The Tigers have a lot of sorting out to do with their bullpen. The simplest part, Joakim Soria’s contract option for 2015, is now out of the way. The team has decided to pick up Soria’s $7 million option, MLB.com has learned, thus keeping Soria off the free-agent market and in its bullpen mix.
Anthony Fenech first reported the move Friday morning. The Tigers have not confirmed, but are expected to make an official announcement later Friday.
The Tigers had until shortly after the World Series to make the move, but the decision had been expected for the past couple weeks. Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski, while not announcing a decision earlier this month, strongly hinted at it during his end-of-season media session, saying they acquired Soria from Texas in July with next season in mind, as well as this one.
A left oblique strain in early August threw a wrench into Soria’s 2014 impact. He returned a month later, but suffered from a lack of a set role, working everywhere from seventh-inning setup to fill-in closer on days the Tigers rested Joe Nathan. Soria performed well in September, allowing a run on three hits over 6 2/3 innings, but struggled mightily in two Division Series appearances at Baltimore.
The Tigers traded two of their top prospects, right-handed starter Jake Thompson and potential future closer Corey Knebel, to acquire Soria from Texas on July 23. To decline the option would’ve meant giving up that talent for a contribution that amounted to -0.1 Wins Above Replacement this year. By contrast, Jason Frasor had a 0.2 WAR for Kansas City after joining the Royals in early July, also from Texas.
Soria is expected to serve as Detroit’s eighth-inning setup man next season, a role Joba Chamberlain handled for most of this past season. Chamberlain is a free agent. Bruce Rondon, who was supposed to handle setup work last year, is expected to be ready for Spring Training after undergoing Tommy John surgery in April, but the hard-throwing 23-year-old has just 30 appearances in his Major League career.
The Tigers spent the last 3 1/2 weeks watching the Kansas City Royals, the team they consistently beat down the stretch to defend their division title, beat everybody else to not only win the American League, but come within a one-run game of the World Series title, having put the tying run on third base in the ninth inning of Game 7. In its first playoff run in 29 years, Kansas City came closer to a title than Detroit has in five playoff runs over the past nine years.
The Tigers watched quietly, because teams that are out are discouraged from making news until the playoffs are over, giving the competing teams the spotlight. Once the Giants held off the Royals to close out their third World Series title in five years Wednesday night, the Tigers officially embarked on their offseason business Thursday morning.
It’s not likely to be so quiet around here anymore. As Dave Dombrowski put it during his season-ending press conference two weeks ago, “I would think that right after the World Series will be a very busy time for us.”
There’s a lot on the table:
- They have until Saturday to decide on club options for Joakim Soria ($7 million) and catcher Alex Avila ($5.4 million). The team doesn’t usually make announcements on weekends if it can help it, so those decisions appear more likely to arrive on Friday. The Tigers are likely to pick up the option on Soria rather than lose him as a free agent after giving up two top prospects to get him. Whether Detroit picks up the option on Avila only affects the salary, since he isn’t eligible for free agency yet. He becomes arbitration eligible if Detroit declines the option.
- Detroit has until Monday night at midnight to negotiate with its own free agents (Max Scherzer, Victor Martinez, Torii Hunter, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Coke, Jim Johnson, Joel Hanrahan) before they’re free to sign with other clubs. That gives the Tigers a small window to see if they can sign Martinez long-term before any other team has a chance. If Martinez is looking for a four-year contract, as CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported last week, he’ll likely hit the open market to seek it.
- The same midnight deadline serves as the point when teams have to extend any qualifying offers to their own free agents in order to secure a draft pick should they sign elsewhere. The Tigers haven’t extended a qualifying offer in a while. Considering Scherzer and Martinez could end up as the top pitcher and hitter on the market, the team will probably break the pattern and make the qualifying offer. This year, it’s one year at $15.3 million, and both Scherzer and Martinez would get more than that on the open market.
- Starting Tuesday, the Tigers can make offers and negotiations to other free agents, such as relievers on their shopping list, potential outfield options, maybe even a DH if they lose Martinez. The bullpen shopping could take a while, lasting potentially into the Winter Meetings, as could the courtship on top hitters. Then again, the last time Martinez was a free agent, he signed with the Tigers before Thanksgiving. Hunter signed in early November two years ago.
- The trade market is more likely to get going in a couple weeks, when general managers gather in Phoenix for the annual GM meetings (Nov. 10-13). In recent years, that has been the venue where trade targets and potential matches become clear, since it’s the first opportunity of the offseason for decision-makers to meet to face-to-face.
The last time Mike Maroth took the mound at Triple-A Toledo, he was still trying to work his way back into the Tigers rotation. That was in 2006, after he underwent surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow earlier that year.
He missed out on the Tigers postseason run that fall, and his Detroit tenure ended the next summer. When he walks to that same mound at Fifth Third Field next spring, he’ll be playing a quietly important part towards trying to get the Tigers back to the World Series — as a coach.
After three seasons close to home as the pitching coach at Class A Lakeland, Maroth is moving up to take the same post with the Mud Hens. It’s a promotion that puts Maroth in line to take the underappreciated challenge of handling pitching prospects on their last step before the Majors as well as struggling pitchers sent down from Detroit to work on issues.
The promotion became official this week.
The Tigers have not yet announced their full minor-league staff, pending some final decisions. Detroit also has a big-league coaching opening for assistant hitting coach, which could factor into that as the Tigers consider internal candidates alongside others from outside the organization.
Maroth replaces former Major League pitcher Al Nipper. Nipper spent one year with the Hens after his predecessor, former Tigers pitcher and University of Toledo product A.J. Sager, took over as Tigers minor-league pitching coordinator.
Maroth spent parts of three seasons at Toledo, making 48 starts there. He arrived in 2001 as a 23-year-old pitching prospect who had lost 14 games the previous year at Double-A Jacksonville. He went 7-10 with a 4.65 ERA in his first year with the Hens, then made the learning curve to rule the International League the next year.
Maroth went 8-1 with a 2.82 ERA in 11 starts for Toledo in 2002, essentially forcing his way into the struggling Tigers rotation. He lost 21 games the next year on Detroit’s record-setting 119-loss team, but his quiet composure and dignity set the tone for a club whose struggles put it in the national spotlight by year’s end. Maroth went 14-14 two years later.
He never had overpowering stuff as a pitcher, armed with a fastball that rarely hit 90 mph, but he lasted six years in the Majors on his ability to mix pitches and keep hitters off-balance. His pitching knowhow served him well in Lakeland, where he worked with several Tigers prospects on their way up. Among his former pupils to reach the big leagues are Bruce Rondon, Jacob Turner, Kyle Ryan, Drew VerHagen, Melvin Mercedes, Brian Flynn. In addition, Maroth coached Jake Thompson en route to his Futures Game selection this past summer before the Tigers traded him to Texas in the Joakim Soria deal.
The Tigers had been preparing themselves for the likelihood that Miguel Cabrera would need surgery to remove bone spurs in his right ankle, which would take out a chunk of his offseason workouts. They were not expecting that an exam would reveal a stress fracture in his right foot, too.
“It was a surprise, I’d say, for all of us at that point,” team president/general manager Dombrowski said Friday morning. “We were not aware it was there. I’m not sure how long it was there. He did have a couple of screws inserted.”
It’s the navicular bone at the top of his foot, and according to research online, it’s not rare among athletes, and there’s a history of it with basketball players. Joel Embiid, the highly-touted center out of Kansas, slid in the NBA Draft this offseason reportedly because of a navicular fracture. Michael Jordan, Kevin McHale, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Yao Ming all had navicular fractures in their careers, with Ming’s situation serving as a worst-case scenario.
The injury is less common in baseball. Dustin Pedroia had a nondisplaced navicular fracture in midseason 2010, tried to rehab it and avoid surgery, underwent the procedure, played the 2011 season with a screw in his foot and has been fine with the foot since. Cody Ross had a similar injury that did not require surgery, and ended up missing a month. Jacoby Ellsbury had a compression fracture of the bone in 2013, rested for a few weeks and played in the postseason.
In Cabrera’s case, it was severe enough that rest-and-rehab wasn’t an option.
Cabrera is built more like an undersized forward than a center, and he has taken steps to watch his weight the last few years. For the vast majority of athletes, this is a surgery that shouldn’t present long-term issues. However, it’s also an injury that deals with pressure on the foot.
Recovery seems relatively safe. Cabrera’s offseason workout plans, however, appear to be scratched for the second straight year. He might be able to do upper-body workouts, but he’s expected to keep weight off his surgically repaired foot. Thus, even if Cabrera checks out fine during his follow-up exam in January, he’s going to have some catching up to do to get back to where he wants and expects.
The injury, meanwhile, leaves the Tigers with some immediate concerns:
1. The Tigers have to be prepared at first base, under any scenario, when the season starts.
Detroit is familiar with this scenario from this past summer, when manager Brad Ausmus was juggling Cabrera and Victor Martinez at first base according to whether Cabrera felt strong enough to play in the field. Ausmus did not want to play Martinez every day at first base for fear of tweaking an injury with him.
Detroit’s other first base option this season was Don Kelly. J.D. Martinez played a couple minor league games at first base in 2009 and hasn’t played there since. Mike Hessman’s prodigious minor-league power is legendary, but he hasn’t hit above .250 since 2010. Jordan Lennerton went from Futures Game participant in 2013 to a .249 hitter at Toledo this season, though he batted .333 from June 23 on. Aaron Westlake batted .236 at Double-A Erie this season. It would behoove the Tigers to have a plan at first base in case Cabrera needs more time or has to DH.
2. The Victor Martinez talks just got trickier.
The recent buzz that Martinez is looking for a four-year contract on the upcoming free-agent market, as Jon Heyman reported today for CBSSports.com, potentially puts the Tigers in a bind. On one hand, if Cabrera isn’t ready for Opening Day, or even if he’s playing while his foot and ankle regain strength, getting production out of somebody else is huge, just as Martinez’s early-season production was for them this season. On the other hand, a four-year deal for Martinez puts him under contract through his age 39 season, and puts the Tigers at risk for a bad situation in a few years if injuries leave Cabrera better suited for DH work as he approaches his mid-30s, let alone if Cabrera is deemed better off DHing a little more often next year.
If Cabrera is slowed, it’s hard to see how the Tigers lineup works next season without Martinez. And yet, if Cabrera is slowing, it’s hard to see how the Tigers can succeed long-term with him and Martinez. There are other DH options headed for the market, from Billy Butler to Kendrys Morales, but the only free-agent hitter in the same neighborhood is Nelson Cruz.
And no, the free-agent market for first basemen isn’t better than the market for DHs. Adam LaRoche could hit the market if either he or the Nationals decline the $15 million mutual option in his contract, but there’s a question too of how many years he’ll want in a new deal at age 35. Mike Morse has played first base off and on during his career. Adam Lind is a potential trade candidate, according to the Toronto Sun, but he does not hit lefties well.
As expected, Miguel Cabrera underwent surgery to remove the bone spurs in his right ankle that had been bothering him for months. He also had a procedure to repair a stress fracture in the navicular bone near the top of his right foot, an injury that hadn’t been known and which requires a longer rehab.
Dr. Robert Anderson performed the surgery in Charlotte, N.C., including the insertion of screws in the foot.
“It was a surprise, I’d say, for all of us,” team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said Friday morning. “We were not aware [the stress fracture] was there. I’m not sure how long it was there. He did have a couple of screws inserted.”
Cabrera will be re-evaluated in three months, or a few weeks before Spring Training. He’s expected to avoid weight-bearing activities on the foot, which greatly limits his offseason workouts.
“He’ll probably be pretty much inactive,” team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said.
Dombrowski avoided any prognostications about Cabrera’s potential readiness for Spring Training, preferring to wait for the follow-up exam in January.
Cabrera’s ankle began to bother him soon after he seemed regain some of his strength from the core muscle surgery that he underwent last year around this time. Cabrera recovered from that surgery in time to have a full Spring Training, but admitted later to a reporter for USA Today that the core muscles tightened on him at times during the season.
The ankle injury hobbled Cabrera for much of the summer, but as with the core muscle issue last year, he played through. In this case, he seemed to improve as he kept playing.
Cabrera’s September performance — including a .379 (39-for-103) average, eight home runs and 18 RBIs — earned him American League Player of the Month honors. He wasn’t moving anywhere near full speed, but he was moving better than he had been in July and August.
“There’s no question that that ankle started to bother him at times, based upon a couple of instances, probably more sliding at more various times, in which he was affected,” Dombrowski said during his season-wrapup press conference last week. “But I think the difference was, where in 2013, where [the core muscle injury] hurt him all the time, in 2014 here at times … it hurt him at times, worse than others. Because it was there, and he would do something to jar it, and it would hurt him.
“There’s no question that that did bother him, but you saw in the postseason he still swung the bat well, the first couple of games in particular.”
Dombrowski said at that point that it wasn’t clear whether Cabrera would need surgery, because he was still being evaluated. The surgery to remove the bone spur, he said, is relative easy. The stress fracture complicates matters.
Now that the extent of the injury is clear, Cabrera’s ability to play through it becomes all the more impressive.
“It’s amazing that he was able to do that,” Dombrowski said. “It was much more involved [than expected] with the fracture there being in a position — and again, I don’t know when that happened. It’s amazing he was able to function with the foot and the ankle the way it is. He really is as tough as can be.”
The Tigers haven’t had a Gold Glove winner since Placido Polanco in 2009. They might have their best chance in the five years since to break the drought.
Catcher Alex Avila, first baseman Miguel Cabrera and second baseman Ian Kinsler were named finalists at their respective positions for the American League Gold Glove awards. The winners will be revealed at 7 p.m. ET on Nov. 4 on ESPN2. None has won a Gold Glove in their careers, though Avila has been nominated two other times since the award went to a finalist format in 2011.
Gold Glove Award nominations are based 75 percent on voting by AL coaches and managers and 25 percent on defensive metrics, specifically a formula developed by SABR last year to help the process. The SABR Defensive Index takes into account Defensive Runs Saved, Ultimate Zone Rating and Runs Effectively Defended.
For the Tigers, whose defense has been a perennial question each offseason, this year marks the highest number of finalists they’ve had under the current system, but their chances aren’t simply about the quantity of candidates. Especially with Kinsler’s season at second base, Detroit has a legitimate chance to end their search for gold.
While Detroit’s infield defense was a frequent point of scrutiny during the season, Kinsler not only stabilized his position, he put up the best metrics the Tigers have seen at second since Polanco left town. Under Defensive Runs Saved, a statistic created by The Fielding Bible to measure plays a defender makes compared to plays his peers would make, Kinsler’s plus-20 rating this year not only topped all Major League second baseman, but all AL infielders as well.
Under the better-known Ultimate Zone Rating, an effort to measure the number of plays a defender makes within his defensive zone, Kinsler’s 13 UZR ranked second at his spot behind three-time AL Gold Glove winner Dustin Pedroia.
Pedroia and Robinson Cano, who have alternated Gold Gloves for the past four years, are the other two finalists at second base. Polanco is the last AL second baseman other than those two to win, though Kinsler has been nominated once before.
Avila has been a frequent candidate based in large part on his success at throwing out would-be basestealers, and this season was no exception. After a down year last season, his caught-stealing rate of 34 percent (36-of-107) ranked fourth-best among Major League catchers with at least 100 starts behind the plate, and second in the AL to Brian McCann.
This year, however, Avila bolstered his case with a better all-around performance. Despite topping 1000 innings caught for the first time since 2011, he set career bests with just three passed balls and 23 wild pitches. His five defensive runs saved ranked second among AL catchers behind defending AL Gold Glove winner Salvador Perez.
Perez, not surprisingly, joins Avila among the finalists, as does Cleveland’s Yan Gomes.
The surprise among the group is Cabrera, who went from one of the worst-rated third baseman in the game to a relatively effective first baseman. His 4.3 UZR ranked fourth among AL players at his position, while his minus-one rating on defensive runs saved ranked sixth. His competition includes Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer, who won last year’s Gold Glove at first, and the Angels’ Albert Pujols, a two-time winner in the National League. No Tigers first baseman has ever won a Gold Glove.
The Tigers made no changes on Brad Ausmus’ coaching staff after the season, but they’re going to need a new assistant hitting coach. Darnell Coles, who made a good impression as the assistant hitting coach, was hired by the Brewers on Thursday to be their head hitting coach.
“It’s tough leaving a great organization like the Tigers,” Coles said. “I was content and loved my job working with some of the best hitters in baseball — in Miguel Cabrera’s case, the best hitter in baseball. It was a great experience. It’s sad to leave, but you get an opportunity to get one of 30 jobs in the game, and a great group of hitters.”
For Coles, it’s a return to the organization from which the Tigers hired him. He spent four years in the Brewers farm system, serving as manager at Double-A Huntsville in 2012 and 2013 after he spent two years as the organization’s minor-league hitting coordinator. He had just been promoted to manage at Triple-A Nashville when Ausmus and the Tigers came calling.
The Tigers offered him his first shot at coaching in the big leagues, and he was superb at it. While the Tigers led the Majors in batting average and RBIs, topped the American League in OPS and finished second in the big leagues in runs scored, Coles provided a boundless amount of positive energy and a steady source of constructive critiques in support of primary hitting coach Wally Joyner.
“You watch how those guys work and prepare, and you get an understanding how those guys are as good as they are,” Coles said. “It’s a great group of hitters, a great group of guys, and you take that knowledge with you as you move on.”
Yet coaching Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler and Torii Hunter was a smaller part of the job. What filled out the Tigers lineup was the spark from J.D. Martinez, who went from Spring Training casualty in Astros camp to All-Star caliber run producer in Detroit.
“Darnell did a great job in working with Wally and our hitters,” Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. “Knowledgeable and hard working. He is ready to become the main hitting coach for a Major League team.”
What made Coles such a fit in Detroit, Ausmus said, was “great energy and detail oriented.”
Ausmus said they’ll look internally and search outside the organization for a replacement. Longtime Mud Hens hitting coach Leon Durham would be a logical choice if the team opts to promote from within. So, too, could Bruce Fields, Detroit’s hitting coach from 2003 to 2005 and currently the organization’s minor-league hitting coordinator.
Comeback player of the year awards have always been kind of quirky, because there’s no definition of what a player is supposed to be coming back from, or what they originally were. Some guys who have won these awards come back from season-ending or career-threatening injuries. Others just come back from a bad year. In the case of J.D. Martinez, his comeback was from a Spring Training release. He had been a nice player in past years, but never had broken out.
Still, with 23 homers, 76 RBIs, a .315 batting average and a .912 OPS, he had a good enough case that a panel of fellow American League players landed him second in AL Comeback Player of the Year balloting among the Sporting News end-of-season awards. Mariners pitcher Chris Young won the award after spending 2013 struggling to come back from thoracic outlet syndrome, the same issue that derailed Jeremy Bonderman’s career.
Martinez earned 22 votes to Young’s 49. A’s lefty Scott Kazmir finished third, followed by Derek Jeter and Melky Cabrera.
Thanks to the commenters for pointing out that Martinez is also a candidate for the Players Choice version of this award, along with Young and Victor Martinez. That award is also based on player balloting, but leaguewide instead of just a panel.
The last Tiger to win Comeback Player of the Year was Alan Trammell in 1983. In his case, he was coming back from consecutive down years offensively.
Tigers top scout Mike Russell joins Diamondbacks as special assistant (updated with likely replacement)
One of the remarkable notes about Dave Dombrowski’s reign running the Tigers is the continuity in the front office and player personnel. He has been able to keep his inner circle of trusted advisors together, more or less, for more than a decade in an era when even top evaluators often bounce around and success usually leads to bigger things for assistants.
That said, the Tigers just lost someone from their core group. In the case of veteran scout Mike Russell, he’s leaving for a new opportunity and an old friend, heading to the Arizona Diamondbacks as a special assistant for pro scouting.
Russell will serve as a special assistant to new Diamondbacks senior VP of baseball operations De Jon Watson, whom he has known since they worked together with the Florida Marlins in the mid-1990s, both working under Dombrowski. He’ll help coordinate the extensive pro scouting staff the Diamondbacks have put together.
“I’m really excited about it,” Russell said. “It was nothing negative. It was just a promotion and a chance to go help a friend.”
Russell’s ties with Dombrowski date back to 1996, when he joined the Marlins as an area supervisor and a special assignment scout. When Dombrowski left Florida for the Tigers, Russell was one of his earliest hires, coming on board as a Major League scout in 2002. He had been in that role ever since, making him the longest-tenured member of the Tigers scouting staff, and one of Detroit’s longest-tenured evaluators.
Russell’s primary role was scouting Eastern Division teams and players. However, he also went out on several special assignments to evaluate Tigers prospects. Russell has scouted for four World Series teams, signed seven Major League players and provided the background work that led to franchise-changing trades such as the Miguel Cabrera deal.
Along with assistant GM Al Avila, VP of player personnel Scott Reid and VP/special assistant David Chadd, Russell was part of the core group on the scouting side.
“Our pro scouting department was very successful in what we did,” Russell said. “I’m proud of it. I’m proud to be able to say I helped Dave and played a small part.”
Russell was inducted into the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame last summer. He also made his impact on the charitable side, including a donation to pay for the funeral for James Van Horn, better known for his Eat ‘Em Up Tigers chant around Comerica Park, after Van Horn was killed in a hit-and-run accident last summer.
Russell thanked Dombrowski for the opportunity. He also thanked Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, who helped Russell and his family rebuild their Florida home when Hurricane Ivan hit the Gulf Coast in 2004.
“I benefited by being a part of his organization,” Russell said.
As for filling the void, the Tigers are still working that out, Dombrowski said in an email Saturday morning, but he appears likely to turn to an ex-member of his core group. Former Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield, who served as assistant GM under Dombrowski with the Marlins from 1999 to 2001, is expected to join the Tigers scouting staff. Littlefield spent the past seven seasons with the Cubs, most recently as a Major League scout.
Dave Dombrowski spent a good portion of his hour-long session Tuesday talking about the Tigers bullpen, from its failure in the AL Division Series to its struggles during the season to its individual members. One guy who wasn’t part of it, of course, was Andrew Miller, a rumored deal that came close to happening, never did and came back to haunt them in the Division Series.
The prevailing thought for a long while was that the Tigers pulled out of talks with the Red Sox involving Miller once they closed in on a deal with the Rays for David Price. A report from the New York Post’s Joel Sherman earlier this month countered that, saying the Tigers had met Boston’s asking price but were outbid at the last minute by Baltimore.
Dombrowski’s characterization of the talks was somewhere in between, but trended towards the latter.
“We really did make a good run at him,” Dombrowski said. “It was a situation where we thought they were going to call us back, and they didn’t call us back, and they just decided to go in another direction.”
That direction was to Baltimore, where the Orioles offered up a young left-handed pitcher named Eduardo Rodriguez, rated in the 60s on each of the major top 100 prospect lists going into the season. Whatever the Tigers were offering has never gotten out.
That led to another would-be deal Dombrowski brought up on his own.
“I wouldn’t tell you the player, but last year, there was a reliever that we almost acquired who ended up being a very good reliever,” Dombrowski said. “I thought we were getting him. It never got out like this. We thought we made a tremendous offer. We thought we offered more than the other organization, but they went with the other player. Well I can tell you that organization wishes they didn’t go in that direction. They wish they taken our player.”
Dombrowski did not give any hints who that player was. It might have been Francisco Rodriguez, who had been rumored to have drawn Tigers interest at various points in July. The Brewers had him, then dealt him on July 23 to the Orioles for an infielder named Nick Delmonico. He had shown some power in the O’s farm system putting up back-to-back double figures in home runs. He hit just four homers in 37 games with Milwaukee’s Class A Florida State League team.
Rodriguez ended up returning to MIlwaukee this year and saved 44 games for the Brewers. The Tigers traded for Jose Veras shortly after the Brewers traded Rodriguez, then let him go at season’s end by not picking up his option.
“Sometimes you don’t have total control of those things,” Dombrowski said. “Sometimes organizations, it’s just not in your control. They decide what direction they’re going to go, and sometimes they don’t always choose the right direction.”