Former Tigers reliever Fernando Rodney has thrived the last two years as closer for the Rays. (Hannah Foslien / Getty Images)
Detroit — Ten days. That’s it. In less than two weeks, the Tigers will convene in sunny Lakeland, Fla., eager to kickstart the drive for another American League Central title — and that long-elusive World Series championship.
The roster is widely believed to be complete, the finishing touch being the signing of speedy left fielder Rajai Davis at the winter meetings in early December.
But Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers president and general manager, always refuses to rule out further tweaking, always leaving open the possibility for something to “come out of the blue.”
Well, there just might be that something over the next 10 days, considering several intriguing free agents remain unsigned, many the victims of the unfair qualifying-offer system that forces teams to part with prime draft picks in order to sign what, in many cases, only are marginal free agents.
Ten of the Detroit News’ top 50 free agents remain available: starter Ervin Santana (No. 8), designated hitter Kendrys Morales (10), outfielder Nelson Cruz (11), starter Ubaldo Jimenez (16), reliever Fernando Rodney (24), starter A.J. Burnett (27), shortstop Stephen Drew (28), starter Bronson Arroyo (29), starter Suk-Min Yoon (35) and starter Paul Maholm (46).
Plus, there are many second-tier players still out there at bargain-basement prices, some perhaps even for as low as a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training.
And the Tigers, like many other teams, might just find a player or two to their liking.
Here are five guys who could fall into that category:
Fans are all too quick to shoot down the possibility — given his declining defense, and the draft-pick compensation he would cost. But until Cruz, 33, is signed by someone else, the slugger will continue to be tied to the Tigers, with whom he would provide much-needed power, plus depth at outfield and even DH, should Nick Castellanos be a bust at third base — and Miguel Cabrera needs to move back over, while Victor Martinez shifts to first.
Projected price: Two years, $12 million
This might seem like a head-scratcher, given the Tigers already-stellar rotation. But for 2014, Santana, a right-hander, could allow Drew Smyly to stay and bolster the bullpen, and in 2015 and beyond he’d provide protection for a team that’s likely to see Max Scherzer depart. The rest of next year’s free-agent pool is expected to be weak, and prospect Robbie Ray might not be ready by 2015. Draft-pick compensation does apply with Santana, 31, too.
Projected price: Four years, $44 million
Ah, the Tigers’ old friend, crooked hat and all. He gave fans the sweats from 2002-09, but lately has been one of the game’s better closers. He was absolutely awesome in 2012, his first year with the Rays, and would’ve made bank had he been a free agent last winter. He was a little less perfect in 2013 — and this closer market was damn deep. Rodney, 36, likely must settle for a setup role, and the Tigers, outside Joe Nathan, have questions in the bullpen.
Projected price: Two years, $7 million
4. Luis Ayala
Another right-handed reliever, and one the Tigers have actually been tied to this offseason. The Tigers have electric arms in the bullpen, with Nathan, Al Alburquerque, Bruce Rondon, Luke Putkonen and Joba Chamberlain, but outside Nathan, they all are unproven. So the Tigers, understandably, would like depth, should others disappoint, and Ayala, 36, is solid, with a 2.58 ERA the last three years. Best part: While he won’t dominate, he throws strikes.
Projected price: One year, $1.5 million
5. Oliver Perez
After a mostly miserable tenure with the Mets from 2006-10, the veteran resurrected his career, somewhat, the last two seasons with the Mariners. He still can be wild, but the good stuff has returned — as evidenced by his 74 strikeouts in 53 innings last season. Perez, 32, also is left-handed, which has to be appealing to the Tigers, who have Ian Krol slotted in for 2014, but are unsure what to make of Phil Coke or the Casey Crosby converted-starter project.
Projected price: One year, $1.75 million
Five more to watch
Andrew Bailey, RH reliever; Mike Gonzalez, LH reliever; Ryan Madson, RH reliever; Pat Neshek, RH reliever; Francisco Rodriguez, RH reliever