January 23, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tony Paul

Tigers looking more and more like logical landing spot for Nelson Cruz

It makes all the sense in the world for Dave Dombrowski and Co. to find a way to make Nelson Cruz a Tiger. (Rob Carr / Getty Images)

Detroit — Robinson Cano to the Seattle Mariners, that certainly was the stunner of baseball’s offseason.

But not far behind was the Jhonny Peralta contract, $53 million from the St. Louis Cardinals — a whopping sum, considering the former Tigers shortstop missed 50 games in 2013 for a PED suspension.

Prior to that deal coming together, in late October, no free agent just off a juicing ban had landed anything more than a modest, two-year deal.

Now, interestingly, it’s that modest, two-year deal that Nelson Cruz — another of the Biogenesis boys — might end up settling for.

And make no mistake: The Tigers, while obviously being cautious with payroll after years of overspending and in-the-red bottom lines, can afford that. It makes all the sense in the world for Dave Dombrowski and Co. to find a way to make Cruz a Tiger, three years after the then-Texas Rangers slugger practically single-handedly eliminated them from the 2011 postseason with a majestic, six-homer, 13-RBI American League Championship Series.

Tight market for hitters

The hot-stove season, after seeing so many big names come off the board in late November and early December, was as chilly as this winter for more than a month, until the New York Yankees agreed with star Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka on a seven-year, $155 million contract Wednesday.

That deal should get the ball rolling for several other free-agent pitchers whose negotiations have been held up by the Tanaka sweepstakes, including Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and Bronson Arroyo. Matt Garza quickly signed Thursday with the Brewers for four years and $52 million.

There are fewer impact hitters left. In fact, it’s really down to Kendrys Morales and Cruz. But Morales is a designated hitter, and Cruz is headed rapidly toward full-time DH duty, so that likely limits their suitors to American League teams, many of which already have filled their needs.

Of the two, Morales figures to get a more lucrative contract. He’s three years younger, he’s a switch-hitter, his power — so impressive at Safeco Field — figures to transfer smoothly to any ballpark, and he doesn’t wear that scarlet “S” (steroids).

Cruz, meanwhile, is a bit more flexible. He still can play the outfield, left or right, though his skills have diminished. His range has fallen off fast, and his once-cannon arm netted only one assist in 2013.

Among the teams that could be interested in one or the other:

■ Rangers: They spent big to add Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder, but still have money to spend — and no firm plan at DH (Mitch Moreland?). But their focus might be more on starting pitching; they were high on Tanaka, and will be without Derek Holland until after the All-Star break.

■ Mariners: They signed Cano and added Corey Hart and Logan Morrison. But there remains concerns about whether even that’s enough offense to make them a player in the tough AL West.

■ Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics: Neither one has a DH. The Orioles are said to have wiggle room in the budget, while it’s doubtful the A’s do.

■ Cleveland Indians: With the surprising revelation Carlos Santana may move from catcher to third base, that’d leave them a DH void. But they have to be a bit gun-shy on spending big on free agents, because when they did it last year (Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn) the team thrived, yet declined in attendance.

■ Minnesota Twins: The one non-contender on the list, they’re a dark horse to watch, given they’re in a spending mood. The rotation is upgraded, but the offense still needs a whole lot of work.

But as was the case with the Yankees, who needed Tanaka more than anybody else, no team needs the big bat more than the Tigers, who hit 176 home runs a season ago — more than a third of which were hit by players no longer on the team.

Victor Martinez, Torii Hunter and Ian Kinsler are fine hitters, but outside Miguel Cabrera, Detroit no longer has a legitimate home-run threat. Plus, there are questions up and down the lineup: Can Alex Avila, Austin Jackson and Andy Dirks bounce back? And can Nick Castellanos be an every-day player?

Cruz, certainly, would give them some protection there, as well as some flexibility.

He could start mostly in left, plus spell Hunter for the 20 or so days he needs off as he approaches 40. Or if Castellanos struggles, Cruz could slot into DH, Martinez could move to first base, Cabrera could slide back to third and Dirks and speedy Rajai Davis could continue platooning in left. Right now, the Tigers have no contingency plan should Castellanos not live up to expectations.

Dombrowski, after signing Davis in early December, said the Tigers were likely done on the position-player front — barring something “out of the blue.” Cruz still being available with spring training just a little more than three weeks away was not expected, and so could be that something “out of the blue.”

There are some concerns, however.

Like Kinsler, Cruz’s numbers in hitter-friendly Arlington greatly trump his numbers anywhere else. (Unlike Kinsler, though, Cruz has had prolonged success at Comerica Park.) There’s the mystery of just how much steroids actually helped Cruz average 27 homers and an .842 OPS over the last five seasons. The two-time All-Star would make Detroit’s lineup even more right-handed heavy.

And Cruz, who was tendered and declined his qualifying offer from the Rangers, would cost the Tigers a first-round draft pick. But that pick is just No. 24, and Detroit believed it struck gold with its 2013 class, of which several pitchers, Corey Knebel, Jonathan Crawford and Jeffrey Thompson are believed to be on the fast track. (Knebel, in fact, could help the Tigers bullpen by this summer.)

Tigers' offense vulnerable

The Tigers are an intriguing team. Their rotation, despite replacing Doug Fister with Drew Smyly, remains easily the class of the AL, they added a stud closer in Joe Nathan, they’re faster and more athletic, and their defense is much improved. There’s still plenty enough to win a fourth consecutive AL Central, and some pundits, ESPN’s Buster Olney among them, still like them to finally win that World Series, following three straight trips to the ALCS.

For the first time since Detroit’s baseball resurgence began in 2006, however, offense is the question. They had some level of interest this offseason in Jacoby Ellsbury and Choo, but the prices were not right. Those two got a combined $283 million from the Yankees and Rangers, respectively.

That led the Tigers to Plan B, the Davis/Dirks platoon, which could work.

But with Max Scherzer likely to depart after the 2014 season, and Cabrera at least a possibility to leave after 2015, the World Series window could soon be closing.

So don’t be surprised if the lines of communication between the Tigers and Cruz soon are opening.

tpaul@detroitnews.com
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