January 27th, 2012

What’s left? Pitching invites, maybe Cespedes?

Here’s the deal: Whatever follows this first paragraph, take it with a grain of salt. As we saw on the Prince Fielder thing, plans change around these parts.

That said, the Tigers don’t sound like they have another major move in store.

Positionally, team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said they’re pretty well set. Yes, there’s still some free agent DH/outfielder types, but if the Tigers added somebody there, they’d essentially be locking themselves into Miguel Cabrera as a third baseman before seeing how he handles the position in spring training.

But there’s a big-name hitter still out there who has been connected with Tigers interest since November. When Dombrowski was asked about Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, he crafted his response to allow some leeway should somebody above his pay grade decide he’s worth pursuing.

“I don’t want to say on that,” Dombrowski said. “Most likely [they’re out], but you never can tell.”

Not lately, no.

Their outlook on pitching sounds a little more secure. Though the Tigers reportedly went after Roy Oswalt earlier, Dombrowski gave a pretty strong indication that they’re not looking for that kind of deal anymore. They’re still looking for veteran pitching, but Dombrowski is now downplaying expectations to the level of non-roster invitees. The 40-man roster is full, though they’ll open a spot by Opening Day by placing Victor Martinez on the 60-day disabled list.

Martinez, by the way, was scheduled to have a second opinion on his left knee Thursday afternoon from Dr. Richard Steadman. No news was available as of Thursday night, but the Tigers are expecting to hear he’ll need surgery for a torn ACL.

That would open up a roster spot for a non-roster pitcher who comes to camp. At this point, though, Dombrowski sounds more open than ever to having one of his young pitcher take the fifth starter job, especially if he’s going to get an uptick in run support.

“We’re having some conversations with a few guys,” Dombrowski said. “I don’t know if it’ll happen for not. But I don’t want it sound like we’re signing some guy to a long-term contract, or even in a position to be giving a big one-year deal. We’re talking more [to] bring a guy into camp, and if our youngsters don’t make it, then we can maybe lean on that guy to do it.”

The added run support the Tigers can expect from this offense gives them some leeway.

“You’re trying to win, and I think you can do that,” Dombrowski said. “But we have four veteran starters, a better offense. So it’s conducive to breaking that [young] guy in there if you can. At some point, you’re trying to break young guys in, because you want a guy or two to break in on a yearly basis somewhere. I know people write about payroll and I know we have a high payroll, but even the Yankees try to break young guys in, because you need to have somebody making lesser salaries. … It’s important, and I think it’s a good place to do it for us. But I don’t want to feed somebody to the wolves if they go to spring training and then they don’t look like they can handle it. That’s why you’re trying to protect yourself if you can.”

I said this on twitter earlier, but at this point, I would be surprised if one of the youngsters heading to camp — Duane Below, Jacob Turner, Adam Wilk, Andy Oliver or Drew Smyly — doesn’t win the open rotation spot. There’s more talent in that group than in the lower ranks of the free agency market right now. It’s the experience that’s lacking.

Leyland on Inge: “He’s not the happiest camper”

Four years ago, Miguel Cabrera was a man on the move, and Brandon Inge was man without a position, hoping to find a starting job somewhere. The trade that was expected that winter never happened, and Inge ended up back at third base.

Now, the Tigers and Inge might be back in the same spot.

Because Miguel Cabrera was the only player given a heads-up about the signing, Inge found out about being replaced through the media, not the team. Manager Jim Leyland said he finally talked with Inge Thursday once the signing was official.

“I basically apologized [to him] that this got out on the airwaves obviously prior to us wanting it to,” Leyland said. “I’m sorry he had to hear it other than from the horse’s mouth, but at that particular time, I was not at any liberty to discuss this whatsoever.

“I have talked with Brandon. He’s not the happiest camper. We certainly understand. We try to deal with these issues as we’re supposed to be.”

Leyland suggested there still could be a role for Inge on the team. He had Inge penciled in for some starts at third when Cabrera’s DHing or off. He did not indicate any change of positions for Inge.

Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said he has not talked with Inge yet, or his agents. If Inge wants a trade or release, he hasn’t heard about it. At this point, he isn’t preparing to make a move.

“I can understand he wouldn’t be thrilled,” Dombrowski said, “but I also think at this point, probably the best thing for him to do — he’s not coming off a big year, the market is pretty well set — probably the best thing is to let him come to spring training, let him play well and let’s see what happens. I think he still can play a very important role on our club. Like I said, we’re trying to win.

“I respect his situation. We’ll do what we can. We’ll see what happens, but I think he’s a very important part of our club. He is in good shape, and he’s worked hard, and I think he’s got a chance to put up some nice numbers this year.”

Inge has $6 million in guaranteed money this year — $5.5 million in salary, plus a $500,000 buyout assuming the Tigers don’t pick up his $6 million option for 2013. The Tigers were willing to eat that money last summer when they designated him for assignment for make room for Wilson Betemit. Inge accepted a minor-league assignment after some encouragement from Tigers owner Mike Ilitch.

On the other hand, if Miguel Cabrera’s move to third base doesn’t work out — remember, the Tigers moved him out of third a few weeks into the 2008 season — the Tigers would then need a third baseman. If Inge is gone, the Tigers’ best option at third is Don Kelly. So even if the Tigers could find another team for Inge, or could afford to eat his contract, they have a motivation not to. He’s an insurance policy, or Plan B, or the fallback option, whatever term you want to use.

On a semi-related note, Dombrowski was asked whether Cabrera’s move to third makes top position prospect Nick Castellanos, one of the top third base prospects in the game, expendable? Dombrowski said no.

“We’re in a position where you just take your time with him,” Dombrowski said. “He’s at third base. He’s a tremendous player. He’s going to be a tremendous player. We’re not looking to trade him. He’s just made the [MLB.com] Top 100 players prospectwise along with [Jacob] Turner and [Drew] Smyly.

“So for me, it’s just really a matter of you want to have young players. A guy like Castellanos will be a fine big-league player. He’ll fit in great eventually.”

Getting the picture here?

Leyland strongly defends Cabrera to third

If you haven’t seen it already, we have a good package of stories on the site from the Prince Fielder press conference, including what it means for the batting order, lineup and the Scott Boras legacy in Detroit (more than $400 million in contracts since 2004). But in confirming Miguel Cabrera as not only a third baseman, but the starting third baseman, Jim Leyland took a strong stance on the plan.

“Mr. Ilitch and Dave have given me a lot of nice pieces to this puzzle,” Leyland said. “It’s my job, along with the coaches, to figure out how to put that puzzle together. I don’t think that’s going to be an issue whatsoever. It’s a pretty nice problem to have.

“Miguel Cabrera’s going to play third base. I’ll make that perfectly clear today. Obviously we’re going to start [working] in Spring Training. I feel very comfortable with it. I think that we need to, right from the get-go, shoot straight from the hip: He’s not going to have the agility defensively, most likely, that Brandon Inge had. You give up a little something, but you get a whole lot in return. We’re going back to the old-fashioned baseball. We’ve got big-time power on the corners. … Putting the puzzle together is not going to be a problem. Whenever you have great players, it’s a nice problem to have.”

Leyland added that he has no plans to use a defensive replacement for Cabrera late in games.

“We will monitor that,” Leyland  but as we speak today, I don’t think that you defense for those star players very often.”

The Tigers did a very diligent job of telling as few people as possible about their talks with Fielder, trying to keep their interest as quiet as possible. Cabrera might have been the only player given a heads-up, so that the team could make sure he was on board with moving away from first base. If he wasn’t, Dave Dombrowski said, they probably wouldn’t have pursued the deal.

“He’s 100 percent on board. He feels real good about it,” Leyland said. “He’s going to shed a little bit of weight — I hope not too much. I think a couple years ago he got a little too thin.”

For comparison’s sake, even infield coach Rafael Belliard didn’t know the Tigers were closing in on Fielder and pondering a shift of Cabrera to third.

“I said, ‘What do you think about Miguel playing third base?’ He said, ‘Oh, I think he can play third base,'” Dombrowski said.

“I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Yeah, Miguel told me his goal was to play at 40 games at third base this year.’ And I said, ‘Well, do you think he can do it?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’

“He said, ‘What I have to do is narrow his base a little bit, but his hands are good, his arm is plenty good, his instincts are fine.'”

Dombrowski said he checked with Leyland to make sure he felt the same, and that Jim felt the advantages outweighed the negatives.

The enthusiasm for Cabrera towards playing third base, too, made a difference.

“We talked about Miguel being our third baseman if we played in the World Series last year,” Dombrowski said. “And this past wintertime, Miguel has told me numerous times, ‘I’m going to play third base. I want to play third base.’ Because he likes to play there. So his goal was to play.”

Cabrera already has lost weight this winter, Dombrowski said, as part of an overall goal regardless of where he played. When he weighed in last week, he was lighter than last year, enough so that he shouldn’t have to do a crash-course weight loss plan to get to where he wants to be.

“He’s already lost a lot of the weight that would need to go towards doing it,” Dombrowski said. “Now, he’s a big man. This guy’s big. He’s not going to be 180. But there’s been other big guys that have done it.

“Again, those perfect players don’t exist in too many spots. And so, you give and take on certain things. I think he’ll be fine at third. Do I think he’ll win the Gold Glove? No, but I think he’ll be fine. But when you put his offense there, there’s not many guys that can put up those numbers that he can put up. You start thinking how many clubs in baseball might get 70 home runs, 230 RBIs out of the corners? There’s not many. Maybe he’ll have a couple more errors, but again, the team is not perfect.”

Dombrowski said the move shouldn’t put more responsibility on shortstop Jhonny Peralta to make up for the difference.

“Jhonny can only do what he can,” Dombrowski said. “I mean, Jhonny is a steady shortstop, catches what he gets to, makes the throws. In the ninth inning with one out in a one-run game, you want the ball hit to Jhonny, because you feel real good he’s going to make the play. He doesn’t have the greatest range, but he’s ok. But again, he can hit .280-.300 and hit 15-20 home runs and knock in 70 runs, that’s a pretty good choice overall for you.”