The Tigers’ closer of the future will get his shot at big-league hitters this Spring Training. So, too, will a Tigers infield prospect set to serve a suspension when the season begins.
The Tigers on Thursday announced 18 non-roster invitations to Major League camp. Most of the minor-league signings were already known, including just-announced acquisition John Mayberry Jr. and Nate Schierholtz in the outfield and pitchers Rafael Dolis, Preston Guilmet and Logan Kensing.
Who would be going to camp among the prospects not on the 40-man roster, however, wasn’t clear. The Tigers played it aggressively, inviting top relief prospect Joe Jimenez to camp coming off a dominant season at Class A West Michigan.
It doesn’t mean the Tigers expect Jimenez to make a run at a spot in their bullpen out of camp, but officials believe he’s close enough to at least benefit from working with the big club right now. General manager Al Avila seemingly had Jimenez in mind when he talked at last month’s Winter Meetings about having pitching prospects who could help their staff this coming season.
Jimenez, who turns 21 on Sunday, overpowered Midwest League hitters, allowing seven earned runs on 23 hits in 43 innings with 11 walks and 61 strikeouts. He earned a spot in the All-Star Futures Game in July, then made three appearances for Carolina in the Puerto Rican Winter League.
Several other A-level players were invited, including Jimenez’s West Michigan teammate, outfielder Mike Gerber. He hit .292 with 31 doubles, 10 triples, 13 homers and 76 RBIs. His invite continues a rapid climb that included a spot in the Arizona Fall League a few months ago. West Michigan catcher Kade Scivicque, a fourth-round draft pick last summer, also was invited after 42 games for the Whitecaps.
Left-hander Kevin Ziomek was invited after finishing with a 9-11 record and 3.43 ERA at Class A Lakeland. So was first baseman Dominic Ficociello, who hit .293 with eight homers and 60 RBIs in 128 games between Lakeland and Double-A Erie.
Also invited was shortstop JaCoby Jones, the Tigers’ return package from Pittsburgh in the Joakim Soria trade. He made an impression with a three-homer game at Erie, part of a 16-homer season at three different clubs, before carrying it into the Arizona Fall League. However, he still has to serve 38 games of a 50-game suspension he received during AFL play for testing positive for a substance of abuse.
The suspension has no impact on Jones’ Spring Training, but his suspension — which included the last 12 games of the AFL schedule — will apply when the regular season begins.
Here’s the full list of invites:
Right-handed pitchers: Lendy Castillo, Rafael Dolis. Preston Guilmet, Joe Jimenez, Logan Kensing
Left-handed pitchers: Drake Britton, Kevin Ziomek
Catchers: Miguel Gonzalez, Austin Green, Raffy Lopez, Kade Scivicque
Infielders: Dominic Ficociello, Tommy Field, JaCoby Jones
Outfielders: Mike Gerber, Jason Krizan, John Mayberry Jr., Nate Schierholtz
The Tigers, who have not gone to an arbitration hearing with a player in 15 years, began their effort to continue that streak Wednesday. Detroit agreed to terms with lefty reliever Justin Wilson on a one-year contract worth $1,525,000, a source confirmed to MLB.com. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman first reported the agreement.
Wilson, acquired last month from the Yankees for two prospects, presented an interesting case once he joined Detroit’s bullpen. A first-time arbitration-eligible player, he has been an effective southpaw for the better part of three seasons between Pittsburgh and the Bronx. Left-handed hitters have batted .235 (58-for-247) with three home runs, 24 walks and 59 strikeouts against Wilson in his Major League career; right-handed batters have hit him for just a .205 (100-for-478) average with eight home runs and 134 strikeouts.
Wilson allowed 49 hits over 61 innings last year with 20 walks and 66 strikeouts last year, recording 29 holds against two blown saves.
The deal leaves the Tigers with three arbitration-eligible players left to sign, including first-time eligible infielders Jose Iglesias and Andrew Romine. J.D. Martinez is eligible for a second time as the Tigers try to work out a long-term contract with the slugging right fielder. The two sides could settle on a one-year deal to avoid arbitration, then work on a longer-term contract without the pressures of a deadline.
All four arbitration-eligible Tigers filed on Tuesday’s deadline, including slugging outfielder J.D. Martinez, shortstop Jose Iglesias, infielder Andrew Romine and newly-acquired lefty reliever Justin Wilson. That’s not a particular surprise, as filings are now procedural.
The more important date comes Friday, when teams and players are scheduled to exchange salary proposals if they haven’t yet settled. Frequently, that date either provides a soft deadline to work out a deal, or provides both sides with numbers to use to find a middle ground.
The Tigers have not gone through an arbitration hearing in 15 years. While former team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski maintained a perfect record of settling cases without a ruling, current GM Al Avila and baseball legal counsel John Westhoff were key cogs in that process as Dombrowski’s top assistants. Now they’re trying to keep the string going.
The Tigers are hoping to sign Martinez, two seasons away from potential free agency, to a long-term deal. The 28-year-old is eligible for arbitration for a second time, having reached a $3 million deal with the Tigers before last year’s filing date. He batted .282 in 2015 with 38 home runs, 102 RBIs and an .879 OPS, vaulting him into the ranks of one of the game’s top power hitters. MLBTradeRumors projects him at $7.8 million.
Iglesias is a first-time arbitration eligible, though he has been making over $1 million a year since 2010 after signing a Major League contract as an amateur free agent out of Cuba. He made $1,443,750 last year on his way to a rebound season, batting .300 (125-for-416) with two home runs and 23 RBIs in 120 games after missing all of 2014 recovering from stress fractures in both shins. Iglesias’ defense, though, was his highlight, literally with acrobatic plays and strong throws with little more than the flick of a wrist. MLBTradeRumors projects him at $1.5 million, slightly more than he made last year.
Romine, Iglesias’ backup for much of last season, is also eligible for arbitration for the first time, having crossed the threshold of three years’ service time in his sixth Major League season. Romine’s second full season in the big leagues saw him hit .255 (47-for-184) with two home runs, 15 RBIs and a .622 OPS. He played five different defensive positions, including starts all around the infield. MLBTradeRumors projects him at $700,000.
Wilson, acquired last month from the Yankees for two prospects, is an interesting first-time case, having been a effective lefty relievers for the better part of three seasons between Pittsburgh and the Bronx. Left-handers have batted .235 (58-for-247) with three home runs, 24 walks and 59 strikeouts against Wilson in his Major League career; right-handers have hit him for just a .205 (100-for-478) average with eight home runs and 134 strikeouts. For first-year arbitration eligibles, the entire career to date factors into cases. MLBTradeRumors projects him at $1.3 million.
Wilson allowed 49 hits over 61 innings last year with 20 walks and 66 strikeouts last year, recording 29 holds against two blown saves.
While the Tigers remain relatively quiet on the free-agent outfield market, by all accounts, they’re apparently opening to the idea of pulling an end-around and finding an answer on the trade front.
The Tigers are among the teams that have talked with the Rockies, who have a glut of left-handed hitting outfielders, as Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com first reported. But as Rosenthal also reported, no deal is close.
At this point, industry sources indicate the Tigers are exploring the market rather than going deep into talks, so exactly which outfielder they would want isn’t clear. The Rockies reportedly have three outfielders potentially available, and had so even before Colorado signed free-agent outfielder Gerardo Parra on Tuesday afternoon. Detroit did not make a free-agent run at Parra, who reportedly agreed on a three-year, $27.5 million contract, but could still benefit if his signing fuels a deal.
While all three Rockies outfielders bat left-handed, they run a wide range of skill sets, experience levels and salaries, topped by former National League batting champion Carlos Gonzalez. The 30-year-old Venezuelan had a career revival in 2015 with his first-ever 40-homer season, batting .271 with an .864 OPS and 97 RBIs. His 153 games played marked a career-best after dealing with nagging injuries over the past several years.
Gonzalez is due $17 million this coming season, then $20 million in 2017, plus a $1 million bonus if he’s traded. So far, the Tigers have focused their efforts on outfield help short-term, low-cost deal. Gonzalez’s contract — the final seasons of a seven-year, $80 million deal he signed after the 2010 season — is short-term, but high-cost.
He also might be staying in Colorado. Venezuelan baseball writer Wilmer Reina tweeted late Tuesday night that, according to a source, Gonzalez will remain with the Rockies.
By contrast, Charlie Blackmon and Corey Dickerson are under team control for a while at lower salaries. The 29-year-old Blackmon — who hit .287 with 17 homers, 58 RBIs, 43 stolen bases and a .797 OPS — is eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter. The 26-year-old Dickerson, who hit .304 with 10 homers and 31 RBIs in just 65 games, is a year away from arbitration.
The Rockies are expected to seek pitching in any outfield trade. The Tigers have more young pitching than they used to after trading for Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd and Michael Fulmer to go with Buck Farmer, Drew VerHagen and Kyle Ryan. Detroit also has a highly regarded pitching prospect at the lower levels with top draft pick Beau Burrows. Parting with prospects, though, is another matter.
Even if nothing further develops, the Rockies mark the first association of the Tigers with the outfield trade market. Every other name associated with Detroit, realistically or not, has been a free agent, most recently Ryan Raburn. The Tigers, who were buyers for years in owner Mike Ilitch’s search of a World Series title, have shifted their attention toward developing prospects rather than trading them, hoping to build young, cost-controlled talent around Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. The chance to acquire similar young, cost-controlled talent (in the case of Blackmon and Dickerson) would present a somewhat different dynamic.
The Tigers offseason has hit a quiet point with free-agent outfielders still stuck and arbitration coming up next week. That leaves an open space for even incremental news and rumors to create some buzz, which is what happened Saturday night when a report out of the Far East had Korean-born reliever Seung-Hwan Oh flying to Detroit.
Oh Seung Hwan just got on a plane bound for Detroit. His final dest might not be Det tho. Many possibilities, but def central. #MLB
— Daniel Kim 대니얼 김 (@DanielKimW) January 10, 2016
That raised speculation that the Tigers, who are still looking for relief help, could be making their first notable Far East free-agent signing since Taiwan-born lefty Fu-Te Ni in 2009. However, a source with knowledge of the Tigers’ plans said soon afterward that the team isn’t involved on Oh.
By Sunday afternoon, Oh’s likely destination was emerging. Another report out of South Korea suggested he’s likely headed to St. Louis, where he reportedly could undergo a physical and other medicals and become a Cardinal as soon as Monday.
The 33-year-old right-hander became a dominant closer in the Korean Baseball Organization, then took his game to Japan, closing for the Hanshin Tigers. His contract with Hanshin expired, so he’s a free agent, rather than being subject to Japan’s posting system.
So if Oh was flying to Detroit, he was simply connecting. On the bright side, even international free agents apparently like flying through Metro Airport.
The Tigers added two more minor-league signings Wednesday, announcing deals with right-hander Michael Crotta and outfielder Chad Huffman. Neither deal includes a non-roster invite to Major League camp.
For the Tigers, the deals represent organizational depth for a farm system that didn’t have enough of it last year. For Crotta and Huffman, the deals present a return to the states after both spent the last two seasons playing in Japan.
The 31-year-old Crotta reached the Majors as a reliever with Pittsburgh in 2011 before elbow surgery put his career in transition. The 6-foot-6 hurler posted a 4-5 record with a 2.62 ERA and six saves for the Nippon Ham Fighters in 2014 before struggling to a 2-2 record and 6.59 ERA in 30 games there this past season. He last pitched stateside in 2013, going 6-7 with a 3.57 ERA and four saves for Triple-A Syracuse.
The 30-year-old Huffman is a right-handed hitter who played nine games with the Yankees in 2010 and posted a three-homer, 10-RBI game for Triple-A Columbus in 2011. After batting .282 with 13 homers and 55 RBIs for Memphis in 2013, Huffman signed with the Chiba Lotte Marines. He hit .270 with 20 doubles, four homers and 28 RBIs over 67 games in 2014, but went just 1-for-11 in six games this past season.
The moves mark the third round of minor-league signings the Tigers have announced. They confirmed a half-dozen deals last week, including former Major Leaguers Nate Schierholtz and Logan Kensing on minor-league contracts with Major League invites.
The Tigers completed their holiday shopping with some depth acquisitions Wednesday, announcing minor-league contracts with veteran outfielder Nate Schierholtz and right-handed reliever Logan Kensing. Both deals include invites to Major League camp.
The Tigers also announced minor-league deals to bring back former relief prospect Melvin Mercedes and veteran utility infielder Alberto Gonzalez. Right-hander Dustin Mollekin also agreed to a minor-league deal. None received invites to big-league camp.
None are big-name deals, but they’re the kind of depth the Tigers lacked last season. Schierholtz, who turns 32 in mid-February, was a rumored Tigers target in past seasons as a versatile left-handed hitter before heading to Japan.
Schierholtz hit 21 home runs with the Cubs in 2013 before batting .195 the next season between the Cubs and Nationals. He played this past season with the Hiroshima Carp of Japan’s Pacific League, batting .250 (58-for-232) with 10 home runs and 30 RBIs in 65 games.
Schierholtz is a .253 (529-for-2090) hitter in 799 career Major League games with 52 home runs and 228 RBIs. He also has 41 career outfield assists, nine of them in 87 games in right field in 2014.
Kensing, 32, pitched in 19 games for the Mariners this past season, allowing 10 runs on 12 hits over 15 1/3 innings with seven walks and 13 strikeouts. He made 19 more appearances for Triple-A Tacoma, allowing eight earned runs on 29 hits over 32 1/3 innings with 10 walks and 25 strikeouts.
For his career, Kensing has 177 Major League innings over 154 appearances, all but three of them in relief. He’s 10-10 with a 5.80 ERA, 96 walks and 157 strikeouts.
Mercedes, who turned 25 last month, pitched in one game for the Tigers in 2014 and ranked on MLB.com’s Tigers top 30 prospect list as recently as this past summer before becoming a minor-league free agent this offseason. He posted a 1-2 record and 4.95 ERA in 60 innings between Triple-A Toledo and Double-A Erie, walking 23 and striking out 52.
The 32-year-old Gonzalez, a veteran of seven Major League seasons, spent most of last season in Erie after joining the Tigers as a free agent last offseason. The native Venezuelan batted .283 (49-for-173) for the SeaWolves with 11 doubles, two home runs and 19 RBIs.
The 31-year-old Molleken has pitched for 12 seasons in the minors and two in Japan. He had one of his best seasons in 2015 as an Indians farmhand at Triple-A Columbus, going 5-3 with a 3.25 ERA in 40 relief appearances with 27 walks and 52 strikeouts.
The last time many Tigers fans heard about Jordany Valdespin, he was limping off the field at Joker Marchant Stadium, hit in the groin by a Justin Verlander fastball. Three years later, Valdespin returns, having agreed to terms with the Tigers on a minor-league contract.
A source confirmed the initial report from Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com. The deal does not include an invitation to Major League camp, so barring depth issues, Valdespin will report to minor-league camp and likely open the season at Triple-A Toledo.
Valdespin, who turns 28 years old on Wednesday, is a superutility player who hits left-handed, a role he filled as a middle infielder and outfielder with the Mets in 2012 and 2013. After the Mets non-tendered him following a 50-game suspension as part of Major League Baseball’s BALCO investigation, he spent most of the last two years with the Marlins, who released him last August.
Valdespin played two games in Miami last July, going 0-for-4, while spending the rest of the season at Triple-A New Orleans. He batted .293 (75-for-256) for the Zephyrs with 12 doubles, three triples, two homers, 20 RBIS and a .734 OPS. He’s a career .216 (92-for-426) hitter with 15 homers, 52 RBIs and a .639 OPS in 214 Major League games.
Valdespin has been playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic for Estrellas. He entered Tuesday batting .270 (37-for-137) with four doubles, a homer and 16 RBIs while stealing 11 bases in 12 attempts.
Valdespin was still with the Mets in Spring Training in 2013 when he made the trip to Lakeland for a Grapefruit League matchup with Verlander and the Tigers. Valdespin homered off Verlander that afternoon, but became better known for an ill-fated attempt at a bunt in the fifth inning. Verlander, who struggled with his command all game that day, lost a 94 mph fastball and hit Valdespin in the groin, sending him to the ground writhing in pain.
“He took a hack at the first pitch. He already hit one bomb,” Verlander said at the time. “And then the next one, he just totally squared at me, and I’m like, ‘Oh God, this isn’t going to be good.’ Right out of the hand, it’s like, ‘Oh, [crap], that is right at his … ‘”
The two could be opponents once again if Verlander ends up pitching in a minor-league camp game in March. They could also be teammates if Valdespin makes a trip as an extra player for a day.
The Tigers have been on the lookout for utility help, having signed Mike Aviles to a Major League contract last week to fill a similar role in Detroit as a right-handed hitter.
Kyle Lobstein went into the offseason as one of the Tigers’ insurance starters in case of injury, a role he has filled capably the last couple seasons. Instead, the lanky left-hander will go into Spring Training as a Pittsburgh Pirate, traded by Detroit on Monday for cash considerations.
The Tigers designated Lobstein’s contract for assignment Friday night to make room for Mike Aviles on the 40-man roster. Detroit had 10 days to either trade, release or outright Lobstein to the minor leagues. An outright assignment would’ve hinged on Lobstein clearing waivers. Considering waivers go in reverse order of finish, he almost got through, before being claimed by the team with baseball’s second-best record in 2015.
Thus ends the Tiger tenure for Lobstein, who came to Detroit as a Rule 5 Draft pick three years ago. The Tigers traded catcher Curt Casali to Tampa Bay to acquire Lobstein’s full rights, allowing him developmental time before making his Major League debut in the summer of 2014.
Lobstein went 1-2 with a 4.58 ERA in six starts and a long relief appearance in 2014, but helped the Tigers avoid disaster with an injury-riddled pitching staff in August and September. Detroit went 4-2 in his starts, a stat that loomed big once the Tigers held off Kansas City by a single game for the AL Central title.
Lobstein’s performance earned him first dibs at a rotation spot to begin this past season once Justin Verlander opened the 2015 campaign on the disabled list. Lobstein won three of his first five starts, but struggled through May with what left shoulder soreness. He went on the 15-day disabled list, rehabbed without the need for surgery and made it back as a September call-up, but struggled in three starts down the stretch.
For the season, the 26-year-old Lobstein went 3-8 with a 5.94 ERA, allowing 78 hits over 63 2/3 innings. He walked 23 batters and struck out 32. He was expected to compete with Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, Shane Greene and others for the fifth spot in the rotation in Spring Training.
The Tigers wrapped up their Winter Meetings dealings Thursday by completing a trade from last month. Detroit sent Triple-A catcher Manny Pina to Milwaukee as the player to be named later in the Francisco Rodriguez trade.
Pina joins second baseman Javier Betancourt in the return package for Rodriguez, acquired Nov. 18 to fill the Tigers’ void at closer. Detroit furthered its bullpen makeover here this week by signing setup man Mark Lowe and trading for left-hander Justin Wilson from the Yankees. In all, the Tigers acquired three late-inning relievers and gave up only one prospects in MLBPipeline’s Tigers top 10 rankings. That was sixth-ranked Luis Cessa, who was part of the Wilson trade.
Pina was not in the Tigers’ top 30 prospects. The 28-year-old Venezuelan, who made it to the big leagues with the Royals for five games in 2011 and 2012, spent this past season at Triple-A Toledo, backing up Bryan Holaday before getting more regular playing time near season’s end.
Pina batted .305 (78-for-256) with 19 doubles, seven home runs, 39 RBIs and an .840 OPS with the Mud Hens. He’s a career .256 with 50 home runs, 319 RBIs and a .700 OPS in 730 minor-league games.