tigers-Red Sox get Sunday night game at Fenway

Finally back from the holidays and catching up, which is good timing given all the season ramp-up stuff going on this week. Among them is the release of ESPN’s early slate of Sunday Night Baseball telecasts, which always gets a reaction from fans. If the Tigers don’t get enough dates for fans’ liking, it’s a sign of disrespect. If the Tigers have a Sunday night game at home, though, it always draws groans from fans who want to go but have to be at work Monday morning.

The early Sunday night slate should please both. The Tigers have one game, and it’s on the road. Their May 15 game against the Red Sox at Fenway Park has been moved to 8:05pm ET. Dan Shulman, John Kurk and Curt Schilling will be on the call, with Buster Olney on the field.

The Sunday night game will make for a late, late flight afterwards to Cleveland, where the Tigers have a 7:05 game the next night. In fact, the Tigers’ nine-game trip to Baltimore, Boston and Cleveland will feature five different start times for games. On the whole, though, it’s a minor inconvenience.

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