The Tigers are no longer a team with six starting pitchers for five spots. What they are without Doug Fister in their rotation remains to be seen. Detroit pulled off its second major trade in two weeks Monday night, sending Fister to the Nationals for lefty reliever Ian Krol, infielder/outfielder Steve Lombardozzi and lefty starting prospect Robbie Ray.
The move adds more flexibility on the Tigers payroll while adding some badly-needing young arms to a Tigers system that had been low on left-handed pitching. The immediate impact on the Tigers for next year, however, might not be known until the Tigers are done dealing this offseason.
It’s not a deal that addresses several short-term needs, as might have been anticipated had Detroit dealt reigning AL Cy Young winner and potential 2014 free agent Max Scherzer as rumors suggested earlier this offseason. Instead, the return package fills some smaller holes now and some long-term concerns later, while providing another sign the Tigers will try to keep the rest of their rotation intact, Scherzer included.
Fister was one of three Tigers starters who were arbitration eligible with free agency on the horizon. Like fellow starter Rick Porcello, he was two years away from free agency with a salary that was heading up. He was projected to make $6.9 million in arbitration according to MLB Trade Rumors.
However, Fister delivered as a Tiger, going 32-20 with a 3.29 ERA in 68 Tiger starts and two relief appearances. His 8-1 record and 1.79 ERA down the stretch in 2011 reflected his significant role in helping the Tigers to their first of three consecutive American League Central titles. Those numbers leveled out over the next two seasons, but his 14-9 record, 3.67 ERA and 208 2/3 innings pitched this year reflected a workhorse role within a loaded Tigers rotation.
In the postseason, meanwhile, Fister was a cornerstone of the dominant pitching that led Detroit to four postseason series wins over the last three years. His 3-2 record and 2.98 ERA in eight career playoff appearances includes a sub-2 ERA in the ALCS and World Series. He picked up only one playoff win the last two years, but delivered six quality starts in as many outings in that stretch, including six innings of one-run ball with seven strikeouts against the Red Sox.
Drew Smyly, who spent this past season as a lefty setup reliever, will slot into Fister’s old rotation spot, giving Detroit a lefty starter. With his pre-arbitration salary, the move will shed about $6.4 million from team payroll. The rest of the rotation is expected to remain intact for next year while the Tigers try to pursue long-term deals.
Smyly’s relief role, meanwhile, will be filled by Krol, who broke into the big leagues this year as a young lefty setup man. The 22-year-old wasn’t a specialist, though left-handed hitters batted .220 (11-for-50) against him with one home run, four walks and 10 strikeouts.
Lombardozzi is a switch-hitting, contact-batting role player with decent speed who can play infield and outfield. He batted .259 with 15 doubles, two home runs and 22 RBIs in 118 games for the Nationals in 2013.
The key arm in the deal, however, might end up being Ray, a hard-throwing lefty starter who ranked as the seventh-best prospect in the Nationals system from MLB.com’s midseason prospect rankings. The 22-year-old went 11-5 with a 3.36 ERA in 27 starts between high Class A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg, allowing 116 hits over 142 innings with 62 walks and 160 strikeouts.
Ray isn’t expected to compete for a Major League job right away anywhere on the staff, likely needing more seasoning at Double-A this coming year. In a system that has traded away several starting prospects over the past few years, however, he provides a much-needed youth infusion.
Nearly two decades after Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker made their place in history as one of baseball’s best double-play combinations, the Tigers will field a middle-infield tandem with the same jersey numbers. The team announced Monday on Twitter that their new second baseman, Ian Kinsler, will wear Trammell’s famous number 3.
The team expects Kinsler to man second base opposite shortstop Jose Iglesias, who donned Whitaker’s old number 1 when he became a Tiger at last summer’s Trade Deadline. The numbers should look familiar, albeit in reverse order, to Tigers fans who watched Trammell and Whitaker as teammates up the middle for nearly 20 years, from 1977 into the early ’90s. The two set an American League record for appearing in 1,918 games as teammates, and turned more double plays than any middle-infield tandem in Major League history.
Given their longevity and their success, the fact that any player can still wear those numbers on a Tigers uniform has always been a difficult topic in Detroit. The Tigers have only retired the jersey numbers of Hall of Famers with the exception of Willie Horton’s number 23. The Hall of Fame voting process has not been kind to Whitaker, who was knocked off the ballot after one year, or Trammell, who has not yet come close to the 75 percent selection needed for induction.
That said, no Tiger has worn number 47 since Jack Morris, a teammate of Trammell and Whitaker from 1977 to 1990. He has come closer to induction than any other 1984 Tiger, but still needs a boost this year in his 15th and final time on the ballot.
While Iglesias became the first player since Whitaker to wear number 1 in Detroit, Kinsler won’t be the first number 3 in Detroit since Trammell. Gary Sheffield donned the number during his Tiger tenure in 2007 and 2008.
Kinsler’s old number 5, which he wore for all eight of his seasons in Texas, is off limits in Detroit. That number was retired with Hank Greenberg, so Kinsler needed a new number. He wore number 22 at the University of Missouri.
The one question for the Tigers at Monday’s nontender deadline has been answered. Utilityman Don Kelly agreed to terms with the Tigers on a one-year, $1 million contract, thus taking him off the potential nontender list.
Kelly confirmed the deal in a text to inquiring reporters. The Tigers announced the deal shortly thereafter.
The $1 million salary represents the first seven-figure deal for Kelly. He made $900,000 in each of the past two seasons, including this past season on what was initially a minor-league contract with a Spring Training invite he signed just before camp after being taken off the 40-man roster. He essentially had to win his roster spot back, and he beat out Quintin Berry to do it.
As the Tigers headed towards Monday’s deadline for tendering contracts to arbitration eligible players, the question was whether they’d try to do the same thing this winter. The team traditionally waits until January to wrap up deals with arbitration-eligible players, but their one-year deal with Phil Coke a week and a half ago noted a change in approach. With some players, they wanted a deal in place before approaching the offseason. Kelly fell in that category, though his salary is by far the smallest of the eight arbitration-eligible Tigers.
Kelly’s versatility is well-known, and he currently stands as a left-handed hitter on the bench of a team that has a righty-heavy lineup at the moment in the wake of the Prince Fielder trade. The one factor that could change his role is the positional shuffle around the Tigers infield and outfield, notably if fellow left-handed hitter Andy Dirks becomes the primary reserve outfielder.
The roster picture, especially in left field and third base, remains a big question, but the Tigers can keep Kelly on the roster and then take a wait-and-see approach in Spring Training. If Detroit decides he’s no longer a fit, he can be released by March 15 or thereabouts for one-sixth of his salary, or just under $167,000. If the Tigers release him at the end of camp, they would owe him $250,000, one-fourth of his salary. Remember, Detroit took a similar approach with Brennan Boesch a year ago.
The rumor began circulating on Twitter Thursday evening from someone who cited his brother who was an air traffic controller that Robinson Cano and his well-known agent, Jay-Z, had just landed in Canton.
By Friday morning, the rumor had been circulated enough that fans were tweeting he was still in town meeting with Tigers personnel.
By Friday evening, the buzz drew a speculative report in the Detroit News, centering around a charter jet owned by a private aircraft rental service that had taken off from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey and landed at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti Friday morning, just after 8:30. The flight stuck around until 2pm, when it took off back for Teterboro. Because it’s a private jet, there was no identifying who was on the flight, which keeps the intrigue going.
By late Friday night, it drew a question and response from Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski, who has a policy of not talking about specific free agents from other teams but told MLive.com, “We plan on having Ian Kinsler as our second baseman next year.”
It became quite a rumor, but there are some serious holes.
First, the rumor originated Thursday evening with the talk of Jay-Z and Cano landing in the area. Jay-Z was spotted shortly after that … in Oklahoma City. He was with his wife, Beyonce, courtside for the Clippers-Thunder game to watch his top sports client, Kevin Durant. Here’s Jay-Z at the game celebrating a fan hitting a half-court shot.
Second, I checked with a source late Friday morning when the rumors were building, and it was business as usual at Tigers offices. If Cano was in Detroit, the answer went, he wasn’t with them. It doesn’t mean Cano couldn’t have arrived after that for a quick meeting on short or no notice, but that seems like a lot for an early-morning charter jet to a city for spontaneous talks. And if he was on that aforementioned jet at Willow Run, which took off for Teterboro just after 2pm, it would have made for a real quick trip. The airport is about 10 miles further west of Detroit than Metro Airport.
But there’s a third, more fundamental problem here: For Robinson Cano, a secret visit makes no sense.
By all accounts, Cano is looking for a standard-setting contract as the top free agent on the market, but the question — especially in New York — is whether there’s enough of a market to drive up the price. If Cano is getting on a plane and visiting a team, what’s the point of keeping it a secret? It serves his purposes more to get it out as much as possible, especially in New York media. When Jay-Z and agent Brodie Van Wagenen had dinner with the Mets earlier in the week, it was reported all over, with Mets personnel even commenting on it. Even if nobody wants to comment, a public sighting somewhere in town — eating lunch, getting into a car, getting off of a charter jet at Metro, anything — serves the purpose. A leak in New York does the same. A secondhand tweet does not.
There are free agents who have pulled this off to their advantage. Carl Pavano flew to Detroit to visit the Tigers when he was a free agent after the 2004 season, and his agent, Scott Shapiro, made it part of a multi-city tour to visit several teams.
Bottom line, it was a rumor that made for a fun Friday, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Prince Fielder talked with Dallas media tonight on a conference call, where he was asked why he accepted the trade that sent him out of Detroit and to the Rangers. His response sounded like somebody who was ready for a fresh start.
“Obviously it’s another great team,” Fielder said. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Obviously I thought it would be good for everybody. I want everybody to be happy.”
Fielder did not express hard feelings toward Detroit.
“I understand baseball is a business,” Fielder said. “It was all good. We didn’t win the World Series…it happens. It was good. I enjoyed it. I’ll miss the fans and miss my teammates but I’m happy to start new in Texas.”
On this past season and what happened, Fielder said, “Whatever I did last year, I’ll do the opposite this year. It was cool. The season went fine. It is what it is. You can’t take it back. We went to the playoffs. We didn’t go as far as we wanted to go but everybody is still alive.”
The Tigers went into the offseason needing to solve second base for 2014, but needing to solve payroll concerns for well beyond that. They’re solving both needs in one incredibly big, yet beautifully simple move.
It’s a 1-for-1 deal, but with Prince Fielder and Ian Kinsler, the Tigers and Rangers pulled off a blockbuster that changes the course of both teams for years to come.
Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com and MLB Network first reported the talks Thursday evening, followed by an agreement soon after. Considering how swiftly the Tigers’ free-agent contract with Fielder came together, maybe it’s fitting. News of the trade even caught Tigers players off-guard.
“Wow!!! Big news,” Justin Verlander tweeted Thursday night. “We traded Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler.”
The Tigers will send $30 million to Texas, according to a source, to help bridge the gap in money remaining on the two contracts. Fielder has seven years left at $24 million each on the mega-contract he signed in January 2012, barely a week after Victor Martinez’s catastrophic knee injury left Detroit in desperate need of offense and left owner Mike Ilitch aggressively looking to fill Martinez’s void. Kinsler, by contrast, has five years and $69 million total left on his deal if his $12 million club option for 2018 is included.
After all this, the biggest task will be the Tigers re-adjusting the rest of their roster in turn. It’ll lose a huge power presence in the cleanup spot, but recover the kind of financial flexibility that will put the Tigers back in control of their long-term destiny.
The Tigers had a dream offensive lineup in 2013 with Fielder at first base, Miguel Cabrera at third and Victor Martinez as the designated hitter. But while the offense put up mighty numbers over the course of the season, the game-to-game results weren’t consistent. That inconsistency came back to bite them in the postseason, when a series of low-scoring duels put pressure on Detroit’s vaunted rotation and not-so-solid bullpen to hold slim leads.
Fielder, fairly or otherwise, became the flashpoint for that. For most players, his .279 average, 25 home runs and 106 RBIs would’ve been a good season. After a .313 average, 30-homer debut season in Detroit, however, a 121-point drop in OPS stood out. His deep struggles in the postseason, followed by his comments after the dramatic ALCS Game 6 loss that eliminated them from the postseason,
The biggest pressures on the Tigers, however, were the financial stats. With Fielder’s contract, Justin Verlander’s recently-signed deal, Max Scherzer and Victor Martinez a year away from free agency and two-time AL MVP Miguel Cabrera among a handful of prominent Tigers up for free agency in two years, Detroit’s long-term payroll looked like an unsolvable puzzle.
Trading Fielder, even with the offensive gap it creates, became the solution, which is surely why talks came together quickly.
With first base open, the Tigers have the option of moving Cabrera back to first, where he played his first four seasons in Detroit before Fielder’s arrival, or moving Martinez out from designated hitter. Top prospect Nick Castellanos, who was slated to compete for a spot in left field, is an option to move back to his original position at third. Or the Tigers could
The payroll, meanwhile, now has a lot more flexibility to consider contract extensions for Cabrera and Scherzer. Detroit could save as much as $8 million in each of the next two seasons, and more after that, depending on how the money is spread out.
Kinsler has been a mainstay at second base in Texas, and at age 31 should remain so. With the Rangers enjoying an embarrassment of riches in young infielders, however, Kinsler was expendable. And with the Rangers desperately looking for offense, by all accounts, Fielder was an attractive bat.
The Rangers were an option for Fielder as a free agent two years ago, and carried the bonus of no state income tax. Now, the prospect of Fielder regaining his power bat in a much more power-friendly park looms for American League opponents.
The Tigers used their open roster to add seven minor leaguers and protect them from next month’s Rule 5 draft. Futures Game rep and Triple-A all-star Jordan Lennerton is on the list, as is right-hander pitcher September signing Justin Miller. So are Toledo left-hander Kyle Lobstein (a Rule 5 Draft pick last year), Double-A Erie outfielder Daniel Fields and shortstop Eugenio Suarez, Class A Lakeland outfielder Steven Moya and Lakeland closer Jose Valdez.
No moves were made to take anybody off the 40-man roster, so it stands at 39 players. They left a spot open to add another player if something comes together in the coming days (an addition of a closer, perhaps?), but they’ll have to designate or release somebody if they add any more than that. The question over arbitration-eligible players, meanwhile, now shifts to the non-tender date two weeks from now.
Lennerton and Miller were kind of mysteries going in. Though Lennerton is an older player (he’ll turn 28 in February), he’s coming off an all-star season that drew notice. Because he’s a first baseman, he doesn’t have a role in Detroit unless somebody gets hurt, but he also isn’t easy to replace if another team were to take him in the Rule 5. And by the sounds of it, that was a strong possibility. The Tigers had talked about him enough in potential trade discussions that the chance to snag him for $50,000 might have been too tempting.
“I think they candidly gauged enough legitimate interest to put him on,” one AL talent evaluator said of Lennerton.
Miller is an interesting case. The Tigers signed him in September after the Rangers had released him coming off a season shortened by recovery from 2012 Tommy John surgery. His last full, healthy season was 2011, but it was outstanding, with a 9-1 record, 1.81 ERA and 13 saves at Double-A Frisco.
It would seem that the odds of a team using a Rule 5 pick on a pitcher who has pitched just 27 innings the past two years would be long. But teams are interested to take a chance on pitchers in that type of situation. The Tigers got Wil Ledezma a decade ago coming off an injury history in the minors.
I wrote a piece on the site tonight about the decisions looming tomorrow for the Tigers 40-man roster. Any minor-leaguers who are eligible for the Rule 5 Draft have to be added to the roster by tomorrow night (midnight ET) to be protected. And as I wrote on the site, while there aren’t highly-touted prospects to add, there are some key decisions to make:
- How good are the prospects they have left at the upper levels who aren’t yet on the 40-man roster?
- Just how much do they value their insurance options at the upper levels?
On the first question, the Tigers value what they have, more for potential than what they’ve done in the minors already. While Daniel Fields just started putting up strong offensive numbers this year, batting .284 with a .791 OPS at Double-A Erie, he’s still relatively young with room for growth and enough potential that I’d expect the Tigers to protect him rather than risk losing them. He’s coming off a wrist injury that cut short any plans for fall or winter ball, but should be ready for the start of Spring Training. Potential rules, too, for raw but talented Steven Moya and A-ball level pitcher Endrys Briceno, and probably shortstop Eugenio Suarez.
On the second question, the problem for the Tigers is that it hasn’t been easy for them to fill gaps with minor-league free agents the past couple years. Four-A players tend to want to go someplace where they can compete for a big league job, not sit at Triple-A and wait for an injury. The Tigers have gotten some value out of minor-league free agents, Matt Tuiasosopo and Jose Alvarez being good examples, but they’ve also missed on others.
That’s where the question gets complicated for guys like Kyle Lobstein, Jordan Lennerton and Blaine Hardy. None are top 20 prospects, but all have a path to Detroit next season if there’s an injury at the big league level.
I would be very surprised if Kyle Lobstein isn’t protected after the Tigers traded Curt Casali to get his full rights last spring, especially at age 24. I think there’s a case to be made for Lennerton and Hardy, both of them older but both of them potential Rule 5 Draft bait for a team looking for cheap talent. That doesn’t mean either will be protected, but there are points for it.
The Tigers don’t have a similar type prospect to Lennerton ready for the upper levels. Maybe Aaron Westlake gets there, but it won’t be immediate. That said, the Tigers tried to market Lennerton as a prospect in trade talks with teams this year and didn’t find much interest. The interest might, however, be different as a Rule 5 pick.
As for the fate of the current roster, it would be a surprise if the Tigers sent off any arbitration-eligible players at this point. When the Tigers released Ryan Raburn at the deadline last offseason, it opened a spot for them. Unless the Tigers protect a few more guys than expected, they won’t need the space. That would push those decisions to the non-tender deadline just before the winter meetings in a few weeks.
News of the Tigers hiring Omar Vizquel as their first-base coach was the headline move of the Tigers coaching staff on Monday. News of the Tigers hiring Wally Joyner as hitting coach and Mick Billmeyer as bullpen coach was a big headline Sunday evening, soon after Joyner stepped down from the Phillies, and then became official on Monday.
Then, in Monday’s press release announcing the hiring, was the hiring of former Tigers minor league manager and instructor Matt Martin as “the club’s defensive coordinator.”
Wait, what? Did somebody cut and paste from a football press release?
Actually, it’s been done. Yes, in baseball. And fairly recently.
“I believe that preparation is the most important part of this game,” new Nationals manager Matt Williams said a few weeks ago in introducing Mark Weidemaier as his “defensive coordination advance coach.”
The description of the roles are similar. From the Tigers press release today:
Martin will assist Brad Ausmus and his staff with all on-field arrangements as well as with the coordination of all advanced scouting information for the Tigers.
Like in Washington, the idea of a defensive coordinator came from the manager. Like Williams, Ausmus made an impression with a blend of old and new ideas, and wanted somebody to coordinate their information in advance scouting and implement it in strategy.
“Brad Ausmus had talked about how he’d like to have somebody help him with doing this,” Dave Dombrowski said Monday. “We felt defensive coordinator was an appropriate title. He can help us on the field before games, but his main thing is going to be coordinating.”
Ausmus went into more detail why he wanted it.
“It’s very important to me that the infield defense, outfield defense and pitching are on the same page,” he explained. “Matt will be a big part of that coordination, in addition to assisting Omar [Vizquel] with infield, baserunning and bunting.”
That said, Martin will not be in uniform during the game. That’s one difference between what the Tigers are doing and what the Nationals are doing. Major League teams are allowed seven coaches in uniform during games thanks to a rule change last year, and the Tigers’ seventh spot is expected to go to their assistant hitting coach. Dombrowski said the Tigers haven’t determined where Martin will be when the game starts, but he won’t be in the dugout.
Another difference is the background. Martin has an instructional background, having been a roving infield instructor with the Dodgers and Orioles since 2007. He was a roving instructor, coach and manager in the Tigers farm system from 1998-2003. Weidemaier was an advance scout and special assistant in Arizona last year.
The philosophies on advance scouting are also different. The Tigers have done the bulk of their advance work through video and scouting services, and Martin will take a lot of that on. David Laurila had a very good explanation from Dombrowski on their advance scouting in a Fangraphs piece from October:
“During the regular season, we don’t [have advance scouts] for every series. I think most clubs have gotten away from that. We do our advance work through video and statistical information. We videotape basically every game that’s played and break down those tapes, hitter by hitter and pitcher by pitcher. Then we supply that information to Jim [Leyland] and his staff.
“Another thing with our staff is that Jim has been in the league so long that he knows a lot of the information himself. Occasionally, if we don’t know a team real well, or if we don’t know a manager real well — their tendencies — we’ll send somebody in advance of a series.”
The Nationals do use an advance scout during the season. It’s not a dig against the Tigers scouting staff that they don’t, because after all, these are the same scouts that have provided the background info behind Detroit’s many trades and free-agent signings over the years. It’s just a philosophy.
Whatever the route, it’ll be up to the coordinators to process a ton of information and put it to use defensively. The Tigers did not use a lot of infield shifts under Leyland, who left it up to his pitchers whether they wanted to shift against a particular hitter. It remains to be seen how Ausmus handles that, but Martin’s appointment strongly suggests he plans to use shifts and positioning aggressively.
The good news for the Tigers is that Joe Nathan is going on national radio professing his love for them. The bad news is that it doesn’t sound like he’s signing a contract anywhere quite yet, or at least for a little while until the Yankees and perhaps some other teams begin making moves.
From the conversation he had with Jim Bowden and Casey Stern on MLB Network Radio this afternoon, it sounded very much like a waiting game.
“Right now,” he said, “it’s just waiting to see how what options are going to be out there, what teams are really going to be interested and then take those phone calls and try to make the best decision we can as far as what location we’re looking for and what team we feel can be a good fit and most importantly what team can have the best chance we feel to go into a postseason.”
As he talked, he pointed out a mutual benefit to that approach.
“I think the fortunate thing is I think a lot of teams are going to try to figure out what they’re going to do with guys as far as arbitration and other pieces that they’ve got to figure out, as far as are they going to try and trade somebody and do this and do that, free up money,” Nathan said. “So I think there are going to be a lot of teams that this process kind of allows me to patient [with], so it gives me a chance to see what clubs are trying to do. So it’ll be nice. I think that helps with the Yankees situation and gives us a sense of what they’re going to do.”
Bowden earlier presented Nathan with three teams he saw as fits for him, starting with the Tigers and then including the Angels and Yankees. As the above quote showed, he sounds willing to wait out the Yankees and see how their roster and payroll shake out.
“I think that’s one of the good things that this has been a slow process and we do have the ability to be patient and kind of watch how this thing plays out, because we do know the Yankees have a lot of pieces to try to fix and a lot of pieces to fill in and the Yankees do obviously go out there and make moves,” he continued. “So It’ll be interesting to see how they try to piece their team together and fill in some of the holes that they have. … It’ll be nice to be patient and see how this thing plays out, but again, it’s fun and just knowing that there are going to be teams out there that have a chance to go to the postseason is exciting for us.”
On the Tigers, it doesn’t sound like patience is a huge motive.
“I definitely love the Tigers, know them very well, having competed against that squad for so many years when I was with the Twins, knowing some of the guys over there, knowing how deep they are, rotation deep,” Nathan said. “Their lineup and offense obviously are impressive. I think one of the things is that their defense has definitely improved. It’s a good ballpark to play in, a good crowd to play in front of. Detroit’s definitely a very appealing and attractive team to look at, I think.”
One of the guys he knows, of course, is his old Twins teammate, Torii Hunter, who has apparently started his recruiting effort.
“With the way the game is today, that is one of the fortunate things that we have,” Nathan said. “Most of the time you know somebody that plays for the club that’s trying to get you over there, so you can kind of already get a sense of how things work, how it is inside the clubhouse, how the teammates are, how the guys are around there, how the staff is, basically how they like to do things in the organization. Fortunately I was able to have a quick little text with Torii Hunter, and obviously he was trying to make sure I was keeping Detroit in my sights and see if I can come over there and join their club.”
The Yankees don’t necessarily have that. What they have is location; Nathan went to high school and college in New York, the latter at Stony Brook University on Long Island. That said, Nathan downplayed the location factor in general.
“Location does play a factor,” he said, “but I think it definitely takes a back seat to whether the team can win and whether the team has a chance to seriously contend, not just to get to the postseason but contend to get to where we ultimately want to be, and that’s the World Series.”
Bottom line, the interview doesn’t do anything to change the view that the Tigers and Nathan are a fit. But it also makes clear that Nathan is willing to wait and see what kind of fit the Yankees can create financially and competitively.