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On Scherzer, Shields and leverage

As Spring Training starts to become visible on the horizon of the baseball calendar, the questions in baseball circles become louder: What’s going on with Max Scherzer? What’s going on with James Shields? Is anybody going after them? Has anybody heard anything?

The free-agent market has had plenty of top names still available at this point in the offseason over the years. That’s nothing new. It’s less common to have two big names — two of the biggest names on the market going into the offseason, at that — in this situation.

It’s rare for those two still on the market to play the same position. It’s stranger still that no team has been tied to both players, seemingly trying to play one against the other. Between different ages, workloads and resumes, they’ve always been viewed as appealing to different markets.

It was under that backdrop that Jon Morosi of FOX Sports and MLB Network chimed in Friday afternoon amidst the flurry of arbitration signings.

So much for not having one team linked to both pitchers. Whether it’s a genuine pursuit or a leverage play remains to be seen.

Detroit has been tied to Scherzer for months — oftentimes for good reason, and other times simply by default. With nobody else identifying themselves as a suitor, the Tigers have been viewed as the favorites to sign Scherzer, even as team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski and other Tigers official downplay the chances.

Dombrowski added another entry there this week at the MLB owners meetings, where Ken Davidoff of the New York Post asked him again about the possibility of bringing back Scherzer.

“I would say no, probably not,” Dombrowski told Davidoff.

It was a stronger statement than previous remarks. It was still not a definite no.

On the flip side, until Friday, the Tigers had never been linked to Shields, their division rival in Kansas City for the past two seasons and a familiar nemesis in Tampa Bay before that. There have been no signs he was a topic for discussion going into the offseason, or that he drew any contact at the GM Meetings in November or Winter Meetings in December. Even industry people familiar with the Tigers’ approach, who have been following the Tigers’ moves this offseason, were befuddled at the idea.

Yet in mid-January, as the Scherzer market stagnates, the rumor leaked.

Dombrowski, who has a policy of not talking about free agents from other clubs, said in email later Friday that the Tigers are not in active pursuit of any starting pitchers right now. It’s the same stance they’ve had in regards to Scherzer rumors, but with Scherzer, it did more to suggest a waiting game. No active pursuit? Fine. No interest? No chance? Those have never been said, even this week. With Scherzer, his agent Scott Boras, and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, there has always seemingly been a chance for a deal.

Those ties aren’t there with Shields. Ilitch has a history of working out late offseason deals with Boras, and a history of loyalty to those who win for him. While Scherzer has that, Shields does not. He does not have the same track record, for that matter.

Shields is 2 1/2 years older than Scherzer, with nearly 700 more innings pitched. For that reason and others, he has always been expected to garner a shorter, team-friendlier contract, though a five-year contract for Shields would take him to the same age as a seven-year contract would for Scherzer. That has also widened Shields’ market and set up the potential for a bidding competition when the market does get moving.

For all the risks with Scherzer, one can still envision the Tigers make room for a return, for either Ilitch to stretch the payroll and pay luxury tax for a year or for Dombrowski to trade Price to make room. It’s tougher to see the Tigers going to those lengths for Shields, who will turn 34 years old when Price is eligible for free agency next winter. Shields might be more affordable than Scherzer, but that still doesn’t mean the Tigers can afford him and Price long term.

Bottom line, it’s difficult to see Shields suddenly fitting with the Tigers. It’s not as difficult to see a call to Shields — active pursuit or no — acting as a catalyst on Scherzer. Time will tell.

Tigers arbitration roundup: Price, Simon, Martinez sign

You’ve heard it plenty of times over the years, but the Tigers have not faced an arbitration ruling since Dave Dombrowski took over as team president/general manager. After exchange day, they came closer to keeping that streak intact, including the biggest one-year settlement in history, but they still have some work to do.

David Price agreed to a one-year deal worth $19.75 million, eclipsing Max Scherzer’s $15.25 million salary last year for the largest one-year deal for an arbitration-eligible player prior to free agency. Price was a fourth-time arbitration eligible, having qualified as a super-2 player back in 2012. He made $14 million last year.

Alfredo Simon agreed to a one-year, $5.55 million deal to avoid arbitration. Like Price, Simon is a year away from free agency. Unlike Price, Simon only became a full-time starter last year, going 15-10 with a 3.44 ERA in 196 1/3 innings over 32 starts. That earned him just over a $4 million raise from his $1.5 million salary in 2014.

J.D. Martinez, whose 2014 breakout season put him in position for a major raise just in time for his first turn through arbitration, also agreed to terms on a one-year, $3 million contract.

Al Alburquerque, meanwhile, will swap numbers with the Tigers, according to an industry source. He made $837,500 last season, during which he set career highs with 72 appearances, 15 games finished, 57 1/3 innings and his first Major League save. We’ll see how far apart the two sides are when the numbers are released later today, but it’s not believed to be a huge gap.

The Tigers are not a file-and-trial team, going against the recent trend. They’ll continue negotiations after numbers are exchanged, and have often found the numbers set up a middle ground for a deal that appeals to both sides more than a hearing, which sets up an either-or ruling.

Cabrera out of walking boot

Miguel Cabrera took another step Thursday in his rehab from foot and ankle surgery. He took that step without the aid of a walking boot.

“He’s cleared to wear normal shoes,” Tigers head athletic trainer Kevin Rand said Thursday.

The clearance came from Dr. Robert Anderson, who performed the October surgery to remove a bone spur from Cabrera’s right ankle and repair a stress fracture in his right foot. He had to protect his foot for several weeks after that, first by using a scooter to keep it elevated, then with a walking boot since December.

The original plan was expected to have Cabrera in the boot until a follow-up exam in mid-February. On Thursday, however, Cabrera tweeted that the boot was gone, and tweeted a picture that showed him walking in his normal shoes.

Cabrera has not yet been cleared for baseball activity. He can’t run yet, and he still has to limit how much weight he puts on the foot in workouts. From a mobility standpoint, however, he can walk around like anybody else.

The clearance also doesn’t have a major impact on Cabrera’s timetable, Rand said. The follow-up exam is scheduled for just before Spring Training opens, so wihle Cabrera could be cleared for baseball activity when full-squad workouts begin Feb. 24, he likely won’t have the conditioning built up to be a full participant.

Tigers outright Putkonen to Toledo

The Tigers held onto a piece of their relief depth when Luke Putkonen cleared waivers. The long reliever has been outrighted to Triple-A Toledo, the team announced Thursday afternoon.

Detroit designated Putkonen’s contract for assignment last Tuesday to open a 40-man roster spot for Tom Gorzelanny. The team had 10 days to make a corresponding move with him, and used nearly all of that time. There had been some buzz that the Tigers could trade him rather than risk losing him for nothing through waivers, but in the end, interested teams opted against using a roster spot to grab him.

Thus, Putkonen returns to Toledo, which had been a familiar spot for him in 2012 and 2013. He was called up eight times in those two years, and sent down seven. The 28-year-old made Detroit’s Opening Day roster for the first time last year, but went on the disabled list a few weeks with right elbow inflammation. He went on minor-league rehab assignments in May and August, but never made it back from the DL. The second time, the Tigers said he was healthy, but they simply ran out of time to get him Major League ready in the middle in a division race.

Putkonen’s agent, Keith Grunewald, said this week Putkonen is 100 percent healthy. Even so, what essentially amounted to a lost season probably played a role in teams’ decisions not to put in a waiver claim.

Putkonen will still likely end up in big-league camp next month with a non-roster invite, and could end up back in Detroit’s bullpen if injury rehabs whittle down the competition. He filled Detroit’s long relief role well in 2013, striking out 28 batters over 29 2/3 innings while allowing 10 earned runs on 30 hits.

Tigers re-sign Daniel Schlereth to minor-league deal (updated)

Five years after the Curtis Granderson trade, the Tigers will have at least one piece from that deal in their organization. No, not Max Scherzer. It’s Daniel Schlereth, re-signed this week to a minor-league contract.

The move showed up on the International League transactions page. The Tigers and Schlereth confirmed the agreement. The deal does not include an invite to Major League camp. He’ll report to Lakeland with other non-roster pitchers in February to minor-league minicamp.

Schlereth rejoined the Tigers organization in June after being acquired from the Pirates for cash considerations. His numbers were better at Triple-A Toledo than they were at Indianapolis, but he still had a rough summer before finishing strong.

Schlereth gave up 10 walks and 13 hits over 10 1/3 innings in his first 12 Mud Hens appearances before leaving the team to be with his wife, Bree, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. He came back once his wife was doing better following surgery, and threw 7 2/3 scoreless innings over his final five outings, allowing six hits and a walk while striking out nine.

“When I went back to Toledo, I kinda threw like it was my last game,” Schlereth said Wednesday in a text message, “and it went really well. Threw over the top as hard as I could and struck out everybody. That was the best I’ve thrown since I first got to the big leagues.”

His wife is now doing “great,” he said, and has follow-up tests periodically to make sure everything’s well. Meanwhile, on the mound, he’ll try to repeat his approach over a longer stretch. At this point, he’s essentially relief depth for the Mud Hens, but Blaine Hardy’s rise last year showed the Tigers are open to giving relievers the opportunity if they pitch well in Toledo. With lefty relief still a major question mark, maybe the biggest question left on the team, there’s an opportunity for somebody.

“I feel like I’m just learning how to pitch at age 28,” Schlereth said. “Before, I just threw the ball. Now I feel like an actual pitcher.”

Four Tigers file for arbitration

The Tigers have not faced a salary arbitration ruling since Dave Dombrowski took over as team president/general manager in 2002. That streak is about to be put to the test once again.

All four Tigers who are eligible for arbitration — David Price, J.D. Martinez, Alfredo Simon and Al Alburquerque — officially filed by Tuesday’s deadline. It’s essentially a formality, though the Tigers have reached agreements with players on filing day in past years.

The bigger deadline in recent years has been the date for exchanging salary proposals. That comes up on Friday, and the numbers have fostered a middle ground for deals in past years. If not, arbitration hearings would take place Feb. 1-21.

The biggest case by far is Price, who made $14 million last season as a third-time arbitration eligible. He’s up for a fourth turn through arbitration because he qualified as a super-2 player in 2012, and his salary could potentially set a record for an arbitration-eligible player prior to free agency.

Simon, too, is an interesting case. He’s a third-time arbitration eligible, also a year away from free agency, and he’s coming off a 15-win season in his first year as a full-time starter. The 33-year-old made $1.5 million last year with the Reds, but that case was built on his track record as a reliever. He could conceivably go back to relief if the Tigers re-sign Max Scherzer, but his arbitration salary will be determined based on his season as a starter.

Alburquerque is eligible for a second time, having avoided arbitration with an $837,500 deal on numbers day a year ago. He posted a vast improvement in ERA (from 4.59 in 2013 to 2.51 last year), innings pitched (49 to 57.1), appearances (53 to a career-high 72) and WHIP (1.49 to 1.169).

Martinez, too, will be an interesting case as a first-time eligible. His 2014 numbers — .315 average, .912 OPS, 30 doubles, 23 home runs and 76 RBIs in 123 games — helped him post a 4.2 WAR after a negative-1.2 combined over his previous three Major League seasons. First-time eligibles are supposed to be evaluated on their career to date, but 2014 will obviously be the overriding factor.

Price, Cespedes, Verlander among those on Tigers winter caravan

David Price and Yoenis Cespedes are among the Tigers scheduled to take part in next week’s Winter Caravan, which will trek through the snow across Michigan and into Toledo for its usual two-day journey.

The Tigers are expected to release a full itinerary in the next next day or two, but some details are already set. Among them is a player roster that includes new Tigers such as Cespedes, Shane Greene, Anthony Gose, Alfredo Simon, Alex Wilson and Josh Zeid, and first-time caravan participants Price, Ian Kinsler, J.D. Martinez, James McCann, Andrew Romine, Tyler Collins and Steven Moya.

Justin Verlander is also expected to take part in some stops after missing last year’s caravan while recovering from core muscle surgery. Victor Martinez, Nick Castellanos and Alex Avila are also on the list. It’s unclear whether Miguel Cabrera, who’s in a walking boot while recovering from foot and ankle surgery, will make the trip; Cabrera has been an annual part of the caravan and TigerFest since 2008.

Technically, the caravan starts next Wednesday with a stop in Grand Rapids for the West Michigan Whitecaps’ annual winter banquet. The bulk of the schedule takes place Thursday and Friday, followed by TigerFest next Saturday at Comerica Park. The TigerFest roster is still not set.

Again, the caravan will have a north bus and a metro bus. Stops on the north bus include Zehnders Restaurant in Frankenmuth, the Northern Michigan Rotary Club, and the Lake City Fire Department (part of its 100-year celebration). The metro bus stops include a Thursday visit to Hockeytown Authentics, where J.D. Martinez and Castellanos are scheduled to take photos with fans in exchange for a charitable donation sign autographs next Thursday. DTE Energy, Neighborhood Service Organization in Detroit, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection are also on the itinerary. So is the Tigers’ annual visit next Friday to the North American International Auto Show, where noted car enthusiast Verlander is expected to be part of the group.

Manager Brad Ausmus, the coaching staff and special assistant Alan Trammell are also part of the caravan. Ausmus and Avila are scheduled to visit Toledo next Thursday for the Mud Hens’ Helping Hens dinner.

Tigers not in on Alexi Ogando

Alexi Ogando has reportedly drawn interest from several clubs since his showcase throwing session a few days ago in Tampa. The Tigers aren’t one of them.

Call this quashing a rumor before it gets going, but the Tigers were not among the teams watching Ogando throw, sources confirmed. It’s a bit of a surprise; Detroit usually scouts such showcases whether they have immediate interest or not (Ryan Madson comes to mind from last winter, and Joel Hanrahan in the spring), and the showcase wasn’t far from Lakeland.

That said, between the abundance of teams looking for relief help, Ogando’s expectation to get a Major League contract and his recent injury history, the Tigers might well have decided there wasn’t a fit here.

Detroit certainly knows what Ogando can do when healthy, having watched him sink their World Series hopes in the 2011 ALCS. He seemed headed for great things at that point, and his next two seasons were good despite a series of injuries. He had a rough 2014 marked by elbow inflammation that ended his season in June.

Cabrera will be limited at start of Spring Training

The Tigers are hoping that Miguel Cabrera and his surgically repaired right ankle and foot will be healthy enough to put him in their lineup for Opening Day. As for Spring Training, though, he’s expected to be limited if not delayed.

It isn’t really a surprise, given the stress fracture that was repaired in Cabrera’s foot in October. With Spring Training now six weeks away for position players, however, it’s becoming official.

Cabrera is currently doing partial weight-bearing activities with help from a walking boot he has to wear, according to head athletic trainer Kevin Rand. He has been doing that since mid-December, as well as some upper-body weight work that doesn’t require much mobility.

Cabrera is scheduled to wear the walking boot until a mid-February follow-up exam with Dr. Robert Anderson, the Charlotte-based specialist who performed the procedure to repair the stress fracture as well as remove a bone spur in his right ankle.

If the ankle and foot test well, Cabrera should be cleared for baseball activity, just in time for full-squad workouts to begin in Lakeland on Feb. 24. Even if he can work out on the field, however, he isn’t expected to be ready to join full workouts.

“Obviously he isn’t in a position [for full workouts] from a conditioning standpoint at that point,” Rand said.

The Tigers open Grapefruit League play a week after their first full-squad workout.

Just what that means for Cabrera’s Opening Day status remains to be seen. The Tigers begin the season April 6 against the Twins at what will likely be a chilly Comerica Park. Cabrera likely won’t need a full spring of at-bats to be ready — the five-week game schedule is more for pitchers than hitters — but he’ll need enough games to test his mobility in the field and on the basepaths.

“That’s too far out right now,” Rand said. “First of all, we have to get him cleared to do the activities.”

As the Scherzer watch continues

It’s mid-January, and we’re not much clearer on Max Scherzer’s market than we were over the holidays. Here’s one scenario on how it might play out:

At some point, after weeks so far of teams saying they’re not in active pursuit, someone will be in active pursuit. A team will make an offer that meets enough of Scherzer’s criteria to draw serious consideration, presumably for more than six years. And then, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch will have a decision to make.

If Ilitch wants to keep Scherzer in a Detroit uniform, it’s probably going to happen. If Ilitch decides the price isn’t worth the impact, short term (payroll tax) or long (payroll committed through the decade), or if he decides the team’s offer from last spring was its best one, Scherzer will probably go somewhere else.

It’s not a right of first refusal, which agent Scott Boras insists the Tigers will not get. It’s the chance to top an offer, the leverage Boras has used expertly over the years, and the opportunity Ilitch used to keep Anibal Sanchez two years ago. Just as no active pursuit doesn’t necessarily mean no interest.

Nobody in the Tigers organization is going to tell Ilitch they don’t have a use for Scherzer, that they’re not a better team with Scherzer, because it wouldn’t be true. If the goal is exclusively a World Series title in 2015, their chances are better with Scherzer and worries about the long-term contract later. But considering how Ilitch has extended payroll over the years, and committed more than $450 million the last two years on contract extensions for Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, nobody’s going to tell Ilitch he has to do anything (except maybe Boras).

As Boras has said, this is an ownership decision. And while opinions abound on what the Tigers might do — one industry official estimates the chances at a little less than 50-50 — nobody really knows but Ilitch. Remember, two years ago around this time, Tigers officials were saying they didn’t have the finances for Prince Fielder just a few days before signing him, and there were many reasons to believe that at the time.

What happens afterward is also an ownership decision. The Tigers have approached their offseason with a clear goal of avoiding the luxury tax. As we realized last month, they fell just $2 million shy of the $189 million luxury tax threshold in 2014, and that limit will be the same this year. If Scherzer returns, it would be up to Ilitch whether the Tigers would still try to stay under it by trading David Price, or go over for a year and pay 17.5 percent (the penalty rate for first-time offenders) on the excess.

From a financial standpoint, the challenge would be to try to get payroll under control for 2015. After that, free-agent departures from Price and others would put them back under.

From a baseball standpoint, the challenge would be to try to get a return in trade that would compare to the compensation pick they’d receive if they kept Price and saw him sign elsewhere as a free agent next winter.

The latter might be trickier. The Tigers would be trying to trade a high-salary player late in the offseason, when most teams have already set payroll and built their rosters accordingly. They’d also be trying to trade a player who would almost have to be viewed as a one-year rental, given the expectation that he’d play out the season and hit the open market as likely the top free agent available. They’d also arguably be going against the goal of a 2015 World Series that would be a primary factor in Scherzer interest.

Expectation would be for the Tigers to try to swing a trade. Of course, the Tigers were expected to trade Rick Porcello a couple years ago after re-signing Anibal Sanchez, too. In fairness, they knew in that case they wouldn’t be threatening the luxury tax.

Again, this is a scenario. Time will tell how it plays out.

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