History says the Detroit Tigers will sign free-agent shortstop Stephen Drew.
Their recent actions suggest they won’t.
Shortstop Jose Iglesias may be lost for the season with stress fractures in both shins, but the Tigers aren’t moving toward a deal with Drew, the best available free agent at the position.
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Instead, they appear comfortable with a shared arrangement between Andrew Romine (acquired Friday in a trade with the Angels) and Danny Worth or Hernan Perez, neither of whom is established as an everyday player.
Can the Tigers say they are trying to win the World Series with Romine (.573 OPS in 74 major-league games) as their Opening Day shortstop? In one sense, absolutely: Their 2014 payroll projects to $157.5 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. That is a franchise record and nearly $70 million more than the next-closest team in the American League Central, the Kansas City Royals.
Current Tigers have claimed the last three AL Most Valuable Player awards (Miguel Cabrera twice, Justin Verlander once), two of the last three Cy Young awards (Verlander, Max Scherzer), and two of the last three AL ERA titles (Verlander, Anibal Sanchez).
Verlander is 31. Cabrera is 30. Sanchez is 30. Scherzer is 29. Suffice it to say, the Tigers have elite players who are in their primes. Their shortstop will bat eighth or ninth, which would have been true even if Iglesias had been healthy. Romine has been described as an above-average defender, and that will be his primary obligation in Detroit.
Frequently, the Tigers have been described as a win-at-any-cost organization. The largesse of team owner Mike Ilitch has made that so. Ilitch has four Stanley Cups as owner of the Red Wings but has yet to win a World Series. The Tigers’ surprise pennant in 2006 stoked Ilitch’s desire for a baseball championship, and the team’s "payroll limit" has been arbitrary ever since.
When needs arose, Ilitch was persuaded easily to spend more. The $214 million splurge on Prince Fielder in January 2012 was the most obvious example, but there were others.
The 2009-2010 offseason began with an apparent pullback, as the Tigers traded veterans Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson in a controversial three-way trade … then Ilitch authorized a $14 million contract for Jose Valverde in January and $8 million more for Johnny Damon after camp opened. The possibility of signing a star made him swoon. He couldn’t help himself.
But the days of Ilitch opening his checkbook with a flourish at this time of year may be over. He is 84, and his public appearances have become rare. Ilitch did not attend the jersey retirement of Red Wings legend Nick Lidstrom earlier this month, explaining in a statement that during the past year he "had a medical procedure that has kept me out of the spotlight for awhile."
The statement said Ilitch feels "better" and "stronger" now and remains "very involved" with all of the family’s businesses. But when Iglesias went down and Ilitch didn’t respond immediately with a financial thunderbolt, reasonable questions arose about his health and the organization’s long-term plan.
It would be unfair — and inaccurate — to suggest that the Tigers’ failure to sign Drew (so far) is an indication that the organization’s desire to win is waning. Drew is the best option, but he isn’t perfect.
Drew averaged only 96 games over the past three seasons, with a .725 OPS. In fairness, a broken ankle in July 2011 was the reason he missed most of those games; he has been durable otherwise. The Tigers would surrender their only first-round pick if they sign him before June.
Perhaps Drew’s price tag will come down to a point where he fits into the Tigers’ (apparently) more rigid budget. The Detroit Free Press reported Friday that Drew is willing to sign a one-year contract — which, at the right dollar figure, could make sense for both parties even after the deal for Romine. But for the time being, the Tigers shouldn’t expect their owner to make another grand gesture in an effort to realize his dream.
In the new normal, even Mike Ilitch may have a spending limit.
AROUND THE MAJORS
… It was nearly one month ago that multiple reports indicated the Angels and Mike Trout were discussing a seven-year contract extension worth around $150 million. But with Opening Day — a mythical deadline for some extension talks — roughly one week away, we’re still waiting on an announcement. Sources say it remains possible Trout will sign a long-term contract before the Angels’ Mar. 31 season opener, but a deal wasn’t imminent as of Friday evening.
… As frightening as it was to see Aroldis Chapman hit in the face by a line drive — not to mention the surgical scar he shared via social media — the Reds now must deal with what seems like a trifling concern by comparison: Who will be their closer until Chapman returns?
Reds relievers Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall have closing experience but are expected to start the regular season on the disabled list. J.J. Hoover is probably the top internal candidate to hold the job on a temporary basis. Hoover has been excellent as a setup man over the past two seasons (2.61 ERA in 97 games) and has four saves.
If the Reds explore the trade market, keep an eye on Arizona reliever J.J. Putz, an All-Star closer earlier in his career. The Diamondbacks have named Addison Reed as their closer to start the season. They also have Brad Ziegler and David Hernandez from the right side, making Putz somewhat expendable. Reds manager Bryan Price knows Putz well from their time together in Seattle, when Price was the Mariners’ pitching coach and Putz a young relief pitcher.
…The Mariners have an evolving roster, but a couple spots have become clear in recent days. Dustin Ackley, the No. 2 overall pick behind Stephen Strasburg in the 2009 draft, projects to be the everyday left fielder, while right-hander Erasmo Ramirez, a 23-year-old Nicaraguan, has all but locked up the third spot in Seattle’s rotation with an exceptional spring (3-0, 0.96 ERA, 18-2/3 innings).
…Think Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright is ready for the season? Check out his line from Friday’s 2-0 win over Washington: 8 innings, 3 hits, 0 runs, 0 walks, 7 strikeouts. As one observer remarked afterward: When was the last time you saw a starting pitcher hit for himself in the bottom of the seventh inning during spring training?