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Tigers appear more likely for setup help

The Tigers continue to search the market for relievers, and they continue to scout potential trading partners. This weekend, they have scouts watching the Marlins, Brewers, Padres, Mariners and Astros, according to CBSSports.com’s Danny Knobler.

The wide scouting search isn’t unusual for the Tigers, who leverage the strength of their Major League scouting department this time of year.

The longer the search goes on, however, the more likely it appears they’ll look for setup and middle relief help rather than any major deal for a veteran closer.

The Tigers were told recently that the Marlins have no intention of trading closer Steve Cishek, who’s under team control for another four years and doesn’t become eligible for arbitration until this winter. MLB.com’s Joe Frisaro has reported that the Marlins could deal him if they were overwhelmed by an offer, such as a package including a top prospect such as Nick Castellanos. But while the Tigers don’t declare any player untouchable, it’s unlikely they’ll deal Castellanos for a closer.

Detroit still views Bruce Rondon as the long-term answer at closer, and his recent success in seventh- and eighth-inning opportunities has helped give that some momentum. More important for now, Joaquin Benoit’s success in save situations has stabilized the closer role in the short term, and arguably provided the Tigers with the bridge they needed.

With the Phillies seemingly intending to hold onto Jonathan Papelbon (or at least not unload him in a salary dump) and Cubs closer Kevin Gregg not looking appealing as an option (his career numbers in the American League are much worse than the National League, and the Tigers have passed on him before), the path to a stable bullpen appears more likely to come from filling in behind Benoit with setup help than filling the top spot. Seattle and Milwaukee, though, have relievers with closing experience.

– Jason Beck

Dombrowski on closer: “Our outlook has not changed”

Does this sound like a familiar scenario: The Tigers say they’re set at a particular position, one where prominent agent Scott Boras has a well-known free agent looking for a market. Boras bypasses team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski and talks with owner Mike Ilitch. The Tigers abruptly change course and get involved.

It happened three winters ago with Johnny Damon. Could it be happening right now with Rafael Soriano? With Tuesday’s report from MLB Network’s Peter Gammons that Boras talked with Ilitch about Soriano on Monday, you have to wonder.

Here’s the report from Gammons on MLB Network’s Hot Stove show this morning:

The Tigers have maintained that they’d like to give hard-throwing rookie Bruce Rondon a chance to win the closer’s job, though Dombrowski said they could still take a look at the market later and could add somebody under the right scenario.

Dombrowski reaffirmed that approach when reached Tuesday.

“Our outlook has not changed,” Dombrowski replied in an email.

In fairness, the Tigers initially downplayed the rumors about Damon a few years ago, only to reach a deal six weeks later. So eventually, maybe they’ll do the same with Soriano. If it happens, though, it doesn’t sound like it’s imminent. With the notable exception of Prince Fielder, no Boras deal ever seems to be quick.

All along, the expectation was that Boras would try to get the Tigers — and especially Ilitch — involved on Soriano. The question has always been whether Ilitch would listen. Bill Madden of the New York Daily News reported a couple weeks ago that it already happened, and that Ilitch said no. Others have reported that it hadn’t happened yet but they expected it to come. ESPN’s Buster Olney cited executives from other teams expecting it to happen.

That doesn’t mean Soriano will get the kind of massive deal that he wants, one that torpedoes the Tigers’ long-term plans for Rondon. Time will tell if there’s a compromise to be found somewhere in there.

– Jason Beck

Tigers reach two-year deal with Torii Hunter

That didn’t take long. A day after Torii Hunter visited Detroit, the free-agent outfielder and the Tigers reached an agreement on a two-year contract, pending a physical. Sources confirmed the deal, first reported by Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com.

Hunter left Detroit Tuesday night and reportedly did not have an offer. The deal came together quickly Wednesday morning.

Hunter not only fills the corner outfield spot that stood as the lone void in the Tigers lineup, he provides Detroit with the right-handed bat it conspicuously lacked throughout the 2012 season in its struggles against left-handed pitching.

Add in Hunter’s proven tablesetting abilities in the second spot — he goes from batting between Mike Trout and Albert Pujols to slotting between Austin Jackson and Miguel Cabrera — along with his smart baserunning and still-standout defense, and there’s plenty to like for the Tigers in the deal.

While Hunter gets a multi-year contract that will take him just shy of his 40th birthday, the Tigers get the future flexibility to mix top prospects Avisail Garcia and Nick Castellanos into their outfield. Garcia was a postseason hero for Detroit at age 21, while Castellanos knocked on the door of a September call-up at age 20.

Both could benefit greatly from working with Hunter, whose impact was credited by AL Rookie of the Year and MVP candidate Mike Trout for helping him adjust so quickly to the big leagues with the Angels.

Jason Beck

Source: Tigers meeting with Torii Hunter in Detroit

Torii Hunter has been to Comerica Park and downtown Detroit several times as a visiting player. On Tuesday, he took a visit as a free agent, meeting with members of the Tigers front office as Detroit took its courtship to an in-person level.

A source confirmed what is being characterized as a meet-and-greet visit, first reported by FOXSports.com. The Tigers have an organizational policy of not commenting on free agents.

It is not necessarily a sign of an imminent deal for Hunter, who is weighing a visit with at least one other club and isn’t believed to have an offer from the Tigers yet. Nevertheless, it’s a sign that the courtship has grown serious. It also reinforces Hunter’s prediction on MLB Network Monday that his free-agent recruitment wouldn’t be drawn-out.

Hunter has played in Detroit on the visiting side for years, so long that he played at Tiger Stadium as a rookie for the Minnesota Twins in 1999. Tuesday’s visit allowed him a chance to meet with team officials in a different setting and get an idea about Hunter’s potential fit on the team.

Jason Beck

Tigers emerge as suitor (front-runner?) for Torii Hunter

Torii Hunter’s play as a Minnesota Twins outfielder early in his career earned him the title as a Tiger killer around these parts. After all these years, it’s now realistic for Detroit fans to consider the possibility of Hunter becoming a Tiger.

It might not take long to figure out, one way or the other.

The Tigers are interested in Hunter, as reported earlier Monday by CBSSports.com’s Danny Knobler, and as has been expected since team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski laid out their needs for a corner outfielder two weeks ago. Between Detroit’s season-long struggles against left-handed pitching, its desire to become more athletic, its lack of a proven second hitter between Austin Jackson and Miguel Cabrera, and Delmon Young’s departure as a free agent taking away one of Detroit’s key right-handed hitters, the Tigers’ needs fit Hunter’s strengths.

Just as encouraging, there are signs the interest is mutual, and strong. Whether the Tigers should be considered the front-runners for Hunter, as MLB Network Radio’s Jim Bowden and others put it, is a matter of perception, one that could change if another of his suitors (Knobler mentioned Texas, while the Rays, Phillies and Red Sox have also been mentioned in reports for possible one-year offers) steps up in the coming days. But signs point towards a logical match between Hunter and Detroit.

Hunter sounded Monday morning like he already has a team or teams in mind, and could sign soon, maybe by Thanksgiving — the day he signed his five-year deal with the Angels in 2007.

“It’s going to be quick,” Hunter told MLB Network’s Hot Stove morning show with Harold Reynolds. “I’m not going to wait it out. I know who I want to play for.”

Hunter didn’t mention which teams, but he said he’s looking to win, not simply get paid.

“Everybody knows I want to win,” Hunter told MLB Network, “so whatever team’s out there that wants to win and can use me and let me be a part of it, that’s who I want to be playing with.”

Hunter’s five-year deal with the Angels earned him $90 million. He has plenty of money, and he has a son who just committed to a football scholarship at Notre Dame.

That said, it’s expected to take a multi-year deal to sign Hunter, a fact which impacts his market at age 37. If he were to settle on a one-year deal, his field expands.

It leaves the Tigers with an intriguing decision. Detroit has two highly regarded, right-handed hitting outfield prospects with postseason hero Avisail Garcia and Futures Game MVP Nick Castellanos. Both are expected to have a chance to compete for a job in Spring Training, possibly a timeshare with Andy Dirks or Brennan Boesch in one corner outfield spot.

The other corner spot is open, and that’s where Hunter fits in. Add in Hunter’s clubhouse presence and track record of working with young outfielders — Mike Trout credited Hunter’s help as an impact on him during his Rookie of the Year interview Monday night on MLB Network — and he’s one potential signing that could improve two spots, not to mention his potential impact on center fielder Austin Jackson.

However, a two-year deal for Hunter likely would mean a longer wait for Castellanos or Garcia. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, an extra year or two of development, but it’s something the win-now Tigers have to weigh.

– Jason Beck

Bonderman still watching market for comeback

If the Tigers have offered a formal contract to Jeremy Bonderman, it seems to be a new development to him. He told MLB.com in a phone conversation Friday that he has left contract matters to his agent.

“I’m just seeing what all is out there right now,” Bonderman said. “But I have talked to Detroit.”

FOXSports.com’s Jon Paul Morosi cited sources Friday saying the Tigers have offered Bonderman a contract. It wouldn’t be a complete surprise if they did. When Bonderman became a free agent two offseasons ago, president/GM Dave Dombrowski had a standing offer on the table for a Minor League contract with a Spring Training invite. Bonderman was looking for a Major League contract at that time, and ended up simply staying home.

Bonderman admitted this past spring that he blew out his elbow while working out that offseason. He underwent Tommy John surgery this spring and has worked out ever since then in preparation for a comeback attempt. He said Friday he’s on schedule to be ready for full workouts come Spring Training.

He’s willing to accept a minor-league deal with a camp invite now, which could pave the way for a reunion with the Tigers. At this point however, it would make sense for him to watch the market and see what develops. If he can find a team with a rotation opening, it would give him a better shot at making the team than he might have in Detroit, where the Tigers already have enough established starters to fill out a rotation regardless whether they re-sign Anibal Sanchez.

Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said in an email Friday that he can’t comment on specific free agents, citing current Major League rules.

Dombrowski said last week that the Tigers could look for a starter to compete for the fifth spot if they don’t re-sign Sanchez. Most likely, though, that signing would be an insurance option in case Drew Smyly struggles or somebody gets hurt. The Tigers don’t have the same starter depth in the upper levels of their farm system that they had the past couple years, having traded Jacob Turner and watched Andy Oliver struggle mightily this past season. Duane Below and Adam Wilk are among the depth options they have right now.

Bonderman hasn’t pitched anywhere since 2010. Up to this point, he has spent his entire Major League career in Detroit since he crashed the Tigers rotation at age 20 in 2003. He turned 30 years old just two weeks ago.

– Jason Beck

How close did Tigers get to Reed Johnson deal?

The Tigers were among the teams with interest in Cubs outfielder Reed Johnson, one of the many right-handed role hitting outfielders on the market heading into the Trade Deadline. He ended up going to Atlanta in the Paul Maholm trade Monday night. The question is how close the Tigers came.

Bruce Levine of ESPN Chicago reported that four teams, including the Tigers, made their “best offer” on Monday. However, Tigers manager Jim Leyland told reporters Monday afternoon that he wasn’t expecting them to make any additional deals before Tuesday’s deadline. Then again, it was noted that Tigers minor league pitcher Thomas Collier left his start for Class A West Michigan after just three innings Monday night, as USA Today’s Bob Nightengale pointed out.

By trading both Johnson and Maholm to Atlanta, the Cubs were able to obtain two quality prospects, something the Tigers would’ve most likely been unwilling to do for the outfielder alone.

Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski deferred questions on trade matters to Tuesday afternoon once the non-waiver deadline passes. By then, the Tigers will most likely have given at least one more try at a right-handed hitting outfielder in hopes of bettering their lineup against left-handed pitching.

– Jason Beck

Dombrowski on Tigers deals: “We’re set at this point”

The Tigers came into the July trading season looking to fill three needs: Second base, starting pitcher and a right-handed bat, in that order. By acquiring Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez from the Marlins Monday night, they addressed all three.

Thus, when a reporter asked team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski on the Tigers’ conference call Monday night if they could have any more trades in store, Dombrowski sounded like he had wrapped up his summer shopping.

“We’re set at this point,” he said.

Speculation had pegged the Tigers potentially in the market for another outfielder or a relief pitcher. However, Andy Dirks’ impending return after missing close to two months with an Achilles strain is expected to fill an outfield need, albeit with a left-handed bat. As for the bullpen, the Tigers announced Tuesday that Al Alburquerque, last year’s rookie strikeout specialist who became a huge part of Detroit’s relief corps, will begin a rehab assignment with Class A Lakeland.

– Jason Beck

Shields, Vargas reportedly get a look from Tigers

The Tigers were interested in James Shields when the Rays debated whether to put him on the trade market last July, enough that Doug Fister was a Plan B of sorts when it became clear they weren’t getting Shields, at least not without selling the farm. Now that Shields could be on the market again, don’t expect the resurgence of Detroit’s rotation behind its top four starters to stop them from taking a look.

According to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, Tigers special assistant Dick Egan was spotted at Tropicana Field for the Rays’ series against the Mariners, which Shields opened with 7 2/3 quality innings on Friday. Conveniently, Seattle left-hander Jason Vargas, another rumored Tigers trade target in their starting pitching search, started there on Saturday.

The Tigers usually send out Egan on special assignments, not simply to update reports on teams. If he shows up at a ballpark, it’s for a pretty good reason. You can find at least two reasons above why the Tigers would have him in St. Petersburg this weekend. Of the two, Shields would be the obviously bigger draw.

Though Shields’ ERA is up from last year, while other stats are down, he appeals to the Tigers for a lot of reasons. First, he’s a consistent innings eater, averaging better than six innings a start. Even during his recent struggles, he has lasted at least seven innings in four of his last five starts. He also has postseason experience, though he struggled in his last two Division Series starts.

The Tigers, moreover, have the pieces that would potentially appeal to the Rays, who covet a young catcher according to CBSSports.com’s Danny Knobler. While the Tigers aren’t deep in a lot of areas in the upper levels of their farm system, they have 3-4 quality catchers in their system, led by Futures Game participant Rob Brantly at Triple-A Toledo and James McCann, last year’s top draft pick, at Double-A Erie. With 25-year-old Alex Avila holding down the job in Detroit, the Tigers can afford to part with a catcher and still have depth for down the road.

By contrast, the Tigers were never heavily involved in Vargas rumors last year, zeroing in on Doug Fister instead. If they’re going to acquire a starter to replace lefty Drew Smyly, doing so with another left-hander would have a major appeal to avoid an all-righty rotation. Vargas fits that, and he does it while averaging nearly seven innings a start. His ERA, hit totals and WHIP ratio are all significantly higher away from Seattle’s Safeco Field, including six innings with four runs at Comerica Park earlier this season. However, he has quality starts in his last three outings, all on the road, all of them victories.

– Jason Beck

Tigers top prospect appears to be off limits

This is the time of year when the Tigers usually send their scouts across baseball to look at potential trade targets. So it seems curious when the Tigers scout one of their own.

That was the scene Monday in Erie, where Tigers special assistant David Chadd — one of the organization’s top player evaluators — was in town. Presumably, he was watching top hitting prospect Nick Castellanos in his fifth game since moving from third base to right field. Another member of the Tigers scouting department was also spotted in attendance. For that matter, the Tigers had one of their big league scouts watching Castellanos last week while the SeaWolves were on the road.

How many scouts from other teams were watching Castellanos Monday night wasn’t immediately clear, but between the attention of their own officials and observations from other clubs, the Tigers aren’t likely to offer Castellanos as part of a July trade.

“They love him,” said one official with another club who has been in contact with the Tigers.

Bob Nightengale of USA Today tweeted Monday that the Tigers are telling teams that Castellanos is not available.

Castellanos broke out of a two-game mini-slump Monday with a home run as part of a two-hit game, raising his average back above .300 with Erie and .365 for the year between there and Class A Lakeland. He began the year as the Tigers’ top hitting prospect, but his .405 average over two months at Lakeland vaulted him among the top prospects in baseball before he won MVP honors at last week’s All-Star Futures Game in Kansas City with three hits and three RBIs, including a home run to center field at Kauffman Stadium.

– Jason Beck

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