November 21, 2012 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Signing Stephen Drew makes sense for aggressive Tigers -- at right price

Stephen Drew has a career fielding percentage of .978. (Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

Fascinating, how a baseball team supposedly shackled by mid-market constraints, to say nothing of its tussles with Michigan's economy, has been able to buck convention and pay players as well as owner Mike Ilitch has paid his Tigers.

You look at the 2012 salary list and it all makes sense — Yankees first, then the Phillies, Red Sox, and Angels — until you stumble upon that fifth-spot team from Detroit and its $132 million in paychecks. The Tigers pay more to their players than 25 other teams in all of baseball.

Next year, it looks as if payroll will top $140 million. Torii Hunter's $13 million can be added to all the arbitration-eligible guys (Austin Jackson, Max Scherzer, Alex Avila, Rick Porcello, Brennan Boesch, etc.) who will be getting big boosts that will more than slurp up the money saved from losing Jose Valverde, Delmon Young, Brandon Inge, Ryan Raburn, et al.

And yet the Tigers probably aren't finished. We always assume Ilitch has reached his ceiling for a particular year. And most years we sell him short, as will be the case if the Tigers decide Stephen Drew is their answer to cleaning up some deficiencies at shortstop.

Drew is a free agent and would be an upgrade, at least defensively, over Jhonny Peralta, who as has been anticipated is probably close to being traded. Peralta is an authentic pro, but he reaches too few ground balls that prolong innings, run up pitch-counts, and ultimately cost the Tigers a handful of games.

Drew turns 30 in March. He is a 6-foot, 190-pound left-handed batter who played for the A's during the 2012 season's final six weeks after he was traded by Diamondbacks, who, interestingly, had tried to trade him to the Tigers — for Peralta — ahead of the July deadline.

Drew has the range and arm to be an instant boost at shortstop. Offensively, the difference isn't as great, at least if you go by the 2012 Drew, who was coming off an ugly ankle fracture that held him to 86 games in 2011 and clearly was still hobbling him in 2012.

This is why, beyond that amazingly steep payroll, the Tigers are being careful in signing Drew, who will probably command $8 million or more and who might or might not be willing to sign a one-year deal.

Defensive upgrade

He batted .193 in 40 games for the Diamondbacks and was obviously dealing with the after-effects of his wrecked ankle. He was closer to the historical Drew (.265 career average, .762 OPS) during his 39-game stint with the A's, when he batted .250, with a .707 OPS.

The Tigers could have added Drew in July when they were trying to muscle-up their infield defense. The Diamondbacks wanted Peralta as a third baseman. The Tigers, already strapped with a heavy left-handed lineup, decided against adding yet another left-handed bat.

Now, though, manager Jim Leyland's batting order has equilibrium. Hunter, a right-handed batter, is aboard. Victor Martinez, a switch-hitter, is ready to return. Drew would simply be a left-handed bat that could be a potential plus if his ankle has healed and he moves closer to his 2008 and 2010 seasons, when he batted .291 and .278 and had OPS numbers of .836 and .810.

Primarily, the Tigers are looking for a defensive upgrade and for a bat that can hold its own. Drew probably qualifies. But at what price? And is that price worth paying when the Tigers might match Drew's numbers by going with their own employee, Danny Worth, in place of Peralta?

Consider the evidence in Worth's favor.

He played 30 games for the Tigers in 2011 and batted .270. He played 39 games for the Tigers in 2010 and hit .255. He had only 74 at-bats in 43 games for the Tigers in 2012 and batted .216. Worth has had a couple of decent seasons at Triple-A Toledo: .287 in 45 games in 2010 and .256 with a .759 OPS in 86 games in 2012.

His career minor-league statistics, spanning 383 games: .252, 74 doubles, 17 home runs, .684 OPS. Not great. And not likely to be any better, if that good, in the big leagues.

Remember, though, that Worth just turned 27. School's not out on his development. It seems reasonable that Worth could push .230 or higher with a .700 OPS as a regular player in 2013. That's one person's assessment, anyway. The Tigers, though, can't afford to go with wishes and prayers and would be disinclined to simply hand the shortstop job to Worth when his bat has offered no such hint that it can be trusted.

Something sane

So, what do the Tigers do?

I suspect Drew is their preferred option if — if — they can sign him to something sane in terms of dollars and contract length: one year, $8 million. That vicinity. Ilitch would probably say yes and the Tigers would at least be dealing with a more measurable commodity at the most important position on the infield.

But if they don't sign Drew, the next guess is Peralta will be traded for some kind of multi-position infielder who could platoon with Worth at shortstop. The Tigers would be protected, defensively, which is their top priority, and would avoid placing too much dependency on a guy who has yet to show he can play every day in the big leagues.

Payroll? Tigers fans can celebrate that their owner isn't a penny-pincher. Look at the realities of southeast Michigan and you wonder, not why the Tigers are fifth in all of baseball in paying their players. You wonder why they aren't fifth — from the bottom.

lynn.henning@detnews.com

Twitter.com@Lynn_Henning