Detroit – Something was up, definitely so. You could see it in Dave Dombrowski’s 1,000-watt grin as he popped through the clubhouse doors nearly an hour after Tuesday night’s game at Comerica Park, which featured another overflow crowd (41,880) and an Alex Avila grand slam that conked the Nationals and Stephen Strasburg, 5-1.
Dombrowski, dressed in a silver-gray suit and pink tie almost as bright as his face, was headed for manager Jim Leyland’s office. And while the news was still minutes from leaking, Detroit’s premier baseball barterer had just pulled off another of his July magic acts.
Dombrowski landed shortstop Jose Iglesias from the Red Sox in a deal that brings daring defense and a possible playoffs-saving replacement to a position that almost certainly will be vacated by Jhonny Peralta’s anticipated suspension.
July is when the Tigers president and general manager tends to do some of his most deft trading. It’s a combination of factors. But two realities fuel deals as dramatic as Tuesday night’s three-team package that was announced at midnight when Dombrowski and his smile arrived in the press-box dining room for a 25-minute briefing.
Factor No. 1: The Tigers are contenders. They could, and should, win another division title and could, and should, be primed for a long playoff run, as much as October can be forecasted.
They generally have a weak-link position each summer that needs an overhaul. Two years ago, it was a hole in their starting rotation that was patched brilliantly by Doug Fister. Twelve months ago it was a rotation void and a makeshift arrangement at second base that needed remodeling. Dombrowski fixed both with swaps for Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante.
Factor No. 2: In all of these past trades, Tigers prospects — minor leaguers other GMs like even if Detroit’s critics don’t — sealed the deals. Those prospects tend to carry more luster in July when their skills can be better measured at a time non-contenders are thinking about rebuilding.
It is a formula tailored to Dombrowski’s knack for identifying soft spots and moving almost militantly to ensure weak links become pluses as he approaches October.
Let the dealing begin
He made his first move Monday when he re-wired the back end of his bullpen with a steady, powerful right-hander, Jose Veras. His second act was almost sly.
At a pre-game press conference Tuesday, his poker face dour and his voice low, Dombrowski waved off thoughts the Tigers would be peddling additional flesh or addressing Peralta’s probable vacation ahead of today’s 4 p.m. trade deadline.
We should have known better.
Dombrowski was already talking with Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington. The Red Sox have a surplus of talented shortstops. They could afford to deal Iglesias. The Red Sox also had something cooking with the White Sox for starter Jake Peavy.
By early evening, the contours were in place for a three-way deal that would cost the Tigers gifted outfielder Avisail Garcia and young, hard-throwing reliever, Brayan Villareal.
At some point during Tuesday’s game, Dombrowski had his man: Iglesias, 23, a right-handed hitter who will play left-side infield defense on a level that should thrill Tigers Nation almost as much as it will cheer manager Jim Leyland’s pitchers.
Cherington, in fact, told Dombrowski: “You will see this guy make plays you’ve never seen before.” Rival scouts have said the same, mentioning him in the same constellation as Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel.
He is batting .330 for the Red Sox and will probably taper to more of a mid-to-higher .200 hitter. But at 23, with a bat that should mature and with defense that can choke off innings, reduce pitch-counts, and make a difference against playoff-grade teams, the Tigers believe they landed a player who gives the Tigers more of a championship-grade imprint.
Shortstop was on list
Dombrowski’s bid to lock down a shortstop was in motion long before Tuesday. Peralta has been a remarkable story in Detroit after Dombrowski stole him from the Indians three summers ago. He has settled a position for the Tigers that has been in flux since the days of Alan Trammell. He has had a renaissance year in 2013, batting .308, with 10 home runs and 53 RBIs.
But even before the Biogenesis probe was announced, setting in motion a suspension the Tigers have known could sideline Peralta for months, the Tigers had been looking for a new man. They needed a more fleet and broader-ranged shortstop to vacuum ground balls Peralta can’t handle. They needed a longer-term player when Peralta was staring at free agency.
Dombrowski huddled this week with his front-office team: Al Avila, Scott Reid, Scott Bream, and Mike Smith. They could see August’s waiver wire would be a fool’s errand in shopping for shortstops.
They also had the convergence of today’s trade deadline and Peralta’s suspension, which national reports say will come down no later than Thursday.
“After 4 p.m.,” Dombrowski said, speaking of today’s cutoff, “you can’t do anything (trade) that’s assured.”
And so the Tigers triggerman fired. Iglesias is coming to Detroit. Villarreal is headed to the Red Sox farm chain. Garcia, a blessed outfielder who should become a star, is on his way to the White Sox.
“I don’t want to see Avisail 18 or 19 times a season over the next 10 years,” Dombrowski said, speaking of the annual Tigers-White Sox gatherings. “But I think we’re getting a real good player for another good player.”
That’s the way he does business when July arrives and the phone lines turn hot. Dombrowski lives for these hours. He’ll also have to live with a trade he made Tuesday. The megawatt smile lighting Comerica Park’s corridors late Tuesday night suggested he could handle that task, and rather happily.