Shortstop Stephen Drew remains a free agent. (Elsa / Getty Images)
Detroit — On Saturday night at Fenway Park, Andrew Romine saw 10 pitches total during his first three plate appearances. He struck out all three times. The next time up was a bit more of a battle, but the result was the same — a whiff, for the four-strikeout game.
It earned Romine what in baseball circles is called the Golden Sombrero, a playful term with roots to the 1980s. The name was coined as a play off hockey’s hat trick, though since four (strikeouts) is more than three (goals), they wanted a bigger hat.
It’s kinda funny, actually.
Not so amusing, however, has been Romine’s work at the plate, particularly lately. In his last 10 games, he’s managed just two singles in 27 at-bats, for a .074/.107/.074 slash line. On the season, it’s .185/.265./.200.
The Tigers refuse to get down on Romine, of course. Manager Brad Ausmus, who knows more than most just how hard it is to hit at this level, is staying upbeat. And that makes sense.
After all, the Tigers, after acquiring Romine in March from the Angels for Triple-A pitcher Jose Alvarez, knew Romine wasn’t much of a hitter. But he’s proven even less of a threat than they first thought — and oddly isn’t even much of a bunter, despite good speed.
That said, Romine’s defense, the real reason they traded for him, has been much better than advertised. He made a couple more gems in Sunday’s 6-2 victory over the Red Sox, showing off impressive range — particularly in the hole — and an absolute cannon for an arm.
So, what you have in Romine, essentially, is a major-league defender and a minor-league hitter.
That was more than enough to win the starting job from Alex Gonzalez, who frankly wasn’t major-league anything anymore.
But it might not necessarily be enough to keep the job himself.
That’s left the Tigers facing a dilemma: Do they stick with Romine as the everyday shortstop and fully embrace his skills with the glove, or do they pursue other, external options — the most obvious one being still-a-free-agent Stephen Drew, who is expected to sign with some team the second the Major League Baseball draft ends June 7. That’s the threshold teams must cross to avoid paying draft-pick compensation for Drew’s services.
The Tigers figure to be, at least, mildly interested. They also don’t figure to be alone.
Masses not sold
By my calculations — i.e., what I hear on Twitter — Tigers fans are mostly turned off by the idea of a Drew pickup.
I chalk this attitude up to, pretty much, the following: The Tigers are winning, at a crazy pace, so why mess with a good thing?
I look at it another way: There’s going to come a time when the Tigers are slumping, and that’s when the issues at shortstop will be far more glaring than they are today, as the team sits with the best record in baseball at 27-12.
There is a stigma about Drew, for whatever reason. It’s probably because his career hasn’t lived up to the hype, thanks to an assortment of injuries. Tigers fans also point out his putrid performance at the plate last postseason, when he batted .111 in the three series, and an ever-worse .050 in the ALCS against Detroit. If there’s anything more frustrating than someone basing an entire argument on a small sample size, I don’t know what it is.
Tigers fans also like to remind us that the guy scheduled to start at short this season before he was likely lost for the year, Jose Iglesias, wasn’t expected to provide much offense this season anyway — so Romine isn’t much of a downgrade. To me, that’s weak sauce. The Iglesias injury, in fact, allows the Tigers an opportunity to improve their club, already a World Series contender, even more.
The bottom line is this: The Tigers aren’t much for hitting from the left side of the plate. They only have one big threat from the left side, switch-hitting Victor Martinez, and another somewhat-inconsistent threat, Alex Avila. After that, there’s not much.
You’re down to Don Kelly and Romine, until Andy Dirks gets back. And other teams are noticing. Already this season against the Tigers, the Orioles (Wei-Yin Chen) and Red Sox (Felix Doubront) have pulled lefties from their scheduled turn in the rotation and replaced them with right-handed starters. Certainly, other teams will see that and eventually follow suit.
Now, it helps that the Tigers are hitting all pitchers these days. Martinez is on fire. Miguel Cabrera is back to MVP form. Torii Hunter has found the fountain of youth. Ian Kinsler might be the best pickup of the offseason, for any team. Rajai Davis has been a pleasant surprise, especially against right-handed pitching.
Things won’t always be so rosy, though. Even the 1984 Tigers had their slumps; so too will the 2014 Tigers — and then, odds are they’ll wish they had another bat.
In Drew, that bat is available — and it’s a bat that, against right-handed pitching last season, batted .284 with a .377 on-base percentage, .498 slugging percentage and an .876 OPS against right-handed hitting. Those are really good numbers, and not terribly far below his career numbers against right-handers (.275/.343/.451).
It’s true, Drew is brutal against lefties. Big deal. Then the Tigers platoon him with Danny Worth or even Romine, a switch-batter — though not much of a switch-hitter.
But let’s strike down this myth once and for all: The Tigers wouldn’t be losing too much in the way of defense with Drew manning shortstop. While Drew might not be Romine on defense, he’s hardly Jhonny Peralta either.
It all adds up
Really, it makes too much sense, the Tigers signing Drew. They’ve had interest in him before, they could use the offense — and Drew, well, he could use a job. It’s also not a significant financial commitment. Say he’s a $10 million player, the Tigers only would be on the hook, pro-rated, for $6 million or less.
That said, it’s not a slam-dunk signing for the Tigers, either. There figures to be stiff competition for Drew, namely from his old division, the AL East. The Yankees are atop that division, but certainly have their issues — one biggy the struggling play of their captain, Derek Jeter, in the final year of his contract. Drew could offer a nice platoon option there.
Then there’s Drew’s old team, which was out of the mix but might now be back in, as third baseman Will Middlebrooks could miss more than a month with a fractured index finger. Last year, Xander Bogaerts played third and Drew short for the Red Sox; they might decide to revisit that plan, at least for 2014.
The Tigers, however, are a far more appealing landing spot for Drew, 31, and not just because they’re the far better team — and thus the far better bet to win it all.
The Tigers have their shortstop of the future — OK, shortstops, plural — in Iglesias and Eugenio Suarez, so they’d be most interested in a short-term contract, and very unlikely to make Drew a qualifying offer at year’s end. And that’d give Drew the freedom to explore free-agency, unrestricted, next offseason, which should lead him to a good-sized contract.
There’s a reason Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski hasn’t definitively shot down the possibility of signing Drew. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Tigers already have had back-channel discussions with Drew’s agent, Mike Ilitch’s old friend, Scott Boras. There’s simply an obvious fit here. The Tigers don’t have many holes. Their rotation is spectacular. Their lineup is versatile. Their defense is improved. Even the bullpen is coming around, and should only get better when Joel Hanrahan, an in-season free-agent pickup, joins the club next month, and super-prospect Corey Knebel probably not long after that.
But there certainly is a void at shortstop, glaring in terms of offense.
So, June 7 is the day to watch for Drew — the same weekend, fitting, the Tigers are hosting Drew’s old team, the Red Sox.