Remember the relatively short-lived 80's game show "Win, Lose, or Draw"? The greatness of Bert Convy and Vicki Lawrence was on full display! Well...the Tigers seem to be playing WLD these past two weeks with their Hot Stove moves to date.
Three big moves so far. One looks like a "Win". One seems to be categorized under "Lose" and the third, to me, is probably a "Draw". We'll get to those in a minute.
This always promised to be an off-season of change. It just seemed the time was right to shake things up with the club control of so many players coming to an end over the next two years. "A static roster is a team waiting around to get worse" has always been my motto. This doesn't mean "change for the sake of change" but that a team should be proactive in moving their assets when they have value, look to protect itself from the aging curve putting players on a downward trend, and capitalize on opportunities to get better. Running out the same the crew year after and year trusting in the same good results seems like a losing bet. There are only so many dynasties chock full of familiar faces every season. Talent injections are needed. Youth needs to be sprinkled in. Tweaks need to be made. The Tigers have started this process with a bang the last two weeks.
I also think a roster shake up is going to help new Tigers manager Brad Ausmus in the short run. This isn't going to be "Leyland's boys" next Spring in Lakeland. It's a new crew that will have to meld together and Ausmus can be just a part of that process instead of being the only new guy fitting into the grand scheme. Dave Dombrowski's roster is shaping up for plenty of turnover to take the spotlight off the new manager as he settles in and assumes control. If I'm Ausmus, I know this doesn't make me a better manager, but it allows me time out of the crosshairs to get my feet firmly on the ground to assess the situation and move forward. Plenty of media time and fan interest will be diverted to the new guys on the field instead of in the dugout.
Let's look at some of the moves that will contribute to Ausmus' first roster:
Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler
The Tigers were right to make this move. The Rangers were the perfect partner. They needed some corner infield power and have the ability to take on a big contract. Their previous pursuits of Fielder should have tipped all of us off that it was possible.
The aging curve was always destined to make the final 3 or 4 seasons of Fielder's original deal with Detroit to be somewhere between "dicey" and "ugly". The Tigers needed to reap the benefits of Fielder's power in the first half of the deal. Seeing him have a down year in production so quickly in year-2 was a big red flag. We can try to mention personal issues and other factors...but facts are facts, he didn't look good last year for much of the season. Being no picture of physical fitness, it's not hard to wonder if his decline is kicking in.
The Tigers save over $70M in future salary commitments, improving their overall defense, opening up an infield spot for Nick Castellanos, and injecting Kinsler's athleticism into their speed deprived baserunning crew. There is plenty to like here despite losing Fielder's power production.
Fielder could easily have a couple of nice years in the Texas heat. That's okay. This was a "win".
Doug Fister for the Nationals' Pu-Pu Platter
Sorry. I know...I know. We are supposed to "Trust Dombrowski". We need to be patient and see if the young pitchers turn out. We are supposed to know that it's just a move that's part of a bigger master strategy which will all make sense. I do, indeed, have great respect for Dombrowski.
All I know is that when Chris Cotillo was breaking the news that Fister was headed to Washington without initial word on the Tigers return, I was bracing myself for some really interesting names. No...I wasn't waiting for Bryce Harper. But I did think that Anthony Rendon or A.J. Cole might be mentioned. Tyler Clippard perhaps. Instead...
Instead the Tigers receive three players that while well known to observers of the game, certainly weren't very inspiring when considering that two years of a pitcher the caliber of Fister was going the other way. A good lefty starting pitching minor leaguer, a rather untested rookie lefty reliever, and a utility guy. Where's the beef?
Typically I would be in favor of adding depth and getting younger. Those are good things. But it is a bit shocking Fister wasn't able to land at least one premium prospect that would be viewed a step or two above young lefty Robbie Ray. It just seems like a lost opportunity to add a potential difference maker. Perhaps Ray is that guy. Dombrowski is adamant the Tigers searched high and low for the best deal. He believes they have gotten what they initially targeted. The Tigers may get the last laugh...that could easily happen.
But the feeling here is it would have been better to wait on a better offer. A return on this level would seem to have been there later this Winter from someone if nothing better came along. Simply holding Fister and using him to chase a 4th straight AL Central title (or be a heckuva trade chip next summer) seems sensible too.
It's too early to label this trade a "disaster". It probably won't be. Ray and Ian Kroll could both come on strong and make it a "win" someday. But here, on the day after, it looks like a "loss". It was simply an underwhelming haul for a pitcher that would seem to hold more value from the opinions of far too many observers to name them all. (although if there was ever a place to issue a "GroupThink ALERT" this could be it.)
Signing Joe Nathan to a 2-year/$20M free agent contract (3rd year option)
The Tigers got a quick reprieve from some of the Fister Criticism by quickly signing 9th inning specialist Joe Nathan on Tuesday morning. Nathan adds an impeccable resume to the shaky looking bullpen situation in Detroit. Signing Nathan gives the Tigers their coveted "Proven Closer".
Let it be said with no uncertainty...Joe Nathan is a really good pitcher. There is very little to talk about in the negative. His age perhaps. Slightly diminished velocity from his younger days. A low homer-rate ripe for regression. None of those things worry me all that much. Relief pitchers are inherently volatile commodities and Nathan's track record is as reliable as anyone could ask for from the bullpen. Even his Tommy John Surgery is far enough removed now not be a huge worry.
But here's the thing (and I know our BYB friend Patrick OKennedy has mentioned this as well, we've both noted it...we'll just have to share the thought!)...the Tigers, for all the hyperventilating, figured out the 9th last season. Joaquin Benoit stabilized the situation nicely. For all the worry over Bruce Rondon, then Phil Coke, and the return of Jose Valverde, the solution was sitting in the bullpen all along. He was just pitching the 8th until Benoit was given the 9th.
No...the Tigers issue was bullpen depth. Benoit and Drew Smyly were the rocks (even though Leyland often used Smyly in haphazard manner). There was precious little else to rely on day in and day out. Rondon was looking better before having arm issues. Al Alburquerque was all over the map. Octavio Dotel evidently went to prison or something. Luke Putkonen looked sad. Jose Veras showed up at the midway point and was just okay. Then there was Coke...well, let's leave Phil alone and move along. Leyland was forced to use this miasma of arms to cobble together a functional bullpen.
Mostly it worked out okay. The Tigers won a 3rd straight division title with that crew. But it was far from optimal and most believe a bullpen remodel needs to occur.
Joe Nathan is a piece of the remodel. But really he's just a status quo guy in some respects. Benoit is likely gone, so Nathan just replaces him. There is still work to be done, especially now that Smyly will likely end up in the starting rotation. It's a safe bet that Tigers will sign some arms of varying abilities and track records hoping to piece together a solid bullpen. Kroll came in the Fister trade and subsequent trades may bring another piece. The Tigers will hope some young internal options step up as well...perhaps Melvin Mercedes teaming with Bruce Rondon will anchor a portion of the bullpen.
It will be very fun to watch Nathan wind down his solid career in Detroit. He should hold down the Save Compiler role just fine. But the 9th didn't destroy the Tigers last season...so that makes the Nathan signing a "draw". If the Tigers do eventually bring back Benoit to pitch set-up maybe this designation for Nathan's signing can be revisited. However Dombrowski poured water on that possibility at the Nathan introductory press event.
More to moves looming
The Tigers off-season of change has commenced. Many feel that right now the Tigers aren't looking as strong as last season. I understand the sentiment. I don't agree to be honest. I think they still look like the strong favorites to win the AL Central. Dombrowski isn't done either as I'm sure most suspect. The bullpen roundup will continue. Relievers might be a sideshow however.
Despite his words to the contrary, I do believe the Tigers will be in the running to the end on signing Shin-Soo Choo. They need a left-handed bat to help balance their righty dominant lineup. Choo would slot in perfectly into the 2-hole in front of Cabrera. They just happen to have a left-field situation they could easily hand to Choo with Andy Dirks becoming a nice 4th outfielder option. As Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal tweeted recently, the Tigers will see Torii Hunter's money go away after next season and the free agent market for outfielders next off-season looks absolutely tepid. No one of Choo's caliber will be there and the Tigers don't have a sure thing in their minor league pipeline. It could easily behoove the Tigers to strike now and use some of the money freed up from moving Fielder and Fister to scoop up Choo. (hint...I'll mark this as a "Win" if it occurs!)