March 20, 2014 at 6:57 pm

Lynn Henning

With loss of Jose Iglesias, Tigers are grasping for answers

Jose Iglesias will be gone four to six months with stress fractures in both shins, the team confirmed Thursday. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Lakeland, Fla.— This is how seasons blow up on teams even ahead of Opening Day.

A left fielder goes down in spring camp. A good big-league club can survive an outfielder missing three months, as is the case with the Tigers and Andy Dirks, a platoon player who was not a middle-of-the-order hitter.

But lose your shortstop, the heart of a team’s defensive profile, and you begin the year with a severe deficit, especially when that defender is as gifted as Jose Iglesias.

Iglesias knew Monday he had stress fractures in both legs. He told media he had stress fractures. There was foundation for his clear and compelling update on his condition. Tigers officials would not confirm it until Thursday, after a Colorado orthopedic expert, Thomas Clanton, made his pronouncement Iglesias has cracks in his lower legs. They will knock him from the lineup 4-6 months.

Teams can play over injuries, no question. Baseball history is rife with clubs that won world championships minus star players. The Tigers managed last season to nearly win an American League Championship Series when their indispensable man, Miguel Cabrera, had been savaged for two months by a torn groin.

But this is shortstop, hub of an infield reconstruction designed to make the Tigers a steel-belted defensive team and a more fleet overall operation.

Cornerstone position

Those who focus on Iglesias’ bat — he hit .330 for the Red Sox and .259 for the Tigers following July’s trade — are missing the overall potency he brought, and was set to bring to the Tigers this season.

With a flick of his hands, he makes plays that stop single runs and bigger innings from evolving. He beats out ground balls for base hits. He is 24, and getting stronger, and if there was to have been any surprise from Iglesias this season, it likely would have been on the plus side, offensively. He is an exceedingly talented and fiery big-league infantryman.

Now, the Tigers and their parade float are dealing with massive damage. It will not be easy, matching the structural grandeur Iglesias offered.

They are considering their current cast, but it’s a consideration only. Danny Worth has the tools to fill in adequately and today is probably the top contender for the Tigers. But history, whether it is fair or not to Worth, must be considered.

Only three times in six full pro seasons has Worth played 100 or more games. Heel and shoulder issues were the culprits, and while those do not, and should not, disqualify him, the Tigers take such background into consideration as they prepare for a long and unforgiving 162-game schedule.

Worth, today, is a better choice than either of two rookies, Hernan Perez and Eugenio Suarez, each of whom clearly needs development time at Triple A. The Tigers will not put either of those prospects in charge of a position that on a daily basis can devour more seasoned players than Perez and Suarez.

Casting a line

Dave Dombrowski will shop until he finds a new man. It is all but a certainty. He pilots the Tigers front office and a 40-man roster with one mandate in mind: Playoff-bound teams cannot get caught with inadequate personnel at any position, let alone at shortstop.

At the moment, Dombrowski will not be buoyed by his existing cast. All his years running the Expos, Marlins, and Tigers proves conclusively he does not operate in that fashion. Worth, a player he last December designated for assignment and a player who promptly cleared waivers, is not in Dombrowski’s world or experience a player capable of becoming a playoff team’s everyday shortstop.

Nothing in Dombrowski’s past suggests he will go the Worth route. The track record meshes with national reports that Detroit has indeed been looking at players who were mentioned early on as potential Iglesias replacements: Nick Franklin of the Mariners, Darwin Barney of the Cubs, Didi Gregorius of the Diamondbacks, and even Jimmy Rollins, the once-great Phillies shortstop in the midst of a cold war with his employers.

Rollins has a firm no-trade clause and a potential $33 million owed him, most of it by way of vestings. But if dispositions don’t improve in Philadelphia, it is conceivable Rollins could agree to a trade, with the Phillies picking up the bulk of his remaining dollars. It is even feasible that the Phillies could release him, given the tenor of their relationship a week before camp adjourns.

Either way, Dombrowski has the trade chips — minor-league prospects, probably — to swing an affordable deal for any of the above. He will not overpay. He will not mortgage the future to make an incremental gain over the shortstop contenders he has today in camp.

But neither will he allow a 2014 season, and particularly that elite Tigers pitching staff capable of delivering another playoff run, to be sabotaged by spring-camp breakdowns at the infield’s nerve center, shortstop.

Iglesias is gone. By the time he returns, a 2014 season will either have gone into the books, or its course will have been determined, in part by what Dombrowski does with that massive void at short.

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