Free agent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo could be on the Tigers radar to fill their left field and leadoff hitter jobs. (Al Behrman / Associated Press)
Dave Dombrowski’s plans for making the Tigers tougher next season, and beyond, involve gambles as well as strategies that are hardly complete following this week’s trade of Doug Fister and reported signing of bullpen closer Joe Nathan.
The Tigers front office chief was being cryptic Monday, but when he repeatedly talked about “things we want to do” he was talking about trades and signings that could make the Tigers 2013-14 offseason the most explosive in memory.
A first step was the bullpen. He unofficially has his new closer, Joe Nathan, a day after picking up a hard-slinging young left-handed reliever in Ian Krol, who was part of the Doug Fister trade with Washington.
Dombrowski and new manager Brad Ausmus still need another right-hander in the back end, which could end up being free agent Joaquin Benoit, given the two sides’ mutual appreciation.
Next in line are Dombrowski’s projects for the outfield and infield, which began last month when he traded Prince Fielder to the Rangers.
And how he sorts out those issues — free agents or trades? — will make for some headlines potentially as dramatic as the Fielder and Fister deals.
Left field is next
Dombrowski needs a left fielder. Or, rather, he needs a left fielder if he doesn’t need a center fielder, which is always possible if he decides to do with Austin Jackson what he did Monday with Fister: trade a player, two years from free agency, whose market value might be high enough to entice a swap that mirrors his deal with the Nationals.
Either way, the Tigers, given their past history and the departure of Fielder’s contract, are probably considering adding one of the premier free agents on the market: outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, or even infielder Robinson Cano, despite his insistence on a deal well above $200 million.
The Tigers have been adding bodies in recent weeks and have never for a moment said any of the players recently shipped to Detroit would not be part of deals Dombrowski hopes yet to make. Dombrowski seemed to imply as much during a half-hour conference Monday.
Trading a starting pitcher loomed as Detroit’s best chance to get the hard-hitting left fielder they clearly need if rookie Nick Castellanos, as is assumed, moves to third base and Miguel Cabrera returns to first base.
Now that Fister has been dealt for Krol, prospect left-hander Robbie Ray, and utility switch-hitter Steve Lombardozzi, the Tigers have fewer blue-chippers to land that outfielder — or outfielders — they crave.
The possibilities are vast as Dombrowski clearly prepares his audience for something big and perhaps adventuresome, which was the message again Monday as he said, at various times, the Tigers were not “by any means” done.
Would the Tigers become interested in Cano, no matter how outlandish a 31-year-old second baseman’s demands appear today to be?
Tigers owner Mike Ilitch has answered that question a few hundred million times, as he did 23 months ago when he signed Fielder for $214 million.
And if they made the bold rush on Cano, would they in turn buy out some of Kinsler’s remaining paydays and make him a more saleable part of a deal for that new outfielder?
Will the Tigers decide they learned a potentially ugly lesson with Fielder and step back from big-name free agents and long, payroll-shackling deals, which could always become the case if they chase Choo — or Cano?
Have they removed the sales tag from Castellanos, figuring Cabrera might be better off at third base, and that Castellanos in a huge trade parcel could deliver a first baseman and an outfielder?
Dombrowski has all but said to his audience: Don’t rule out anything.
Youth and defense
The motivation for attacking so aggressively a team that came within a single Cabrera groin injury from possibly winning this year’s World Series is self-evident.
Dombrowski and the Tigers have come close but haven’t yet won a world championship with their heavy-weapons roster. They clearly are trying to become younger where possible, faster, more defensive-oriented, all with the belief that a better mix is necessary than to simply beat teams with elite starters and grand artillery in the lineup’s middle spots.
“It’s a situation for us, we’re trying to balance a lot of things,” Dombrowski said, referring not only to the three-leg stool that is a roster, but also to finances.
The Tigers widely were perceived Monday to have been dumping salary when they unloaded Fister for three Google-search players.
But it was no dump. It was more a matter of salary management, knowing three young players, under team control for the next 5-6 years, make sense on various fronts.
Thethree players bring talent and youth to a team that gets a potential bonus in salaries a fraction as high of those paid to a veteran player.
Dombrowski and his lieutenants will continue the balancing act at next week’s Winter Meetings in Orlando, Fla.