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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

Could Omar Infante become a Tiger again?

The Tigers traded away Omar Infante five years ago in a deal that ranks among the most regrettable of Dave Dombrowski’s tenure in Detroit. Now, as they look for ways to stop their revolving door at second base, it’s conceivable that they could try to get him back.

Jayson Stark of ESPN suggests Infante is on the Tigers’ shopping list for second basemen. Now 30, Infante entered the weekend batting .290 for the Miami Marlins with 23 doubles, seven home runs and 30 RBIs, good for a .769 OPS. He’s two years removed from an All-Star selection with the Braves.

The Tigers signed Infante as a teenager in Venezuela and developed him in their system. At one point, he was among the top prospects in then-general manager Randy Smith’s system. The last time Infante was a Tiger in 2007, manager Jim Leyland said he’d make an ideal National League player with his ability to play all over the infield. He found that role in Atlanta, where he played three infield and three outfield spots in 2008 and 2009.

Since coming to Miami, however, his focus has been at second base, which was his starting position in Detroit in 2004 and part of 2005 until the Tigers traded for Placido Polanco midway through that season.

That left Infante as a utility player in Detroit until the Tigers traded him to the Cubs after the 2007 season for Jacque Jones, who was released about five weeks into the 2008 season.

It wasn’t a particularly painful deal because Polanco played second base so well in Detroit through 2009, after which the Tigers let him go as a free agent. The Tigers have run through a handful of second basemen in 2 1/2 years since then, from Scott Sizemore to Will Rhymes to Brandon Inge, and now a mix of Ramon Santiago and Ryan Raburn. The Tigers have always worried about Santiago breaking down physically as an everyday player, but Raburn has failed to hold down the starting job in two tries over as many years.

– Jason Beck

Tigers had contract talks on Cespedes

The Tigers indeed had interest in Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski confirmed Monday, and had contract talks with agent Adam Katz. However, Dombrowski said, they eventually determined they weren’t going to meet their contract demands.

Cespedes agreed to terms Monday with the Oakland A’s on a four-year contract worth $36 million, passing on a reported six-year offer worth the same amount from the Florida Marlins. It ended a courtship that supposedly involved more than a half-dozen teams and made Cespedes baseball’s highest-profile free agent left on the market for the last couple weeks.

The interest was high enough that Dombrowski traveled to the Dominican Republic to personally watch Cespedes work out.

“We liked him,” Dombrowski told MLB.com Monday in a phone interview. “We talked contract with him, but we were not in a position to pay for him the amount they wanted.”

For a good part of the offseason, Cespedes was believed to be the Tigers’ top free-agent target. Dombrowski was one of about a half-dozen top Tigers officials to see Cespedes, either in workouts last November or at international tournaments over the last couple years. Last month, Cespedes listed the Tigers among a half-dozen teams showing the most interest in him.

The fact that the Tigers kept their comments limited on Cespedes, and the fact that Detroit didn’t get heavily involved on high-profile free agents early in the offseason, added to the intrigue.

That level of interest didn’t change after the Tigers signed Prince Fielder last month, Dombrowski said. However, he cautioned, they determined pretty soon where their talks were heading, despite reports labeling them among the favorites.

“I really wouldn’t have ruled us as a favorite to sign him, based upon where some of our preliminary conversations went with his agent,” Dombrowski said.

Those early talks apparently showed where Cespedes wanted to go — not just in terms of annual salary, but the length of contract. Dombrowski confirmed that a four-year deal was a big point, since it would allow him to hit the free-agent market sooner rather than later.

“That was pretty much always something that they outlined,” Dombrowski said. “If you were going to sign him, you would have to agree to that.”

With Cespedes off the market, the Tigers are now set with their position roster. Dombrowski said they were likely set before Cespedes signed, believing they weren’t likely to add him.

Katz told MLB Network Radio on Monday afternoon that the Marlins were the only team that met Cespedes in person during his visit to Miami last week.

– Jason Beck

Dombrowski: Fielder “probably not a good fit”

Credit Angela Wittrock of MLive.com for getting Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski to mention Prince Fielder by name during the Tigers’ winter caravan stop Thursday afternoon at the Michigan state capitol in Lansing. He normally doesn’t do that with free agents.

Dombrowski’s answer on the subject went about as expected.

“Of course we’d consider Prince Fielder,” Dombrowski is quoted as saying. “But realistically, it’s probably not a good fit.”

Agent Scott Boras, Dombrowski reportedly said, probably wouldn’t agree to a one-year contract, and that’s the kind of deal the Tigers are seeking to replace Victor Martinez, who suffered what is expected to be a season-ending knee injury last week.

“We anticipate Victor Martinez coming back in 2013 and playing at the level he was at last season,” Dombrowski said.

As witnessed from the Johnny Damon saga two years ago, Boras has a talent for negotiating directly with owners. But given that experience, it’s hard to imagine Dombrowski making his remarks without feeling highly confident that’s not going to change.

“I would just say the fit is really not there at this point,” Dombrowski said.

Realistically, if Fielder can get a long-term deal somewhere else, it’s hard to envision him passing it up. And if Boras can take the Tigers’ desire for a one-year fix and tie it to another of his many free-agent hitters, Boras could be in better shape.

– Jason Beck

Zumaya agrees to deal with Twins

Joel Zumaya’s comeback isn’t going to happen in Detroit, but he’s going to a very familiar place. The hard-throwing, injury-riddled reliever has agreed to terms with the Minnesota Twins, Zumaya told MLB.com.

The deal reached Saturday gives Zumaya the roster spot he wanted going into Spring Training with a bullpen that could use his services. He could make anywhere from $800,000 to $1.7 million depending on appearance-based incentives. The Twins can part ways out of camp and owe Zumaya about half his full salary.

A Twins official would neither confirm nor deny the deal to MLB.com, but said they’ve been in negotiations since December.

Zumaya had what he called “good offers” from three other clubs, but the Twins included guaranteed money rather than a minor league deal with a Spring Training invite. If he’s healthy, they’ll bring him to the same mound at Target Field where he last threw a Major League pitch. He fractured his elbow throwing for the Tigers against the Twins on June 28, 2010.

As it turns out, that was his last appearance as a Tiger. Though the Tigers had an offer out to him for a minor-league contract with a non-roster invitation to Spring Training, they made it clear they weren’t going to guarantee him a spot. Zumaya told MLB.com in November he was most likely moving on, and in the end, the Tigers were not on his short list.

Zumaya joins a Twins bullpen in transition. having lost closer Joe Nathan to the Rangers earlier in the offseason. Minnesota re-signed Matt Capps at closer and returns Glen Perkins coming off an impressive season of middle and late-inning work, but while Perkins blossomed into a high-strikeout lefty last year, the Twins haven’t had a truly overpowering reliever in a while.

If Zumaya’s healthy, he has that potential. Though he hasn’t topped 32 games or 40 innings in a season since his impressive rookie season of 2006, he has been an effective reliever when he hasn’t been hurt. He was showing flashes of his old form in 2010 before he was hurt, striking out 34 batters over 38 1/3 innings while allowing 32 hits and posting a 2.58 ERA.

Zumaya underwent surgery after that July injury to repair a fractured bone at the tip of his elbow, a procedure that included inserting a screw to hold the elbow together. He had to undergo a follow-up surgery to replace the screw after complaining of elbow pain last Spring Training.

The surgery cost Zumaya the entire 2011 season. He threw for interested teams last month and reportedly hit the mid-90s on the radar gun. Since then, Zumaya and his agents, Randy and Alan Hendricks, have been negotiating with clubs, trying to land him a Major League contract in a situation where he could fit into a good bullpen role.

– Jason Beck

Nothing going on with Tigers on Garza

Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski told the Detroit News “nothing has changed” in regards to his remarks from last week on the Tigers’ approach to starting pitching and their prospects, despite recent rumors. Another source told MLB.com Tuesday that there’s nothing going on with the Tigers in regards to Cubs right-hander Matt Garza.

MLB Network and MLB.com’s Peter Gammons had similar sentiments Tuesday night on Hot Stove.

“I’m told it’s not going to happen,” Gammons said of a potential Garza deal to Detroit. “I mean, the Cubs are interested in talking with the Tigers. I’m told the Tigers have said, ‘We’re not going to do it.’”

Former Reds and Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, now a host on MLB Network Radio, suggested on ESPN.com that the Tigers could get a deal done for Garza if they included top positional prospect Nick Castellanos with Turner, their top pitching prospect. The Tigers were not willing to include them both in a package to the A’s for Gio Gonzalez, on whom they had serious discussions and seemingly valued more.

“Now, they won’t even do Turner for Garza,” Gammons continued. “In fact, the Tigers staff is saying to the front office, you know what, we can open the season with Turner as the fifth starter and see what happens.”

Gonzalez, whom Oakland traded to Washington last month, is four years away from free agency, as well as left-handed. Garza, a right-hander, has just two years left before he can hit the open market. Detroit’s rotation currently has four right-handers: Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello.

Jason Beck

Dombrowski: Tigers aren’t in trade talks on starters

Though the Tigers have been linked in rumors with talks on Cubs right-hander Matt Garza, team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said Detroit has no trade talks ongoing on any starting pitchers.

And while Dombrowski won’t call any of his top prospects untouchable, a term he rarely uses on anybody, he made it clear they aren’t looking to deal Jacob Turner. That doesn’t mean Turner isn’t available for the right deal, but it indicates they aren’t going out and shopping him for a veteran starter.

At this point, Dombrowski said, the Tigers haven’t reversed course on their plans to go after a fifth starter to compete with prospects such as Turner, Drew Smyly and Andy Oliver.

“Our plan hasn’t changed,” Dombrowski said. “We’re in a situation where we really have been consistent all along. We like our young guys. We feel that one of them will step up and be our fifth starter. Somehow [our approach] has been mistaken.”

Dombrowski said the Tigers have not called about any starting pitchers on the trade market. Any conversations on veterans starters, he said, have been initiated by other club.

“We are not looking,” he said. “There are some guys that are out there and are very good and clubs haved called us about them. But we have four veteran starters, and sometimes you have to break in young pitching.”

They’ll still listen, he said, but they’re not looking. And the inquiries that have been made, he said, haven’t gone far.

“Probably the only guy we had serious conversations on was Gio Gonzalez,” he said, “and we just weren’t prepared to pay the price. Other than that, we really haven’t talked about a starting pitcher.”

Dombrowski also said Al Alburquerque’s recent elbow surgery won’t put them in the market for another reliever. They signed Octavio Dotel knowing that Alburquerque was dealing with off and on injuries. Dombrowski didn’t rule out re-signing Joel Zumaya if he accepts a minor-league contract, but that nothing has changed on that front either.

– Jason Beck

Tigers trade Perry to Nationals for Balester

Hours after the Tigers’ signing of Octavio Dotel left Ryan Perry as a man without a role, he became a former Tiger. Detroit sent the former first-round pick to the Nationals Friday night in exchange for Collin Balester.

“Acquiring Collin Balester from the Nationals today adds another good arm to our organization,” team president/general manager Dombrowski said in a statement. “He has shown the ability to pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen in the past, a role we are looking for him to fill for our club in 2012.”

Perry was the centerpiece of a reliever-heavy Tigers draft in 2008, a hard-throwing right-hander who was the setup man of the future, if not a potential closer. But after he made the team out of camp the next spring, he never really found the consistency to hold down a role.

Dotel’s signing took away any chance Perry had for the seventh-inning role. He has down the long relief role before, but if the Tigers were going to sign a swing starter anyway who would fill that job, Perry was a man without a job.

Perry went 2-0 with a 5.35 ERA for Detroit this past season, allowing 39 hits over 37 innings with 21 walks and 24 strikeouts. His career stats in three seasons as a Tiger included a 5-6 record, 4.07 ERA, 82 walks and 129 strikeouts over 161 1/3 innings.

Balester went 1-4 with a 4.54 ERA for the Nationals this past season, striking out 34 batters over 35 2/3 innings. He went 2-1 with a 4.35 ERA at Triple-A Syracuse, with 46 strikeouts over 39 1/3 innings.

Perry was one minor league option remaining, so the Nationals don’t necessarily have to keep him on the big league roster out of camp. Balester is out of options.

– Jason Beck

Dotel agrees to terms on one-year deal with Tigers

The Tigers found the man they wanted to shore up the middle of their bullpen, and Octavio Dotel found another new home. Detroit reached an agreement with the veteran reliever Thursday morning on a one-year contract with an option for 2013.

The deal is pending a physical, according to two baseball sources. Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski declined to comment Thursday morning on Dotel, other than to confirm the Tigers have interest. Dombrowski added that no announcement on any deals will likely happen Thursday, since team officials are flying home.

Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com, who first reported the two sides were closing in on a deal Wednesday night, reported the contract is worth $3 million.

The 38-year-old Dotel will be playing for his 13th Major League team, and his third in the American League Central, but he has been a Tigers target on several occasions over the last five years. He’ll finally get his shot in a seventh-inning role to bridge the gap between Detroit’s starting rotation and the late-inning duo of setup man Joaquin Benoit and closer Jose Valverde.

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