DETROIT -- The door's still open between the Tigers and Magglio Ordonez. It might actually be more open than ever. But there's a draft coming in.
When Detroit announced its four-year, $50 million deal with Victor Martinez last week, it didn't take much to connect the dots to find a fit between the team and its former batting champion. Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski noted that with designated hitter and the infield set, and Ryan Raburn poised for a bigger role in left field, that right field was the one place where he might be able to make one more move for a right-handed-hitting run producer. The Tigers have payroll space left to spend, but not necessarily unlimited funds after four signings totalling just under $90 million so far.
Manager Jim Leyland, meanwhile, said he's holding off talking about a lineup spot for Martinez until he sees how the roster looks going into Spring Training.
Ordonez was quoted last month telling Venezuelan reporter Augusto Cardenas that a return to Detroit would be his first choice. His agent, Scott Boras, has told Foxsports.com and MLB.com that Ordonez's surgically repaired ankle is fine and that he's now on a normal offseason workout plan. While there's supposedly a market opening for Ordonez, arguably the top-rated outfielder on the market other than Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth, there's reason to believe few if any teams value him more than Detroit, where he has won.
"Magglio Ordonez is a very pivotal part of the Detroit Tigers leadership," Boras said in a phone conversation earlier this week. "With the recent signings, he is all the more important to the production of a Martinez and a Cabrera."
Sounds like a natural fit. Yet even with the Tigers' aggressiveness this offseason, the situation still has all the signs of a lengthy courtship before Ordonez potentially ends up back in Detroit. While the Tigers have kept in touch with Boras, no deal is believed to be close. The shape of the market, both for Ordonez and Detroit, suggests that while a deal makes sense, but it might not make sense for either side to be quick about it.
A deal would've been a non-issue if not for the ankle fracture that ended Ordonez's season in late July with a .303 average, 12 home runs and 59 RBIs. The way he was hitting gave every reason to think that he would've played out the season with enough plate appearances to automatically vest his $15 million option for 2011. Instead, his salary became part of the $60 million or so shed from team payroll, setting up the Tigers to make this offseason splash.
The signings so far have taken up a little less than half of that freed-up payroll, but that math might not be relevant. Just because the Tigers' payroll sat in the $120-130 million range the last few years, doesn't mean it'll go back there now. Unless they sign another massive deal somewhere, in fact, they probably won't get there. But they can add a pretty big contract and still find a middle ground, around or just over $100 million.
That plays into the biggest question lingering for the Tigers: Will they make a play after either of the top outfielders on the market? The fact that the Tigers are looking for a right-handed bat for the middle of the order, and preferably a right fielder, would suggest Werth fits better than Crawford. The Tigers aren't saying, though it should become clear soon.
Werth, like Ordonez, is represented by Boras. Boras' track record, what helps him to represent several free agents at the same time, is his ability to use interest in different players to try to build a market for each of them.
Boras' history of long courtships for free agents stems from a top-down approach to the offseason: Once top free agents sign, interest from teams that lose out will trickle down to the next players on the list. It's that strategy that helped Ordonez land with the Tigers in 2005 as the last prominent free-agent hitter on the market after others had signed.
Boras said last month that he had received a good amount of early calls on Ordonez. At least part of that interest is believed to have come from teams that wouldn't be in serious bidding for Werth. Once Werth and Crawford sign, the strategy goes, some of that interest could trickle down to Ordonez.
Ordonez is expected to seek a two-year deal. Though some teams might prefer to go year-to-year with the soon-to-be 37-year-old, it's still a shorter commitment than Werth is likely to garner, which will appeal to some clubs.
While the market doesn't always play out this way, that's the conventional thought. It doesn't bode well for the Tigers if they want to continue to be aggressive and work quickly. However, it could work to the Tigers' advantage if they did decide to at least check out the market on Werth, Crawford and others, because it wouldn't leave them in an either-or situation.
The Tigers could still choose another option and either sign a lower-ranked free-agent outfielder or try to trade for someone else. They could even decide not to add anyone and let Brennan Boesch and Casper Wells compete for time in right field. But in the end, signing Ordonez might make enough sense for both sides to get it done.