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TigerFest tickets go on sale Friday

Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez are among the more than 30 Tigers players scheduled to take part in TigerFest, scheduled for Saturday, January 23 at Comerica Park. Tickets go on sale Friday beginning at 10 a.m. at tigers.com/tigerfest and by phone at 866-66-TIGER.

Tickets are $28 for adults and $14 for kids ages 12 and under.

The list of players and coaches is still being set, likely to be released in mid-January, but the TigerFest schedule of events is relatively similar to past years. Players and coaches will sign autographs at several locations set up around the park, including a kids-only autographs table. The Tigers clubhouse will be open for fans to explore, and will include a display of baseball artifacts. The visitors dugout will be open as well for fans to visit and take photos. A guided tour will take fans into some of the Tigers executive offices, the Ernie Harwell Media Center, a luxury suite and the Champions Club. Three stages will feature players and club officials, including question-and-answer sessions, seminars and clinics.

Activities for kids include a miniature Comerica Park stage featuring Tigers player book readings, games and activities, as well as free face-painting and baseball-themed games.

All fans attending will receive a free TigerFest scarf.

Avila: Soria wanted to go to KC

The Tigers officially announced their two-year, $11 million deal with Mark Lowe on Tuesday once Lowe passed his physical in Detroit. So Tuesday marked GM Al Avila’s first chance to discuss Lowe’s deal and the talks with Joakim Soria that preceded it.

A year after Lowe signed a minor-league deal with Seattle to try to rekindle his career, he’ll take over eighth-inning setup duties in Detroit. His 2015 performance with the Mariners and Blue Jays, and the pitching behind it, convinced the Tigers.

Statistically, racked up a career-best 1.96 ERA this past season to go along with 61 strikeouts over 55 innings. Right-handed hitters batted just .196 (22-for-112) against Lowe with five walks and 36 strikeouts, compared with a .276 (24-for-87) average from left-handed batters. Stuffwise, while Lowe’s average fastball velocity jumped from 92-93 mph to 95.5, according to Fangraphs, opponents hit just .169 off his slider, whiffing on about 43 percent of their swings at it, according to STATS.

“He has a good slider, a very good slider,” Brad Ausmus said. “He used it quite a bit this year. I couldn’t tell you how much he used it prior [to this year], but I know he used it quite a bit. It’s a very effective pitch, a good swing-and-miss pitch.

“His velocity was up. His slider was good. He showed he could pitch at the back end of a bullpen — not the very back end, but towards the back end.”

Avila confirmed the Tigers had been talking with Soria as well. If you remember, Soria signed a three-year, $25 million deal to rejoin the Royals, turning down what was a three-year, $24 million offer from Detroit according to a source with knowledge of the negotiations. Avila chose his words carefully, but in the end, said Soria chose Kansas City.

“I think at the end of the day, Mark Lowe wanted to come to Detroit, and Joakim Soria wanted to go to Kansas City,” Avila said. “I think that’s why that happened the way it did. That’s just my personal opinion.”

Lowe deal: 2 years, $11 million

While the Tigers move into Day 2 of the Winter Meetings still focused on pitching, their Mark Lowe agreement from Sunday night has some more definition. Assuming there are no issues out of the physical, Lowe will get $11 million over two years, as first reported by Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports and later confirmed by an industry source.

It’s less than the three-year, $25 million deal Joakim Soria has agreed to with the Royals (the Tigers offered three years and $24 million). It’s more than the reported 2-year, $10 million deal for Jason Motte to join the Rockies.

Amidst outfield rumors, Tigers focus on pitching

Now that the Tigers are closing in on their pitching needs, the baseball industry is waiting to see whether the Tigers try for one more addition for their offense. For now, however, general manager Al Avila insists pitching is their focus.

Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com cited sources Monday morning that Detroit is looking at former Tiger Yoenis Cespedes and fellow free agent Alex Gordon as potential outfield options. As of Sunday night, though, Avila said that pitching was their focus at the meetings, and that hitting was a secondary item that could be addressed down the road.

“We feel that if we fix our pitching, we have enough hitting,” Avila said. “That doesn’t mean that you don’t try to tweak something. And it might not happen here [at the Winter Meetings], probably won’t happen here. It could happen in Spring Training. It might happen during the season, where you might make adjustments with the offense depending on need.”

The Tigers have since agreed to terms with right-handed reliever Mark Lowe on a reported two-year contract. They’re still looking for one more reliever, expected to be a left-hander. The top of the lefty relief market still hasn’t moved, with Tony Sipp and Antonio Bastardo at the top of the class and Brian Duensing and Franklin Morales also in the mix. The Tigers are believed to have cast a wide net, though reports of Sipp seeking a three-year deal could give Detroit reason for pause.

Others in the organization echoed on Monday that pitching remains the priority. It doesn’t mean that the Tigers won’t look to improve the outfield. It doesn’t even mean the Tigers have completely closed the door on a Cespedes return. But while the Tigers have been aggressively moving on pitching additions, indications up to this point have been that they could wait out the outfield market. Jason Heyward heads up the free-agent crop, while Ben Zobrist, Justin Upton and Gerardo Parra are also on the list. Zobrist could be the first to sign, reportedly narrowing his choices and aiming for a decision by the end of the Winter Meetings.

If the Tigers do nothing, they’ll likely open the season with a mix of Anthony Gose, Cameron Maybin and Tyler Collins for left and center field. Avila said last week that he’d be “comfortable” opening the season with who they have now in the outfield, but didn’t eliminate the possibility of an outfield addition.

Tigers sign Jarrod Saltalamacchia to one-year deal

While the Tigers finished up their starting pitching needs by finalizing a deal for Mike Pelfrey, they added a veteran backup catching candidate, signing Jarrod Saltalamacchia to a one-year contract.

The deal will pay the Major League minimum to Saltalamacchia, who will make $8 million as part of the three-year contract he signed with the Marlins two years ago. The 30-year-old will go to Spring Training and compete for a roster spot alongside James McCann, general manager Al Avila said Sunday evening from baseball’s Winter Meetings.

The Marlins released Marlins last May after a 2-for-29 start to his season. He finished the year in Arizona, where he hit .251 (43-for-171) for the Diamondbacks with 14 doubles, eight home runs, 23 RBIs and an .805 OPS. Combine the two stops, and he hit .225 with a .745 OPS, around his same OPS for most of his big-league career before a standout 2013 season in Boston not only earned him a World Series ring but propelled him into free agency.

Though Saltalamacchia is a switch-hitter, the bulk of his damage this past season came batting left-handed, which is what appealed to the Tigers as they pondered the idea of an another backup catching option besides Bryan Holaday.

“The opportunity came to be able to sign Jarrod,” Avila said. “Obviously we like his pop from the left side. We think that that is going to play. So we’ll see how that turns out in Spring Training. He’s a veteran guy. He’s been to the World Series.”

Saltalamacchia can also play first base, but his value is behind the plate. And unless the Tigers decided to carry three catchers, he’ll compete with Holaday for the second catcher spot, filling the void left by Alex Avila’s loss to the White Sox. It was more a luxury than a need.

“In our to-do list, it’s on there,” Avila said. “I can’t say it was a top priority, because we like Holaday. And I’ll be perfectly honest with you: Every year, we always look for that kind of combination. It’s difficult to find, and it seems like every year we’ve tried to do something and we couldn’t. This year it kind of fell into place with Jarrod, and we think it’s pretty good.”

Tigers agree to terms with Mike Pelfrey

Four days after signing a frontline starter, the Tigers have found the veteran they were seeking to fill out their rotation, agreeing to terms with right-hander Mike Pelfrey on a two-year contract worth $16 million, MLB.com has learned.

The deal is pending a physical. The Tigers have not commented on the agreement, first reported by CBSSports.com. An official announcement could be made as early as Sunday in Nashville when Tigers officials arrive for baseball’s Winter Meetings.

The Tigers’ interest in Pelfrey goes as far back as 2005, when he was a highly touted right-hander out of Wichita State University. David Chadd, then in his first year as Tigers scouting director and living in Wichita, had a closeup look at Pelfrey as a Shocker.

The Mets drafted Pelfrey that year with the ninth overall selection, one pick ahead of Detroit. The Tigers selected high school outfielder Cameron Maybin. Now, it appears they’ll have both, acquiring each of them less than a month apart.

Pelfrey, who turns 32 years old next month, spent the past three seasons in Minnesota, where he posted a 6-11 record and 4.26 ERA over 30 starts in 2015. He allowed 198 hits over 164 2/3 innings with 45 walks and 86 strikeouts. He had the lowest home-run ratio among qualified AL pitchers, allowing just 11 homers, but he also ranked third in the AL with 12 hit batters.

Pelfrey has battled back from season-ending injuries in two of the last four years, missing most of 2012 to Tommy John surgery before a shoulder injury and nerve irritation in his elbow limited him to five starts in 2014. He delivered similar comeback seasons in 2013 and 2015: High hit totals, low home-run damage and better metrics than results.

Pelfrey looked very good early in the year, boasting a 5-2 record and 2.28 ERA through his first 11 starts. A pair of eight-run barrages in June sent his season spiraling with a 1-9 record and 5.62 ERA over his final 19 outings, lasting through the sixth inning in just seven of those matchups.

Pelfrey seemed to physically wear down after essentially a lost 2014. Yet his fastball velocity jumped from an average of 90.8 mph during his handful of 2014 starts to 93.3 last year, according to Fangraphs. It marked his highest average for any full season in his career.

Pelfrey also reportedly went to a split-finger changeup, resulting in less reliance on his fastball.

It’s not the glamour signing that Jordan Zimmermann was, but it gives the Tigers the veteran innings-eater they were seeking and one who has a chance for a bounceback year, while leaving a rotation spot open long-term for one of their young starters. Pelfrey will join Justin Verlander, Zimmermann and Anibal Sanchez in the Tigers rotation, with the fifth spot a competition among young starters Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, Shane Greene, Kyle Lobstein .Buck Farmer and Michael Fulmer.

Tigers nontender Feliz, Alburquerque (updated)

The Tigers’ bullpen reconstruction will not include Neftali Feliz or Al Alburquerque. The two right-handers were nontendered Wednesday, making both of them free agents.

The two decisions cut potentially $7 million off the Tigers’ projected 2016 payroll, which currently has around $145 million guaranteed to eight players after Jordan Zimmermann signed a five-year, $110 million contract on Monday. Three other arbitration-eligible Tigers — shortstop Jose Iglesias, infielder Andrew Romine and outfielder J.D. Martinez — were tendered contract offers.

Neither nontender is a particular surprise, given what they were projected to make in arbitration. Their chances of returning hinged largely on the Tigers avoiding arbitration by working out a deal for a lower salary.

Feliz, a midseason signing by the Tigers, presented a complicated situation. He eligible for arbitration for a fourth time, having achieved “Super-Two” status while he was closing for the Rangers. The 27-year-old right-hander made $4.125 million this past season between Texas, which designated him for assignment July 4, and Detroit, which signed him as a free agent a week later. He gave up 34 runs on 57 hits over 48 innings combined, walking 18 and striking out 39 while recording 10 saves. While his arm showed promise, evidenced by a jump in his velocity in his longest season since Tommy John surgery a few years ago, his results were inconsistent.

Feliz was projected to make around $5.2 million according to MLBTradeRumors.com. The Tigers weren’t going to bring him back for that type of salary, but could have tried to sign him to a lower salary before the deadline. Talks on that front had stalled by Wednesday afternoon. Those talks could be revisited, but Feliz will check out the open market first, making a return highly unlikely.

Feliz and his agent, Ryan Royster, are now free to negotiate with any club. In a relief market seeing high asking prices and long-term contracts for top free agents, Feliz is expected to draw a fair amount of interest for teams looking for a bounceback candidate on a short-term deal.

“He should be some nice interest,” one Major League talent evaluator said Wednesday night. “Still has velo.”

Alburquerque was eligible for arbitration for his second time following a 2015 season in which he set a career high in innings pitched but also dealt with higher hit and walk rates while watching his strikeout rate drop. He gave up 17 runs on 30 hits over 23 1/3 innings after the All-Star break, walking 15 against 19 strikeouts. His inconsistencies were symptomatic of a Tigers bullpen that was in flux for most of the season.

The 30-year-old Alburquerque made $1.725 million this past season, having avoided arbitration in January when players and teams were scheduled to exchange arbitration numbers. MLBTradeRumors.com projected him to make $2.1 million in arbitration. His Tigers tenure ends after five seasons in Detroit, during which he vacillated between dominant strikeout artist and enigmatic middle reliever.

Considering the Tigers signed him out of winter ball in November 2010, inking him to a Major League contract without having thrown a big-league pitch, he enjoyed a bigger career than many expected. His 67 strikeouts over 43 1/3 innings as a rookie in 2011 helped fill out Detroit’s bullpen, setting up a run of four consecutive division titles. He missed most of the 2012 season following elbow surgery and found his top form for stretches over the next three seasons.

With Feliz and Alburquerque out, the right-handed side of the Tigers bullpen after closer Francisco Rodriguez currently consists of Alex Wilson, Drew VerHagen, Bruce Rondon, Buck Farmer, Jose Valdez, Jeff Ferrell and Angel Nesbitt. Top starting pitching prospect Michael Fulmer could be a bullpen candidate, manager Brad Ausmus reiterated Monday, but the Tigers are expected to pursue two more relievers this offseason to fill holes in a bullpen that finished next-to-last in the American League with a 4.38 ERA.

Notes and quotes from Zimmermann press conference

As I wrote for the site off the press conference, Jordan Zimmermann and the Tigers were a match of two sides with a mutual interest in getting a deal done early. Part of the reason was a shared comfort level; Zimmermann felt good about Detroit and the Tigers had prioritized Zimmermann early. Another part was a wariness of what might happen if they wait.

Zimmermann potentially could’ve gotten a bigger deal had he waited for David Price and Zack Greinke to sign, some admit. But he had no way of knowing what team would’ve been in position to make the offer, and how comfortable he would be with it. By moving early in the game of musical chairs, at least he had a choice.

“I knew what my value was and we got semi-close to what I was worth,” Zimmermann said in a smaller group session after his larger press conference. “We were going to jump early when the Tigers got to it. Obviously it’s nice to get close to home, and with a big ballpark, which I really like. I think it’s a perfect fit.

“Obviously if we didn’t get what I was worth, then we would’ve waited, played it out. But we got what we wanted and the team is a perfect fit, so it was a no-brainer.”

Asked if they could’ve benefited from waiting out the market, given their position as a team that doesn’t have to give up its first-round draft pick to sign any free agent, general manager Al Avila hesitated.

“Actually, it works both ways,” he said. “In some cases, there’s going to be certain guys that maybe the cost increases, and in some cases maybe the cost decreases. You really don’t know until it all plays out. It’s unpredictable.”

Word of mouth

While Zimmermann acknowledged that playing close to his Wisconsin home was a factor in his decision, he said it wasn’t a priority. Instead, Detroit’s appeal had a lot more to do with its early interest in him as a primary option rather than a what-if situation.

Nor, Zimmermann added, did word of mouth play a major factor for him with former teammates. Though he pitched in the same Nationals rotation this past season as former Tigers teammates Max Scherzer and Doug Fister, he said he only sought out Fister’s advice for minor issues, not a big-picture feel for the clubhouse and the city.

“I didn’t want to give him too much information,” Zimmermann said, “but he told me the best places to live in spring training, just small things like that. I haven’t talked with him a whole lot.”

By contrast, Fister had more feedback for Scherzer when he made the jump from Detroit to Washington as a free agent last winter.

Fastballs

Zimmermann went from a sub-.300 BABIP and sub-.270 batting average against fastballs in his history to a .309 BABIP and a .456 slugging percentage against his fastball this past season. That played a seemingly significant reason behind his jump in home runs allowed to 24, a career high and his first time over 20 despite another season of heavy work.

“I’m not concerned about it at all,” Zimmermann said. “I might have left a few more balls over the middle of plate and they just happened to go out. I remember a few home runs were they were really good pitches up and in, where I like to live. Stuff like that’s going to happen. Hopefully this big ballpark’s going to help me out.”

How Al Avila’s search for a closer landed him K-Rod

The Tigers touched base with clubs before last week’s General Managers Meetings, a regular practice at the start of the offseason to gauge teams’ needs and what they’d be willing to deal. They found a surprising number of teams willing to trade their closer. They also found many of those teams looking for big returns to do so. The Tigers checked in on Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and reportedly Brad Boxberger, but found teams asking on the same high-level prospects that the Tigers felt they needed — not just down the road, but in the very near future.

They engaged in early talks with free agent Joakim Soria, their closer for much of last season, but a heavy amount of interest pushed the expected contract from two years to three. Darren O’Day, meanwhile, is reportedly looking for a four-year contract, according to MLB Network’s Ken Rosenthal.

The Tigers wanted to address their bullpen, and closer was at the top of the list. At the same time, they didn’t want to sell out their farm system or take up payroll space budgeted for starting pitchers. So during the GM Meetings, they came back to the Brewers about Francisco Rodriguez.

“With [new Brewers GM] David Stearns, obviously we had reached out before the GM Meetings and just kind of exchanged information like we normally do with clubs as far as needs and that nature,” Tigers GM Al Avila said on Wednesday’s conference call. “And then at the GM Meetings, we had talked about it a little bit more.”

As talks with Soria’s agent lingered, the suspicion grew that the Tigers were preferring their trade options. By Tuesday, this was clearly the one they preferred.

“After all the conversations, we just decided this would be the rest route for us,” Avila said. “We felt that Francisco, with his experience, gave us the best option to close games for us this coming year and gives us the flexibility to continue to add bullpen pieces.

“Also it’s a one-year contract with an option, so it gives us some flexibility there. The overall trade was good for both clubs. The full situation of acquiring a pitcher we were comfortable giving the ball in the ninth inning with his experience, and the full package of the deal, is really what made it attractive for us. And we were able to keep some of the younger guys we wanted to keep.”

Rodriguez, who signed in mid-March after lingering on the free-agent market, will make $7.5 million next year – of which $2 million is deferred to 2018 — on the back half of a two-year, $13 million contract. The Tigers hold a $6 million club option for 2017, or a $2 million buyout. Even if Rodriguez isn’t the closer by season’s end, as long as he’s healthy and reasonably effective, it’s a reasonable deal to pick up the option. Thus, the Tigers get two years of Rodriguez — his age-34 and 35 seasons — for $13.5 million and second-base prospect Javier Betancourt, who was 11th on MLB.com’s Tigers prospect list but was expected to be at least a year away from the big leagues. There’s also a player to be named in the deal that is expected to be decided later this winter.

The Tigers have been linked with interest with Rodriguez in the past, but have always turned elsewhere. When he was still on the market last Spring Training, Detroit didn’t have the payroll space, turning back to Joba Chamberlain on a $1 million deal for depth. What Rodriguez did as closer last year — 38 saves in 40 chances, a career-best 0.86 WHIP, 6.0 hits per nine innings, and a still-strong 9.8 K/9 thanks to a nasty changeup — caught their attention. While his 20 home runs allowed over the last two years was a high rate, the transition from Miller Park to Comerica Park is expected to temper that.

Tigers pick up contract talks with Soria, but no offer yet

The Tigers’ search for a closer might well be in the middle innings at this point. With teams gauging interest for their late-inning relievers on the trade market as a shallower free-agent market lingers, the same could be said of many clubs.

The Tigers have picked up negotiations with Soria’s agent since their face-to-face meeting at last week’s GM Meetings, but have yet to present an offer, an industry source told MLB.com. That could come later this week.

While interest is strong in the 31-year-old right-hander, who racked up 24 saves between Detroit and Pittsburgh this past season, the market has been slow to move, save for an early offer from an unnamed club. One perception among some industry observers is that trade chatter involving late-inning relievers, even after Craig Kimbrel’s trade to Boston for prospects, is having an impact on what was a relatively quick-moving relief market last offseason.

That market could include Rays closer Brad Boxberger and left-hander Jake McGee if the return is big enough. The Tigers are among the teams that expressed interest, according to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times.

Unlike All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman, another reliever the Tigers have checked in on, Boxberger and McGee both have multiple years before they’re eligible for free agency — two years away for McGee, four for Boxberger. Chapman can hit the free-agent market next winter. With the Reds believed to be seeking a hefty return — Major League ready talent, according to ESPN’s Jayson Stark — the value for a club could hinge on winning now and/or signing Chapman long-term.

Other closers rumored to be up for trade discussion include Pittsburgh’s Mark Melancon, Texas’ Shawn Tolleson, Philadelphia’s Ken Giles, Washington’s tandem of Jonathan Papelbon and Drew Storen, and Yankees closer Andrew Miller, though the Yankees would reportedly have to be overwhelmed by an offer with young pitching to part with Miller with three years left on his contract.

Part of the problem the Tigers encounter on the trade market is their competition. Other clubs reportedly seeking closers, such as the Astros, have deeper farm systems that can shed a prospect or two without much long-term impact. The Red Sox are out of the market after trading for Kimbrel, but gave up enough of a package to impact expectations for other clubs on what they could get for their closer. Detroit, meanwhile, is in the midst of rebuilding the farm system and needs a good share of the young Major League-ready pitching it has.

Meanwhile, Soria appears to be in position to let trade talks play out and wait for the market to come to him. The same could be said of fellow free-agent reliever Darren O’Day, who has not been a full-time closer but is seen by many as closer potential after six saves this past season and 12 over the last three years. The combination could leave the Tigers in a holding pattern to fill what was expected to be the first task on new general manager Al Avila’s to-do list.

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