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Sources: Tigers talked catching with Astros

The Tigers picked up the club option on Alex Avila’s contract earlier this week, but they remain in the rumor mill surrounding catching. While sources confirmed a report from FOXSports.com’s Jon Morosi that Detroit had talks with the Astros about their catching surplus, the sources said talks ended with the Tigers moving on.

The Astros have three catchers on their roster following the addition of former Angels catcher Hank Conger two weeks ago. The Tigers talks were believed to center around switch-hitting backup Carlos Corporan, who has pounded Tigers pitching the last two years (9-for-22, 3 HRs, 4 RBIs). Two of those home runs came off Max Scherzer in 2013. Corporan also homered off Evan Reed this past May.

Corporan, who turns 31 in January, is a .226 career hitter with 17 home runs and 63 RBIs in 199 career games. He would make sense as an offensive backup to a defensive-minded catcher, especially if the Tigers were to trade Avila and go with prospect James McCann or Bryan Holaday behind the plate. He set a career high with 48 starts for the Astros this past season, though it’s unclear whether he could fill a platoon role.

The talks supposedly took place prior to the Tigers picking up Avila’s $5.4 million option for 2015. The option pickup, however, doesn’t necessarily guarantee Avila staying put. The move only guarantees cost certainty with Avila, rather than going to arbitration, in his final season before he’s eligible for free agency.

Jason Beck

Hunter, Tigers play waiting game as options emerge

The Tigers and Torii Hunter are in a waiting game right now while Detroit tries to work out the pressing issues elsewhere on its roster. There could soon be a limit to how long Hunter waits, though.

Though Tuesday marked the first day that teams could negotiate with other clubs’ free agents, nothing prevented clubs from expressing interest before that as long as no contract terms were discussed. With that in mind, Darren Wolfson of ESPN 1500 in Minneapolis tweeted Tuesday that the Twins have already expressed interest in Hunter, their former superstar outfielder who came up through Minnesota’s system and served as the heart and soul of the team during its run of American League Central titles in the early and mid-2000s.

The Twins are a ways off from the World Series contender that Hunter is seeking as he tries to round out his career with a Fall Classic berth, let alone a title. Still, Hunter’s Twins roots and the pending wave of young talent make this a potential fit. Hunter is a fan of Paul Molitor, having raved earlier this year about Molitor’s knowledge of the game and ability to observe trends on the field. Molitor worked with Hunter in Minnesota more than a decade ago.

Last month, the Royals were speculated with potential interest in Hunter to fill their right-field void now that Nori Aoki is a free agent.

The Tigers are interested in keeping fellow free agent Victor Martinez. What happens with him could have an impact on Hunter, who has manned right field for two seasons but is also approaching his 40th birthday next summer.

Hunter, in turn, has let it be known he’s interested in staying with the Tigers. But he also has been known to move quickly as a free agent, identifying his target early and signing there. He joined the Tigers about two weeks into the offseason two years ago, and signed with the Angels on Thanksgiving the first time he was a free agent.

Depending on how long the Tigers’ dealings linger, Hunter could be in a position where he has to choose between waiting on their uncertainty and taking an opportunity somewhere else. That makes the chances of his potential return far less clear than they were a couple weeks ago.

Jason Beck

Could Tigers swing a trade for starting pitching?

The Tigers headed into the final full day before Thursday afternoon’s non-waiver trade deadline in much the same position as they were over the weekend — still looking for relief help, notably left-handed, still seemingly finding the asking prices high. The same supply-and-demand issues that inflated the market coming into the heart of the traded still hold, at prices resembling the starting pitching market in a lot of years, and the late-inning relief market already.

Which begs the question: If the Tigers would have to pay prices for another reliever resembling that for a starter, could they simply trade for a starter instead, then move lefty Drew Smyly back to the bullpen?

It might not be that far-fetched. One AL talent evaluator raised the possibility earlier in the month. And while there’s nothing suggesting a deal is close, there are signs not to rule it out.

The Rays have had a scout watching the Tigers’ Double-A Erie team since early last week, including Jake Thompson’s start just before his trade to Texas in the package for Joakim Soria. The SeaWolves are currently in Altoona facing the Double-A affiliate of the Pirates, whose search for starting help and deep prospect ranks have made them a much-speculated suitor for starting pitching. The scout, however, is believed to be watching both clubs.

Six weeks ago, the Tigers and Rays seemed like a logical match for Ben Zobrist, but shortstop is no longer a trade target in Detroit. While the Rays have relievers who would carry some appeal on the trade market, there’s little urgency to make a deal. Their main remaining trade bait, even amidst their charge back into the AL East race, is David Price.

It’s shaky at best that the Rays would decide to buck their recent charge and trade Price. If they did, even with the Tigers enjoying some depth in prospects, they can’t match other clubs in what they can offer. If Pittsburgh to St. Louis were to make a serious run, their best push would beat anything the Tigers could come up with, especially after trading Thompson and Corey Knebel to Texas. Something crazy would have to happen. Still, it’s interesting to have the Rays scouting them.

Meanwhile, a Tigers senior scout spent the weekend in Houston, where the Astros were swept by the Marlins. Both clubs have lefty relievers rumored to be on the trade market — Mike Dunn for Miami, Tony Sipp for Houston. However, the Marlins aren’t expected to sell, according to reports, and the Astros aren’t inclined to deal relievers at this point. By contrast, the Astros are reportedly more willing to deal from a surplus of starters.

If the Tigers traded a starter and shuffled Smyly back to relief, it would certainly be an end-around to address their pitching needs. The problem is that it doesn’t actually add to their bullpen depth when it counts. Though Smyly has spent all season in Detroit’s rotation, he’s likely to shift to the bullpen in October anyway, since the Tigers need just four starters for the postseason. Essentially, then, all a trade would do is put Smyly in the bullpen sooner. So if the Tigers were to trade for a starter, he’d have to be good.

That said, trading for a starter who’s under control for next year could conceivably help fill the void if Max Scherzer leaves as a free agent at season’s end.

- Jason Beck

What’s next for Tigers before trade deadline?

Could Wednesday’s trade for Joakim Soria be the opener of a two-part move to upgrade the Tigers bullpen? Possibly.

“Our bullpen has been a situation that has been our major focus, and I guess would continue to be our major focus if we are going to do something,” Dombrowski said on his Thursday morning conference call. “I’m not sure if we will or will not, but we’re still open-minded to it.”

Could the Tigers shift direction and make that much-speculated move for a left-handed hitting outfielder or a veteran shortstop? That seems less likely.

“I don’t know that either one of them would be real high on our priority list at this point,” Dombrowski said.

The part about acquiring another reliever was one of the first questions posed to Dombrowski on the call. The spotting of a Tigers scout watching the Phillies, whose bullpen includes lefty Antonio Bastardo, sparked discussion of whether the recent struggles of Ian Krol to go with Phil Coke’s up-and-down season might Detroit to add a southpaw.

Dombrowski wasn’t getting into details on a game plan for the final days before next Thursday’s nonwaiver Trade Deadline, but he clearly left the door open for another move.

“I wouldn’t say specifically what we’re addressing. I guess we’re open-minded to a lot of different thought processes,” he said. “Our bullpen has scuffled at times. I think that a real key is you want to have people out there who put up zeroes for you, that can put down shutdown innings and also throw strikes on a consistent basis. We’ve scuffled, not everybody, but a lot of guys collectively at that. Again, we remain open-minded if something happens that makes sense to make us better before the trading deadline.”

Positionally, on the other hand, Dombrowski seems pleased. He praised Eugenio Suarez and his handling of the shortstop job.

“We are comfortable with Suarez. He’s done a very nice job for us,” Dombrowski said. “To sum it up, he’s mature beyond his years and seems to handle situations very well. He’s been solid defensively for us, which is first and foremost, and we think he can continue to do that. He’s a youngster, so you have to realize he’ll go through some ups and downs, but he’s also contributed offensively. … But he doesn’t seem overwhelmed at all.”

As for the lefty bat situation, Dombrowski indicated that he expects Andy Dirks to make it back to the big leagues in time to make a difference.

“I think Andy Dirks is going to come back here,” he said. “He’s making progress again. I think he’s going to help us.”

Jason Beck

Tigers prospect placed on DL

Drew VerHagen has drawn attention as a potential piece in any potential Tigers trade for relief help, having more than held his own as a sinkerballer at Triple-A Toledo before delivering a decent spot start in Detroit last Saturday with five innings of three-run ball. That could well end up being his final outing before the July 31 outing. The right-hander has been placed on the disabled list with what is being called a lower back strain.

The injury was reported after VerHagen returned to Toledo, having been called up and sent down last Saturday under the 26th man rule that allows for an extra player during a doubleheader. Thus, VerHagen was placed on the 7-day disabled list at the Triple-A level, rather than the 15-day DL in the big leagues. That means he’ll at least be eligible to return from the DL before the July 31 trade deadline. Whether he does depends on his back.

It isn’t expected to be a major injury. Tigers assistant general manager Al Avila said VerHagen reported concerns about his back after returning to Toledo. He’ll visit a doctor as a precaution, but it doesn’t appear to be a serious concern.

Though just a few teams had scouts on hand for VerHagen’s start Saturday, the Tigers are getting a good amount of interest on starting pitching in their farm system. Beyond VerHagen, multiple teams are expected to have scouts at Double-A Erie to watch Jake Thompson, Detroit’s top pick in 2012 and now arguably their top pitching prospect after Robbie Ray, start Wednesday afternoon.

Jason Beck

Tigers talking on bullpen help

The Tigers have been casting a wide net in their search for relief help, but they’ve run into a seller’s market — a lot of teams looking, not enough late-inning relievers available for all of them. With less than two weeks left before the July 31 nonwaiver Trade Deadline, the countdown is on for either the Tigers or sellers to blink on asking price.

Detroit wants help for the eighth inning, and could use some support for the ninth just in case Joe Nathan has another bout of pitching problems, the kind he eventually worked through earlier this season. However, they’ve been insistent that Nathan is their closer.

The Tigers have been in touch with the Rangers on Joakim Soria, who set up for Nathan in Texas last year before taking over as closer this season. Jon Morosi of Fox Sports reports that they’ve had ongoing discussions. However, the Rangers have reportedly been seeking two or three prospects in return, something the Tigers aren’t likely to do for a reliever — even Soria, whose contract includes a $7 million club option for next season.

Another target, Joaquin Benoit, was Detroit’s closer for most of last season, but set up for Jose Valverde for two seasons before that. He has been stellar again in setup for the Padres so far this season, allowing just 22 hits over 38 2/3 innings with nine walks and 45 strikeouts. He’s 16-for-16 in holds and 1-for-1 in saves. The Tigers have scouted the Padres heavily this summer.

Benoit’s contract, however, is guaranteed for next season at $8 million, along with an $8 million club option for 2016 that can be bought out for $1.5 million.

Astros closer Chad Qualls also has drawn the Tigers’ interest with solid numbers over the last couple years. The Tigers traded for last year’s Astros closer, Jose Veras, around this point a year ago, but got mixed results down the stretch before opting not to pick up his contract option.

With Joba Chamberlain holding down the eighth inning well, the Tigers can afford to play a waiting game until the end of the month. However, Chamberlain has already pitched in 41 games, four off his total last season, and has topped 50 games only once in his career. With the Tigers starting a stretch of 55 games in 55 days, including three doubleheaders, the Tigers’ reliance on three relievers for the bulk of their setup work — Chamberlain, Al Alburquerque and Ian Krol — will prove difficult to sustain without help.

Jason Beck

Spot start for Tigers prospect gives teams a look

The Tigers pulled a surprise move by tabbing prospect Drew VerHagen over Robbie Ray to start the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader against Cleveland. For VerHagen, it’ll mark his Major League debut barely two years after the Tigers drafted him out of Vanderbilt. For scouts, it’ll be a chance to see just how close one of Detroit’s most appealing pitching prospects is to Major League ready.

While former Tigers top pick Jake Thompson has generated more buzz on his way up the system, including a mention in the Astros trade talk memos from last summer, VerHagen has built a resume on a relatively fast track up the organizational ladder. He’s a groundball pitcher rather than a strikeout artist, but his ability to keep the ball in the park — just nine home runs allowed in 237 2/3 innings over the last two seasons — compares favorably to Thompson.

“Good sinker, poised and competes, works easy and sneaky,” one AL talent evaluator summarized.

The Tigers have more intriguing pitching prospects at their lower levels, but for teams seeking a pitcher who can make the jump relatively quickly, VerHagen could be an option.

It would not be the first time a Tigers prospect has gone from starting in Detroit to being traded out of Detroit in the same month. Jacob Turner made two turns through the rotation in July 2012 before the Tigers traded him in a package to the Marlins for Anibal Sanchez. Charlie Furbush made a pair of early July starts for the Tigers in 2011 before being dealt to Seattle in the package for Doug Fister.

To call Saturday a showcase start might be overstating it. With Robbie Ray struggling, VerHagen was the best option the Tigers had, though they could have called up Kyle Lobstein to do the same thing. Still, even if it’s a secondary reason, it’s an opportunity for teams to get a look.

Jason Beck

Tigers finalizing 2-year deal with Rajai Davis

The Tigers have found their answer in left field, and it’s not the much-rumored, oft-speculated pursuit of Shin-Soo Choo. Instead, they’re prepared to go with a platoon of Andy Dirks and Rajai Davis.

The Tigers spent Tuesday working to complete an agreement with Davis on what is expected to be a two-year contract, according to sources. The team has not confirmed the agreement, as is their policy when a contract is pending a physical. Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet.ca, who first reported an agreement, said the contract will be worth $10 million.

It’s a role signing for a team that was looking to upgrade its offense and saw left field as the one place it could do so. It’ll happen situationally, plugging in the speedy Davis as the right-handed hitting half of a platoon with Dirks, as well as a basestealing option in the late innings of games he doesn’t start. His .294 career average and .354 on-base percentage against lefties, including .319 and .383 last season in a part-time role with the Blue Jays, fits what the Tigers were seeking, though the production often came in streaks.

By contrast, Davis is a .255 career hitter against right-handers, including just .228 (49-for-215) with 48 strikeouts this past season.

At the same time, it’s a philosophical shift for a team that has been short on speed and wary of speedsters in their thirties. Detroit has been neither a basestealing team nor a manufactured offense type of club for several seasons, increasingly focusing their baserunning efforts on hit-and-run and first-to-third plays. The Tigers wouldn’t be signing the 33-year-old Davis for multiple seasons if they didn’t plan to use his greatest asset.

Despite just 108 games and 360 plate appearances, Davis stole 45 bases in 51 attempts in 2013, and he has racked up at least 40 steals in four of the last five seasons. Meanwhile, the Tigers stole 35 bases as a team last season, led by Austin Jackson’s eight.

The deal rules out the Tigers on Choo, if they were ever in it. Though his combination of speed, on-base percentage and arm presented potentially an ideal fit for Detroit, he’s also an ideal fit for a lot of teams. With Jacoby Ellsbury and Robinson Cano off the market, moreover, Choo stands as the top position player left, making him a hot commodity.

Jason Beck

Could Tigers make a run for Shin-Soo Choo?

The Tigers made the two biggest trades of the offseason to date to create flexibility out of a top-five payroll. They wouldn’t address the reinvestment end of that money until they took care of their most pressing need and signed a closer. Now that Joe Nathan is about to become a Tiger, it’s time, and the Tigers might well spend it making one good run at one of the biggest free agents on the market again.

Both Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News and Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com report the Tigers have shown interest in multi-tooled Shin-Soo Choo, the most prominent left-handed hitting outfielder available now that Jacoby Ellsbury is headed to the Yankees. Feinsand cites a source that Choo is Detroit’s top free-agent target.

Choo fits the profile of hitter the Tigers are known to be seeking, balancing out a predominantly right-handed hitting lineup while also adding speed and on-base percentage back into Detroit’s offense. The Tigers saw him up-close for years in Cleveland, where he was a teammate of Detroit DH Victor Martinez. And unlike other speedy leadoff hitters who have hit the market, hitters the Tigers have traditionally judged on how their game would mature as they age and lose speed, Choo brings a skill set that doesn’t hinge on his speed.

The question for the Tigers with Choo is financial, how far they’re willing or able to go to sign him. They just shed the burden of a megacontract by trading Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler. With several players nearing free agency, Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera foremost among them, they can’t afford to put themselves in the same bind, though Choo isn’t expected to approach the nine-year deal Fielder signed with the Tigers two winters ago.

Jason Beck

Tigers sign Don Kelly to one-year, $1 million deal

The last question for the Tigers at Monday’s nontender deadline has been answered. Utilityman Don Kelly agreed to terms 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. He essentially had to win his roster spot back after being taken off the 40-man roster.

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. Detroit took a similar approach with Brennan Boesch a year ago.

Jason Beck

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