April 1st, 2014

While Drew loses tag, Yankees DFA Nunez

Tuesday was a big day for free-agent shortstop Stephen Drew. With the regular season officially underway for nearly every Major League team, Drew no longer has to worry about being saddled with draft pick compensation if he hits the free-agent market next winter. That means a one-year deal is now a welcome option for him, though it still will cost the Tigers their first-round draft pick (23rd overall) to sign him anytime before this year’s draft begins June 6.

Tuesday was also a big day on the shortstop market through the waiver wire, where former Yankees shortstop-in-waiting Eduardo Nunez is about to land. The Bronx Bombers designated him for assignment Tuesday to make room for Yangervis Solarte on the roster.

MLB.com’s Yankees reporter, Bryan Hoch, has a good breakdown of Nunez’s situation on his blog, including Yankees GM Brian Cashman using the words “fresh start” in his explanation.

“We’re allotted 10 days to make an assignment of his contract,” Cashman told the Yankees beat writers, “so stay tuned.”

That sounds very much like Nunez is about to be on the move.

There was a time when the 26-year-old Nunez was seen as the logical successor to Derek Jeter. He started 69 games at shortstop last season with Jeter out, though a strained rib cage cost him two months as well. That said, there’s a reason why the Yankees are going with Solarte and parting ways with Nunez. His defense was disappointing when he started, including limited range and an erratic arm, and his OPS dropped to a career-low .679. The fact that the Yankees were supposedly looking for infield help on the trade market early this spring says something about where Nunez had fallen on the depth chart.

The advantage Nunez has over Alex Gonzalez, obviously, is age. For all the questions about his game, whether he can hold up over the course of a season shouldn’t be one of them.

Like Gonzalez, Nunez bats right-handed, so it’s hard to see the Tigers keeping both and platooning them. Thus, if the Tigers were to take a shot on Nunez, they’d have to believe he can step in right away and be a regular shortstop. In addition, Nunez would have to pass through most of the American League on waivers before the Tigers would be able to make a claim. So if Detroit wants him, it might have to work out a trade for him.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: Does Eduardo Nunez provide any more certainty at shortstop over the course of a season than Alex Gonzalez? And if it’s close, is it worth swinging a deal for him and giving up parts for the latest fix at short, especially if more errors and wayward throws could lead the Tigers back to Drew?

Speaking of Drew, there’s no sign yet that anything’s moving on that front. While Drew couldn’t sign anywhere before today if he wanted to shed the draft-pick drag next winter, that doesn’t mean teams weren’t able to negotiate with him ahead of today. And if the Tigers had any thought of adding Drew on the second day of the season, I doubt they would have brought in Alex Gonzalez and given up Steve Lombardozzi eight days ago. Thus, the waiting game continues.

Could the Tigers wait until June, see how Gonzalez holds up and then revisit Drew, with no draft pick required at that point? It’s possible, but there’s no guarantee he’ll linger on the market for two more months; the latest injury to Jose Reyes in Toronto shows how unforeseen needs can pop up elsewhere. More importantly, two months encompass a lot of games, and you can’t expect Drew to be ready immediately after signing. Even if he’s in game shape, he’d need his timing at the plate.

In summary: If you thought the Tigers closer watch was a long-running, painful saga last year around this time, this could conceivably go on longer, even if the Tigers made a play for Nunez. Gonzalez, for all his heroics Monday, still needs to play better — mainly in the field — if he’s going to grab the role and slow the speculation.

Game 1: Rookies set up old shortstop for big day

The game-winning RBI on Opening Day at Comerica Park came from a 37-year-old shortstop playing in his 15th Opening Day. The two rookies who set up the walkoff single had played in 11 Major League games combined before Monday.

That’s the kind of mix that got the Tigers through a hairy opener, with Alex Gonzalez responsible for a good chunk of the hairiness.

“I want to do the best,” Gonzalez said after his walkoff single. “I come here to do all my best on defense, offense, show the people I can still play shortstop. Errors are [part of] the game. I made a mistake, but I keep my head.”

So, too, did Nick Castellanos, who ended up with a two-hit game in his first start at third base.

“It’s a kid’s dream come true,” Castellanos said. “Opening Day with all the fans here — great energy in the park from when they announce our names. From start to finish, it was perfect. You can’t really write it any better than that.”

At times, it seemed like Castellanos’ nerves might have the better of him. He singled leading off the fifth inning, but in his aggressiveness to try to take second base on the liner to left, he didn’t account for three-time reigning Gold Glove winner Alex Gordon, who has at least 17 outfield assists in each of the last three seasons. It was the demonstration of the minute difference between the awareness Brad Ausmus is pushing for on the basepaths and the aggressiveness he seems to be getting.

Two innings later, he struck out badly on an 0-2 pitch from Aaron Crow, but the ball skipped away from catcher Salvador Perez, allowing Austin Jackson to dash home from third. It was not a good at-bat for Castellanos, who was out, but it came with a decent ending.

After that, he received some advice.

“Just relax,” Castellanos said. “It’s so easy to think but so hard to do. First big-league Opening Day, at home, in front of all these fans, it’s easy to press. I had a lot of players after my third at-bat, when I swung and missed at a pitch in the dirt, which is not me at all, everybody said, ‘Relax. Don’t try to do too much. Be yourself.’ I felt like I did a really good job of that.”

The ninth-inning single was more in line with Castellanos’ hitting, taking a pitch and lining it into the opposite-field gap. The fact that Ausmus pinch-ran Tyler Collins in place of his starting catcher, Alex Avila, showed some degree of faith that Castellanos could hit a ball that way.

If Castellanos pulls a ball to left field, there’s no way Collins tests Gordon and tries to take third. With a ball to right, by contrast, Collins didn’t hesitate.

“Going first to third on a hard-hit ball like that is always tough,” Castellanos said. “He got a great jump, and fortunately he didn’t even make it a play. That’s because of his effort.”

Collins, by the way, became the fifth Major League player in the last 35 years to make his Major League debut as a pinch-runner and score a game-winning run on a walkoff hit. It happened last September 8, when San Francisco Ehire Adrianza scored in the bottom of the 11th against the Diamondbacks on an Angel Pagan walkoff single. Before that, however, it hadn’t happened since Sept. 2, 1985, when Jose Gonzalez scored a game-winning run for the Dodgers to beat the Expos on a Jay Johnstone walkoff single.

The other two names should be more familiar. Cal Ripken Jr. did it on Aug. 10, 1981, pinch-running for Ken Singleton in the bottom of the 12th and scoring on a John Lowenstein single to help Earl Weaver’s Orioles past the Royals. Two years earlier, Tommy Herr debuted for the Cardinals as a pinch-runner on Aug. 13, 1979 and scored on a Garry Templeton sacrifice fly to beat the Cubs and Hall of Fame closer Bruce Sutter.

Thanks to baseball-reference.com, as always, for the research tools with their Play Index.

Play of the game: Alex Gonzalez’s game-tying two-out triple was his first three-bagger since April 3, 2011, and was a critical two-out RBI, scoring Alex Avila from second base. Considering the Royals’ success last year protecting leads in the late innings, it changed the course of the game.

It was a continuation of the solid hitting that kept Gonzalez alive in Orioles camp all spring before the trade.

“Just stay relaxed, looking for my pitch,” he said. “I had a great Spring Training, and that helped me a lot. Stay back, think up the middle. I’ve been working out off the tee and in the cage, and it helped me a lot.”

Biggest out: The Royals had Justin Verlander on the verge of another rout in the fourth inning, scoring three times, including a bases-loaded walk of Omar Infante, loading the bases for more when he exercised some damage control against Eric Hosmer. Suddenly, a fastball that was generally 92-94 mph bumped up to 98 to overpower the Royals first baseman into a popout to the left side.

“Obviously I don’t want to walk Omar there,” Verlander said, “but I was able to gather it, get the next guy out and keep us in the ballgame. A big hit there to the next guy, that’s how the wheels fall off. Walk a guy and you get down on yourself, you make a mistake to the next guy and he hits a double, then it’s 6-1, not 3-1.”

Strategy: The decision to pinch-run for Avila in the ninth inning of a tie game — and doing so with a rookie outfielder in his Major League debut — was fairly aggressive on the part of Ausmus. He essentially threw the best hitter on his bench into a situation where the winning run wasn’t yet in scoring position, anticipating a chance to get him from first to third base.

“They had told me the inning before when Victor was hitting to make sure I was loose,” Collins said. “Then it was “Hey Collins, go run.'”

Line of the day: The much-dissected Tigers bullpen delivered three scoreless innings on one-hit between Evan Reed, Al Alburquerque and Joe Nathan.

Stat of the day: 125 — Plate appearances Victor Martinez had last season before hitting his first home run of the year. On Monday, he homered his first time up, then nearly hit another before the ball he launched sailed foul down the right-field line.

“I don’t really worry about hitting home runs, man. That’s not my game,” Martinez said afterwards. “I know my game and I know my strength.”

Print it: “We’ve got some guys that can go out and take that extra 90 feet. And that’s what you have to be, a hyena, to get that extra 90 feet, take advantage of the weak link.” — Torii Hunter