April 20th, 2014

Re-examining the Alex Gonzalez trade

The first thing that stood out the day the Tigers traded for Alex Gonzalez was the timing. The Tigers were on the road that day to face the Orioles in Sarasota, more than a 90-minute drive from Lakeland, but Lombardozzi had to report to the Tigers clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium for a meeting. Soon after, word leaked out from O’s camp that Gonzalez was a Tiger, and the perplexed reactions were on.

When Dave Dombrowski discussed the trade, he talked about taking a chance on a guy who had been a great shortstop in his day, and about the desire to get a proven veteran at the position. But he also named the people who put in evaluations on him, from first-base coach Omar Vizquel (who coached him in winter ball) to the Major League scouts who watched him in camp.

“Omar Vizquel was with him in the wintertime and he saw him play a lot, and he said he thought he definitely could play shortstop,” Dombrowski said. “And we also at the time, our scouts in Venezuela separately had recommended him at that time, said he was moving around very well.”

That’s the other thing that stood out about that day. It’s not unusual for Dombrowski to mention scouts later on, but this was right after the deal went down.

“We had two scouts this spring see him in Bruce Tanner and Jeff Wetherby,” Dombrowski continued. “They both think he can play shortstop, too. Now, when I say that, I’m not looking at a 150-game shortstop. He’s an older guy at this point. We do think he can be a key guy for us, yes.”

If Dombrowski was on a limb in making the move, he wasn’t going to be the only one on it.

“We thought we’d take a little chance on it,” Dombrowski said Sunday in announcing Gonzalez’s release. “We thought it was something worth taking the gamble. As we had a chance to watch him, had a chance to get a feel, we just didn’t see it getting better, so we thought, with the emphasis on defense for us at shortstop, we thought it was important to get someone who had a little bit more range.”

And that’s the thing about scouting: For all the work a talent evaluator does on a player, there’s still a risk involved. The same scouts who advised Dombrowski on Edgar Renteria in 2007 also advised him on Anibal Sanchez in 2012. Those who saw the potential in Doug Fister in 2011 also had to watch Jarrod Washburn two years earlier.

A huge reason why Dombrowski has succeeded on more trades than not over his years in Detroit is his scouting staff. He has built a group of veteran evaluators, but he also built a group that he trusts, that will give an honest opinion, and that isn’t afraid to stick a neck out. Shake up a scouting staff every time a deal goes wrong, and the relationship gets out of whack along the line.

Dombrowski got opinions that Gonzalez could still play short, but he still knew he was taking a risk, and he gave up a Major League player in Steve Lombardozzi to do it. He ended up with a shortstop who played in just nine games and didn’t make it to the end of April. Even Jacque Jones, a similar chance the Tigers took and quickly cut, made it into May, lasting five weeks before Detroit released him and called up a prospect named Matt Joyce.

In the end, the Gonzalez deal goes down as a miss, and a potentially significant one. I don’t think it makes the Doug Fister trade worse, because they were two deals made at two different times by a team that went from one situation (with a very good young shortstop) to a very different one (desperately seeking a shortstop). But I also don’t agree that the cost should be dismissed simply because Lombardozzi didn’t fit on the roster. He couldn’t fill the shortstop void that became huge in the middle of camp, but he was also a cost-controlled, switch-hitting, good-running utilityman at age 25 who has all his minor-league options left. If the Tigers are going to take a long-term view, players like Lombardozzi mean something, even if they don’t fit now. For a team that hasn’t shown any signs of giving up a first-round pick to sign Stephen Drew before June, giving up Lombardozzi is a cost as well. And keep in mind, this is a team that is again looking for a bat off the bench after sending Tyler Collins down. Yet this is still a front office that has many more hits on trades than misses.

How will this affect the Tigers going forward? If Detroit makes another deal for a shortstop, it’s hard to see it happening for another temporary option. Even though the additions individually cost less than signing Drew, at some point the price adds up. There have been no signs that anything has changed for the Tigers on Drew with the draft 6 1/2 weeks away. If the Tigers were to try to fill 6 1/2 weeks at short, it would most likely be with internal options. If they were to fill time until the July 31 trade deadline, it would most likely be internal.

“It’s a situation, too, where we’ve got two young shortstops who are actually playing very well in Hernan Perez and Eugenio Suarez and Triple-A and Double-A, respectively,” Dombrowski said this morning. “But [going with Andrew Romine and Danny Worth] gives them an opportunity to continue to play on day-in, day-out basis, which we think will benefit our organization in the long run.”

Sunday’s lineups: Tigers vs. Angels

Meanwhile, amidst the end of the Alex Gonzalez experiment, there’s a game to be played. Andrew Romine gets the start against lefty Hector Santiago. Miguel Cabrera gets a day at DH, with Victor Martinez starting at first base. The Angels, meanwhile, move Ian Stewart up to the cleanup spot and start Brennan Boesch in right field against his friend Rick Porcello.

TIGERS (career numbers off Hector Santiago)

  1. Rajai Davis, LF (1-for-3, HR, K)
  2. Ian Kinsler, 2B (2-for-6, double, 2 walks, K)
  3. Miguel Cabrera, DH (1-for-5, walk, K)
  4. Victor Martinez, 1B (2-for-8, double, walk, 2 K’s)
  5. Torii Hunter, RF (1-for-7, 2 walks)
  6. Austin Jackson, CF (2-for-15, HR, walk, 6 K’s)
  7. Nick Castellanos, 3B
  8. Alex Avila, C (0-for-6, 3 walks, 3 K’s)
  9. Andrew Romine, SS

P: Rick Porcello

ANGELS (career numbers off Porcello)

  1. J.B. Shuck, LF (1-for-3, double)
  2. Mike Trout, CF (4-for-10, HR, walk, K)
  3. Albert Pujols, 1B (3-for-7, 2 doubles)
  4. Ian Stewart, 3B
  5. Howie Kendrick, 2B (5-for-22, 3 doubles, 8 K’s)
  6. David Freese, DH (1-for-3)
  7. Hank Conger, C (1-for-2)
  8. Brennan Boesch, RF
  9. Erick Aybar, SS (4-for-19, double, walk, 3 K’s)

P: Hector Santiago

Tigers release Alex Gonzalez, call up Danny Worth (updated)

Alex Gonzalez’s tenure as Tigers shortstop is over after three weeks. The Tigers released the 37-year-old on Sunday morning and purchased the contract of infielder Danny Worth from Triple-A Toledo.

For now, Worth will platoon at shortstop with switch-hitter Andrew Romine, who had been splitting time with Gonzalez. The Tigers continue to monitor prospects Hernan Perez and Eugenio Suarez, who are playing shortstop at Triple-A Toledo and Double-A Erie respectively, but wanted to give both of them more seasoning before considering them for a call-up.

Add in the looming free agency of Stephen Drew, who could sign without draft pick compensation following the First-Year Player Draft in June, and the Tigers could have a revolving door at shortstop going for the next several weeks as they continue to try to fill the void left by injured Jose Iglesias.

“Hopefully this combination will help us, and we can continue to analyze our situation,” team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. “We’ve got two young guys that we’re just not quite ready to bring up and ready to let them play, but they’re playing very, very well for us.”

The Tigers gave no signal of expecting long-term stability in announcing the move. What they knew, however, was that Gonzalez wasn’t the answer.

“We need to have a little more range defensively at shortstop. We just didn’t see it there and didn’t see it getting better,” Dombrowski said. “So we figured it was time to make the move.”

Detroit thought enough of Gonzalez that they traded a young utilityman Steve Lombardozzi to Baltimore to acquire him with a week to go in Spring Training. At the time, Dombrowski cited Tigers scouts Bruce Tanner and Jeff Wetherby, as well as first-base coach Omar Vizquel, among those who watched Gonzalez and believed he could play shortstop, though not necessarily every day.

From Opening Day on, however, Gonzalez’s time at short was marked by inconsistency. He made an error in the season opener on a ball to his left, yet made a ranging play up the middle to snare a ball and rob a single before delivering the game-winning RBI at the plate.

Gonzalez seemed much more comfortable making plays to his left, up the middle, than to his right. He made three errors in 31 chances over eight starts for a .903 fielding percentage.

Gonzalez had a negative-5 rating in Defensive Runs Saved, a statistic developed by Bill James and Baseball Info Solutions to put defensive performance into a tangible context. Just four years ago, his next-to-last season as an everyday shortstop, he had a plus-27 rating.

“We thought we’d take a little chance on it,” Dombrowski said of the trade. “We thought it was something worth taking the gamble. As we had a chance to watch him, had a chance to get a feel, we just didn’t see it getting better, so we thought, with the emphasis on defense for us at shortstop, we thought it was important to get someone who had a little bit more range.”

Gonzalez’s defensive concerns might have been tempered a bit had he continued to deliver clutch hits. However, he had just three singles in 26 at-bats after Opening Day.

“Gonzo worked hard. He’s had a tremendous career,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “In his prime, he was one of the better shortstops in the game of baseball, but time takes its toll on everyone. At this point, we decided to make a change and bring Danny Worth up.

“Certainly with age, you’re going to slow down a little bit. He was a tremendous, tremendous shortstop — I mean, he was one of the elite shortstops — in his prime. He hasn’t played much short in the last couple years, so we were hoping maybe that the spring had returned to his legs a little bit. But it just didn’t work.”

Thus, the Tigers turn back to Worth, who was in play for a timeshare at short before Detroit traded for Gonzalez. The 28-year-old has rotated around the infield at Triple-A Toledo, allowing Perez to take the bulk of the time at short, but his strong arm and reliable range are well known. He batted .308 (16-for-52) for the Mud Hens with five doubles and one RBI.

Ausmus indicated he won’t necessarily have a strict lefty-righty platoon between Worth, who bats right-handed, and the switch-hitting Romine, who started Sunday against Angels left-hander Hector Santiago.

“He can do a lot of things for us,” Dombrowski said of Worth. “We know him. He hits left-hand pitching well, with Romine over there playing well defensively, and he’s better vs. right-handed pitching. That gives us a nice combination. He runs decently, gives us a nice combination, and he’s a solid defensive player at shortstop, can play second or third, gives us some versatility value. So he’ll get some playing time here, see how he does.”

Even with the current mix, however, Dombrowski mentioned Perez and Suarez as future options. Perez, primarily a second baseman in his pro career, has played 15 games at shortstop in Toledo, where he’s batting .277 with four doubles, a home run and 10 RBIs. Suarez, a natural shortstop, entered Sunday batting .260 for Erie with five doubles, three homers and eight RBIs.

“If we were going to bring them up at this time, we figured that we would want them to come up and play most of the time,” Dombrowski said. “And right now, with Romine being a left-hand hitter, he’s going to play most of the time. So we think Danny, again, we think he’ll do a solid job for us. He’s been in the organization a long time. Give him the opportunity.”

Game 14: Is Joba Chamberlain the new setup man?

It took Max Scherzer four starts to earn his first win of the year. It took Joba Chamberlain six outings to earn his first hold, but he now has two in three days.

The way he looks on the mound, the question now is whether he’s the man in line for more by handling the majority of eighth-inning leads.

Manager Brad Ausmus still isn’t inclined to name roles in his bullpen besides closer Joe Nathan. In his defense, there was a time fairly recently that Al Alburquerque looked like the man in line for setup duty, and was the most consistent reliever the Tigers had going.

The way Chamberlain has been pitching since last weekend, however, has Chamberlain looking like his younger form.

“The way he’s pitched recently, I’m certainly very comfortable bringing him in in the eighth inning,” Ausmus said. “I even brought him in today knowing he would face some left-handed hitters, and he showed that he was able to get through it today smoothly. I don’t know if I have to assign a role to him, but right now I’m very comfortable bringing him in the eighth inning with a save-caliber lead.”

Chamberlain had the eighth inning Saturday with a 4-2 lead. He threw eight pitches, all of them strikes, and threw his fastball consistently around the mid-90s. His first three pitches were all fastballs — 94 mph, then 95, then 96 — all spotted for strikes to retire Hank Conger. He then started off Brennan Boesch with a curveball to retire him on a groundout, then put J.B. Shuck in an 0-2 count before sending him down check-swinging at a slider in the dirt.

“Joba’s been good the last few outings, but that’s by far the best we’ve seen him,” Ausmus said.

That gives Chamberlain 11 strikeouts over 6 1/3 innings this season, including 10 of the last 19 batters he has faced since that disastrous outing against the Orioles two weeks ago.

He credits the difference to getting regular work after going stretches without being used the first week of the season.

“It’s just getting into a rhythm,” Chamberlain said. “Obviously being able to be in the games and be in situations where you know you’re able to pitch and execute pitches [helps]. I just feel comfortable with all my pitches right now, being able to locate with fastballs and throw my slider, my curveball whenever I want.

“It’s a game where you just have to adjust. That was the big thing for me to be able to come in and make some adjustments and obviously help this team win.”

The bigger difference is that he’s spotting what he’s throwing, especially his heavy, biting slider. It’s what he talked about as far back as TigerFest.

Now, if he can stay consistent with it, he’s in line for the kind of work he was seeking when he looked at Detroit as a landing spot last December.

“If he keeps throwing all strikes,” Ausmus said, “he’ll pitch a lot.”

Play of the game: It was an aggressive play by Miguel Cabrera to tag up from second base on Torii Hunter’s fly ball to center field, and it nearly backfired on him if not for replay overturning umpire Gerry Davis’ out call. But it was a third-inning play that set up an extra run on Austin Jackson’s sacrifice fly.

“I’ve said it since Spring Training: This guy’s baseball IQ is high,” Ausmus said. “He gave a false-looking break like he was just going to take a few steps and stop and go back to second, I guess you would call it a deke, and then he picked right back up and kept going. He understands the game more than just hit the ball, field the ball, throw the ball. He understands the intricacies of the game and what goes through a player’s mind.”

Out of the game: Max Scherzer seemingly had the third out of the fourth inning when Ian Stewart was caught stealing, but replay overturned that call. That didn’t just leave Scherzer needing to make extra pitches for another out. That left with a 3-1 count to Erick Aybar with two runners in scoring position, including the tying run at second.

“Typically, when it goes to replay, they’re typically going to overturn it,” Scherzer said. “For them to use it, you know they’re probably going to be right.

“For me, I had to take the mentality that it was going to be overturned and I had to get Aybar out. I was going through the whole scenario: What do I want to do? I was taking warm-up pitches to make sure my arm was at 100 percent. I think it was a 3-1 ballgame at that point. That was a very important at-bat and even though it was something new, I thought I took a good mentality of how to combat that.”

Scherzer spotted a second strike to run the count full, then after a foul ball, got a swing and a miss for the strikeout to end the threat.

“To me, he pitched well the whole game, but that was kind of the turning point in the game in terms of Max’s outing,” Ausmus said.

Line of the day: Mike Trout had plenty of three-strikeout games in his career. He had never struck out four times in a game — until Saturday. Max Scherzer became the second pitcher to strike out Trout three times in a game, joining Oakland lefty Tommy Milone. Joe Nathan got the last.

Stat of the day: 0 — Hits involved in Miguel Cabrera’s trip around the bases in the third inning. He reached on a Brennan Boesch error, advanced on a Victor Martinez walk, tagged up to third on Hunter’s fly ball and scored on Jackson’s sac fly.

Print it: “Everyone, even the greatest hitters, have those days. Yesterday Mike Trout got us, so I’m not going to throw a party just because he had an off day.” — Ausmus on Trout’s four-strikeout game

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