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.”