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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

Canospotting in Detroit?

The rumor began circulating on Twitter Thursday 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 at Willow Run Airport.

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 afternoon with the talk of Jay-Z and Cano landing in the area. Jay-Z was spotted shortly after that Thursday evening … 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, a source indicated late Friday morning when the rumors were building that it was business as usual at Tigers offices. If Cano was in Detroit, 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, 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 in New York, the reports were rampant, 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.

Joe Nathan loves Tigers, but preaching patience

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 on Monday, 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.

– Jason Beck

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