Tigers to monitor free-agent market
After last year's quick deals, club will let offseason develop
DETROIT -- The Tigers had identified their major free-agent targets by this point last offseason. They had Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit inked to contracts by Thanksgiving weekend, and had Magglio Ordonez back in the fold barely a week after the Winter Meetings. They knew what they wanted, and they moved on it aggressively.
This will not be one of those offseasons. It's not that the Tigers don't know what they need. It's the challenge of going about finding it in this market.
"I don't think we're going to be rushing out like we did last year," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said on Tuesday. "We're in a different situation than we were last year, where we identified a couple guys right off the bat in Martinez and Benoit.
"We're still prepared -- I don't mean to say that we couldn't make a move if the right move came about -- but I wouldn't think we would make a real quick move. I think we'll take more time to go through it and let it work itself out."
The Tigers were freed up to talk contracts with free agents from other teams starting on Thursday, but the process isn't going to work nearly that quickly. They'll be going through names next week when Dombrowski meets with his assistants, scouts and other team officials.
Even after that, unless something changes, it's difficult to see them targeting any one particular player like they did with Martinez and Benoit. At this point, unless something changes, that includes free-agent shortstops Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins, who wouldn't answer all the Tigers' infield needs.
Realistically, the perfect infielder for the Tigers isn't out there. The ideal leadoff hitters on the market, the guys who would give Detroit an alternative atop the order while Austin Jackson matures as a hitter, all play other positions. A power-hitting second baseman like Kelly Johnson fits the style of a Ryan Raburn, who's already under contract for next year but who Dombrowski said isn't a full-time second baseman. Aaron Hill's numbers were good once he got out of Toronto, but his Blue Jays struggles hard to ignore if he's going to return to the American League.
Both Hill and Johnson have their appeals. Johnson is a left-handed hitter who hit left-handed pitchers remarkably well until this year, and whose power could conceivably play at Comerica Park. Hill had enough speed and instincts to steal 21 bases in 28 tries this season, nearly matching his previous career total of 23 stolen bases in his previous six Major League seasons.
Both Johnson and Hill have been accomplished hitters batting second in the order, a spot that has been almost as much of a revolving door as second base. But they both obviously come with questions. The second basemen after that are known more for specific skills and experience, from 37-year-old middle infielder Jamey Carroll to former AL Central rival Nick Punto to Ryan Theriot.
The market at third base has a better top name with Aramis Ramirez, but an older one at age 33. After that, it's a very thin market, one that could possibly include Hill shifting over.
Those are the primary needs Dombrowski identified in his end-of-season session with reporters on Tuesday afternoon at Comerica Park. And though Dombrowski didn't identify anybody by name, he did give his evaluation of the market.
"I don't think they're real strong," Dombrowski said of the free agents. "And that's why, too, not only free agents, you'd also have to talk about the possibility of trades, too."
The Tigers certainly will. They haven't yet, Dombrowski said, in part because of all the general manager changes around baseball.
"We'll explore both," Dombrowski confirmed.
They might even take a look at the free-agent shortstop market, where Reyes and Rollins loom large. But the plan right now is to keep Jhonny Peralta at shortstop. It isn't just financial, though Dombrowski said they'll probably stick with two $20 million players in Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera. Part of it is keeping Peralta at shortstop, where his return this year seemingly brought out the best in him.
Asked if he expects Peralta to stick at short, Dombrowski said, "I would think so. Would I say 100 percent? No. Would I say most likely? Yes."
In past years, the Tigers have taken a close look at speed players under the question of how they'd fare as they age with the possibility that their speed diminishes. Reyes has averaged 57 stolen bases for every 162 games with the Mets to go with dynamic doubles and triples potential, similar to Carl Crawford a year ago, and won the National League batting title in a contract year. He doesn't turn 30 years old for another year and a half.
Yet, with the contract expectations for Reyes, a five-year contract would take him toward his mid-30s. A seven-year contract along the lines of Crawford would carry Reyes firmly into that age bracket. But then, if Reyes earned a Crawford-type contract, it wouldn't come from Detroit.
Rollins is further along, with his 33rd birthday coming late this month. His speed and average numbers have dropped, though his .268 average last year was close to his career clip of .272. But Rollins is believed to be seeking a long-term deal. It's questionable at best whether either would entertain a position switch.