Tigers might have found relief in Suarez, but bullpen another story

Can the Detroit Tigers count on closer Joe Nathan much longer?

Kyle Terada/Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, speaking to the FOX broadcasters on Saturday, offered a restrained assessment of his new shortstop, Eugenio Suarez.

Average range, good arm, good hands, Ausmus said. Will hit eventually, but will experience normal ups and downs, make mistakes due to his inexperience.

“It’s not ideal,” Ausmus acknowledged. “He’s here a little bit before his time.”

As it turned out, Suarez was a revelation in his first two major-league starts, hitting his first career homer Saturday, then delivering two hits and two RBI on Sunday.

But the way the Tigers are going — and the way the trade market is shaping up — Suarez might need to hold down short for the rest of the season. And that’s a lot to ask of a 22-year-old who began last season in Class A.

If the Tigers trade for a shortstop, they will want a stopgap; Jose Iglesias is expected to return next season, and Suarez also could be in the picture. The problem is, finding the right short-term fit will be difficult — and the Tigers’ bigger need is late-inning relief.

Joba Chamberlain isn’t the issue — he had produced 12 straight scoreless appearances in a setup role before giving up David Ortiz’s stunning, go-ahead three-run homer while trying to protect a 3-2 ninth-inning lead on Sunday night.

No, the issue is closer Joe Nathan, who was unavailable Sunday after pitching both of the previous days and all but melting down in a 32-pitch appearance Saturday while barely protecting a four-run lead.

Ausmus predicted before that game that Nathan would be fine. Nathan said he felt no different than last season, when he converted 43 of 46 chances with a 1.39 ERA for the Rangers.

Well, he sure looked different.

He looked nervous, shaken, almost panicky. The Red Sox, watching video of him afterward, noticed the difference in his body language, sensing that Nathan knew that he was pitching with diminished stuff.

Maybe, as Ausmus suggested, Nathan will return to form. But if not, then what? Right-hander Joel Hanrahan, recovering from Tommy John surgery in May 2013, isn’t expected to join the team until around the All-Star break. It probably is unrealistic to expect him to close right away, if at all this season.

Relievers generally are in plentiful supply before the non-waiver deadline, so the Tigers can explore other possibilities. A short-term shortstop, on the other hand, would not be nearly as easy to acquire.

The potential free agents at the position — the Dodgers’ Hanley Ramirez, Orioles’ J.J. Hardy, Indians’ Asdrubal Cabrera and Athletics’ Jed Lowrie — all play for contenders.

The White Sox’s Alexei Ramirez is signed through next season. The Phillies’ Jimmy Rollins likely will vest his option for 2015 and might not approve a trade, let alone one to Detroit. The Rays’ Ben Zobrist, a possibility raised by ESPN’s Buster Olney, would be interesting; he could play short the rest of ’14, then bounce around in ’15, the final year of his contract. But Zobrist, 33, has started only 14 games at short the past two seasons.

Actually, the best outside alternative still would be Stephen Drew, if the Red Sox failed to rebound and wanted to flip him. 

Drew, 31, is exempt from a qualifying offer because he signed after Opening Day, so any team that traded for him could not bank on a draft pick, effectively lowering the acquisition cost. Ideally, though, the Tigers would not expend any prospects on Drew at all.

They need a reliever. And maybe more than just one.

NOT JUST LESTER THEY SHOULD WORRY ABOUT

If the Red Sox aren’t careful, they might need to replace three-fifths of their rotation next season.

Left-hander Jon Lester and righty Jake Peavy are potential free agents, and righty John Lackey is not exactly certain to return.

The Sox hold a club option on Lackey at the major-league minimum salary; the team gained that leverage when the pitcher underwent Tommy John surgery after the 2011 season, triggering the option.

Lackey, though, holds his own leverage.

He can retire at 36 rather than play at the minimum salary. And after earning more than $108 million in his career, Lackey wouldn’t have much incentive to play for relative pennies.

After taxes, agent fees and union and clubhouse dues, Lackey’s actual estimated income on a $500,000 salary would be about $265,000, according to Robert Raiola, a senior tax manager at O’Connor Davies, LLP and the author of “Winning Tax Strategies and Planning for Athletes and Entertainers.”

Still a lot of money, I know. But not necessarily enough to compel a player of Lackey’s stature to continue his career.

The obvious solution is a two-year extension — one that Lackey genuinely deserves, considering that since returning from his surgery he has a 3.41 ERA in 42 regular-season starts, not to mention a 2.77 ERA in four postseason starts last season.

THE COMP FREE AGENTS: FINAL JUDGMENTS COMING

It took until June 7, but all of the compensation free agents finally are signed. As I’ve written before, we cannot truly assess the full impact of their decisions until they test the market again this offseason.

For the Scott Boras holdouts — Drew and Kendrys Morales — the strategy of holding out for unrestricted free agency easily could backfire, if it hasn’t already.

Drew signed with the Red Sox for $10 million on May 21 and joined them June 2. His defense is as impressive as ever, but he clearly is rusty on the offensive side, to the point where manager John Farrell is not yet playing him against left-handers. Can Drew fully rebuild his value over the Red Sox’s final 100 games? Remains to be seen.

Morales, meanwhile, agreed on Saturday with the Twins for $7.6 million —  just over half of the qualifying offer he received from the Mariners, and considerably below the reported three-year, $30 million offer that the M’s made him last season.

Like Drew, Morales was working out on his own, preparing in a relatively sophisticated fashion at the Boras Sports Institute in Florida. He will join the Twins immediately, but how long will it take him to regain his effectiveness against major-league pitching? And how will it affect his next free agency?

The qualifying offer in 2015-16 is likely to be worth $15 million to $16 million. Morales is ineligible for it, and barring a major surge in the second half, he likely won’t get anywhere near that average annual value. Drew probably will not either, but stands a better chance of getting a solid multi-year deal.

The Orioles’ Nelson Cruz and Braves’ Ervin Santana, on the other hand, will be eligible for qualifying offers because they joined their respective clubs in spring training, Cruz for $8 million, Santana for $14.1 million.

The offers could again hinder their respective free agencies, but both have been active all season, performing at high levels and building relationships with their new clubs. One or both could sign extensions, or accept qualifying offers if they receive them.

The final score will be determined by the next contracts that each compensation free agent receives. The problem for Drew and Morales is that they already are playing from behind.

EXPLAINING THE POLANCO MYSTERY

The Pirates’ reluctance to promote outfielder Gregory Polanco seems all the more curious given the recent successes of callups such as the Astros’ George Springer and Rangers’ Rougned Odor.

Only 112 days remain in the season. The lowest previous Super Two cutoff was two years, 121 days, meaning that it should be safe for the Pirates to summon Polanco without him gaining an extra year of arbitration.

Then again, the members of the Super Two class are impossible to predict two years out. So, it’s possible that the Pirates are taking every possible precaution with Polanco, and why shouldn’t they? Club officials would be subject to ridicule if, after all this, they miscalculated and Polanco qualified for Super Two status.

In fact, there is a precedent for such a blunder.

The Padres recalled third baseman Chase Headley on June 17, 2008 after he had appeared in eight games the previous season. Club officials figured they had let enough time pass to deny Headley the extra year of arbitration, but oops! Headley later qualified for Super Two status — by one day.

So in 2011, Headley earned $2.325 rather than just above the major-league minimum. His salaries in his other three years of arbitration were $3.475 million, $8.575 million and $10.525 million.

Polanco’s readiness should not be in question — he’s batting .347 with a .945 OPS at Triple-A. But if the Pirates waited this long, they might as well make absolutely sure they take full advantage of delaying his arrival.

Let’s just not pretend that this is all about Polanco finishing his development, OK?

CUBS: PITCHING, PLEASE

The Cubs raised eyebrows by selecting Indiana University catcher/left fielder Kyle Schwarber with the fourth overall pick in the amateur draft. But the selection, in the view of club officials, wasn’t that much of a reach — two prominent analysts had Schwarber going to the Rockies at No. 8. And Jim Callis of MLB.com viewed him as the best college hitter in the draft.

Schwarber, a left-handed hitter, eventually could help balance the Cubs’ lineup; all of their top young hitters except first baseman Anthony Rizzo are right-handed. The team’s biggest challenge, though, remains unchanged: Finding enough young pitching to go with their young hitting.

High-school left-hander Brady Aiken would have been the Cubs’ choice at No. 4 if the Astros had not taken him at No. 1. Two other highly regarded pitchers — high school righty Tyler Kolek and North Carolina State lefty Carlos Rodon — went second and third.

The Cubs ended up taking pitchers with eight of their first 10 picks, and figure to target additional pitching in any deal for right-hander Jeff Samardzija. However, they might not want to wait long to move Samardzija, especially now that the Rays are virtually certain to entertain offers for left-hander David Price.

Both Samardzija and Price are eligible for free agency after the 2015 season. The acquisition cost for Price figures to be higher, but Samardzija has less wear and tear on his arm — he has thrown 643 major-league innings, Price 1,064 2/3.

In any case, the time is coming for owner Tom Ricketts to start spending — the Cubs’ $89 million payroll ranks 23rd in the majors. The team is essentially the Midwest version of the Mets, a big-market club operating with small-market payrolls.

Know what the Cubs should be doing? Signing Samardzija long-term and figuring out a way to trade for — and then extend — Price. Not going to happen, in part because the Cubs are waiting for new revenue streams and Samardzija seems to want out; he has rejected numerous offers from the club. But Price eventually could be a litmus test.

The Cubs always have liked Price, and they hired Derek Johnson, his former pitching coach at Vanderbilt, as their minor-league pitching coordinator in October of 2012.

AROUND THE HORN

Joc Pederson is batting .332 with a 1.063 OPS at Triple-A, but the Dodgers aren’t ready to promote him for a number of reasons.

The first, of course, is that their outfield remains overly crowded, particularly if Yasiel Puig recovers quickly from a left hip pointer. But Pederson, in the view of club officials, still is not a finished product.

He is striking out once every 3.5 plate appearances and remains a work in progress against left-handed pitching. The team also wants to see him mature. Pederson, 22, has failed to run out groundballs on multiple occasions.

• We all talk quite a bit about how much money players earn. We don’t talk enough about how often they put their money to good use.

Case in point: After Red Sox hitting coach Greg Colbrunn was hospitalized with a brain hemorrhage last week, several players chipped in to charter a private jet for his wife and mother, who flew from their home in Charleston, SC, to join Colbrunn in Cleveland.

The leaders of the effort, according to clubhouse sources, were second baseman Dustin Pedroia and pitchers Lackey and Lester.

• Several Red Sox players said they were impressed with the Indians’ bullpen, even right-hander Carlos Carrasco, who is throwing up to 96 mph as the long man.

The only negative is that manager Terry Francona has a narrow circle of trust; left-hander Marc Rzepczynski and righties Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw rank among the top five in appearances in the AL, though not innings.

The good news: Righty John Axford’s last six appearances have been excellent, giving Francona another potential option to go with Rzepczynski, Allen, Shaw and righty Scott Atchison.

• One more note on the Red Sox: Don’t be surprised to see the team move Garin Cecchini from third base to left field at Triple-A Pawtucket in the near future.

For the Sox, the question simply is one of finding positions for their top position prospects. Mookie Betts won’t play second base in Boston, so he soon will resume his conversion to center at Triple-A.

If Cecchini was in left, the Sox could eventually go with Devin Marrero at short and Xander Bogaerts at third. And they still haven’t ruled out Bogaerts at short, either.

• While the Mariners were linked to Morales, the team currently is focused on adding a starting pitcher, according to a rival executive.

Right-hander Taijuan Walker (shoulder) is not yet ready to come off the DL; nor is left-hander James Paxton (lat). However, payroll flexibility remains an issue, sources say.

• Two of the weekend’s combatants — Orioles third baseman Manny Machado and Athletics third baseman Josh Donaldson — share the same agent, Dan Lozano.

Maybe Lozano needs to get them together for lunch?

Machado’s conduct in the series — overreacting to Donaldson’s tag, smirking after hitting catcher Derek Norris with his backswing, intentionally throwing his bat — were out of character for a player who has showed remarkable maturity since his major-league debut in 2012.

Granted, Machado doesn’t turn 22 until July 6, but he likely will earn a suspension for his dangerous tossing of the bat. To borrow a phrase from his teammate, Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, he needs to clean it up — and fast.

• And finally, the Astros’ Jose Altuve leads the American League in both hits (85) and stolen bases (21). No player has led either league in both categories in a season since Alfonso Soriano did it with the Yankees in 2002.

The only Astros player to ever lead his league in hits was Jose Cruz in 1983; he tied for the NL lead with Andre Dawson.