December 9, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Lynn Henning

Matt Kemp? Shin-Soo Choo? No one seemingly out of reach for Tigers

Matt Kemp is a career .293 hitter in eight seasons with the Dodgers. (Harry How / Getty Images)

Lake Buena Vista, Fla. – In a hotel corridor Monday, outside a media workroom that will be home for the next three days at baseball’s winter meetings, Bill Madden of the New York Daily News stopped to ask if the Tigers were done with their heavy offseason business.

“Yeah – probably on a grand scale,” was the response, which was soon amended.

“That is,” Madden was told in a way a seasoned Tigers observer would appreciate, “until Scott Boras calls Mike Ilitch.”

Everyone wonders what the Tigers will next do to steal the day’s headlines. They have been deft at making news, big news, in the 10 years since Ilitch decided he could trust a front-office boss, Dave Dombrowski, with the power and with the spending freedom to make his baseball team one of the game’s higher-profile clubs.

The Tigers need an outfielder, as well as bullpen arms, and were no doubt busy discussing one or the other Monday as the winter meetings got rolling at The Swan and Dolphin Hotel at Disney World.

The Tigers can probably handle their reliever shopping with little pain or fuss – John Axford, Joaquin Benoit, Joel Hanrahan, etc, are among available free agents. But getting the outfielder they require will be difficult now that their primary trade chip, a starting pitcher who turned out to be Doug Fister, has been shipped to the Nationals.

It leaves the Tigers, at least on the surface, looking at a couple of possible options.

If they sign the player who ideally fits their needs in left field, Shin-Soo Choo, the Tigers will be spending $150 million or more dollars on a player who turns 32 in July. Beyond the cash spread over six or so years will be the forfeiture of a first-round draft pick in 2014.

That’s an enormous price for a left-fielder. The bucks are all the more alarming when Ilitch & Co. already are on the hook for Justin Verlander’s remaining years at a potential cost of $182 million. They will pay about the same freight if they wish to extend Max Scherzer, and they will pay even more if they hope to hang onto Miguel Cabrera deep into his 30s.

Trading times?

And, so, the Tigers are left to hunt for smaller game, probably by way of trade.

But with what trade chips?

Brett Gardner is available. The bullet-sized Yankees outfielder would fit Detroit’s speed and defense trend, as well as offer a modestly helpful left-handed bat. He becomes a free agent next autumn and could probably be steered to Motown for a defensible price, at least if the Yankees are interested in minor-league prospects.

But he would not bring the Tigers the thunder they ideally need from a left-fielder who must, to some extent, compensate for the relocation of Prince Fielder to Texas.

Ah, but the Dodgers. They are advertising Matt Kemp. They also would listen to offers for Andre Ethier.

But each of those players and his respective pluses/minuses comes with heavy due-bills ($128 million through 2019 for Kemp, $86.5 million for Ethier if 2018 vesting option kicks in). Even if the Tigers were interested in shaking hands with the Dodgers on Kemp or Ethier, it’s questionable that Detroit would have the pieces L.A. is seeking (left-side infielders).

It makes you wonder if Dombrowski has one of those rabbit-from-the-hat acts in mind as he entertains creative ways to make his 2014 team a better bet to win the World Series.

If so, it could be a blockbuster deal that by comparison makes last week’s Fister trade and its subsequent fallout look trivial.

Outfield outlook

Austin Jackson would be involved, almost certainly. The Tigers have been rumored to have discussed Jackson, which makes sense when Jackson is two years from free agency. Fister had the same status and the Tigers decided it was best to deal him now when they liked the return and didn’t care for his diminishing trade value ahead of autumn, 2015.

Jackson, though, would need to be replaced. And this is where thoughts of Jackson being dealt seriously bog down.

The Tigers already are shy an outfielder as Dombrowski looks for help in left field apart from Andy Dirks. Sending away Jackson would, without knowing what might be in the trade package, force Dombrowski to deal with holes at two defensive and offensive positions of enormous scope when one considers Comerica Park and its prairie lands in left and center fields.

It does not add up. Not at all. Unless, of course, Dombrowski and his highly imaginative trade visions forge something doable that isn’t yet apparent to others scoping the winter meetings landscape.

It is why that conversation between Ilitch and Boras, Choo’s esteemed adviser, cannot be ruled out. Big, bad contracts and forfeited draft picks are a way of life as this crazy 2013-14 offseason germinates. The Tigers could always, again, shake up a quiet day in baseball. In fact, given their history and this team’s needs, you’re forgiven for concluding it’s inevitable.

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