Detroit — One of those moments in candor and shock that occur on days when players, and not press releases, make news happened on an afternoon in March, during spring camp in Lakeland, Fla.
Jose Iglesias stood in Joker Marchant Stadium’s clubhouse and disclosed what doctors confirmed a couple of days later. He had stress fractures in each leg. He was going to miss a lot of baseball this season.
Three months later, one day’s spring-training drama explains a team’s sudden torments. The Tigers, rocked by what was destined to be a long layoff for their starting shortstop, are no closer today to settling the infield’s crown position than they were in March.
Alex Gonzalez. Andrew Romine. Danny Worth. All have had a tryout. All have struggled, or lost their job.
This is no way to win a World Series, let alone hope to stick in first place in the American League Central Division. Wednesday, the Tigers made another prayerful move. They brought on Eugenio Suarez, a talented — and green — 22-year-old prospect who can probably play adequate defense and who at least does something the other 2014 contestants could not bring: a bat that might or might not be advanced enough to help a lineup crying for some semblance of offense from shortstop.
“We’re struggling right now,” Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers front-office chief, said at a news briefing at Comerica Park. “We know we’re struggling.”
The Tigers are the most nervous first-place team in baseball. Their bullpen can explode in an instant and the void at shortstop has dragged down a lineup already wilting because Alex Avila and Austin Jackson can’t seem to hit for a 162-game season.
Suarez or deal
Shortstop earned Wednesday’s bailout when Suarez said farewell to his locker at Triple A Toledo and headed for Detroit. His call-up suggests the Tigers are headed in one of two directions now that Iglesias, as Dombrowski confirmed, has no realistic chance at returning this season.
They will give Suarez the latest in their series of 2014 shortstop auditions. They will gauge if a right-handed batter hitting .302 in 12 games at Toledo (after he hit .284 in 42 games at Double A Erie) can blend enough of a bat and glove to make shortstop viable. The Tigers are dying to turn short into something other than a position that during too many games has been a giveaway on offense.
If the kid can’t cut it, and anyone knows these tryouts can be rough, particularly on a rookie shortstop, Dombrowski will get busy concocting his annual July trade.
No one can say today who might be on the market in July. But no one could see a year ago Iglesias would be snatched from Boston and offer such exceptional promise at short in the aftermath of Jhonny Peralta’s suspension. Not many foresaw Anibal Sanchez jetting to Detroit in a July 2012 trade parcel. Nor did they necessarily project Doug Fister in 2011 as Dombrowski’s traditional trade deadline steal.
But the Tigers general manager will make some brand of deal to shore up short if Suarez shows during these next days and weeks that he needs more time in Toledo’s incubator.
Shortstop is probably the most important position on the field. It is the linchpin for infield defense. It is the place where bouncing balls and double plays require an artist who can shut down innings, particularly when a starting rotation is as otherwise strong and ground-ball oriented as Detroit’s.
Iglesias, remember, was destined to settle all issues there. He had the wizardry to make big innings smaller for opposing offenses. And while he was not a big hitter, he was only 24 heading into this season, with superb bat speed and more pop and potential than fans probably acknowledged.
And then came shin fractures that were all the more mysterious and ominous because of shin splints that had bothered him for much of 2013.
The Tigers have a decision to make with respect to Iglesias and Suarez, understanding Suarez, even if he is too pink in the cheeks to now make a splash, might well become a fine everyday player in the years ahead.
The call is contingent upon Iglesias. He must heal from his shin fractures. Doctors have assured Dombrowski that Iglesias will be ready to go, with no recurring issues, by the start of 2015 spring camp.
But, can Dombrowski absolutely bank upon Iglesias making it back? If he can, the issue is resolved. Iglesias, who offers defense on an extraordinary level, will be the Tigers choice. Suarez will become a lovely piece of offseason trade bait, which could be particularly helpful when the Tigers will be looking for a new right fielder.
If, in the back of Dombrowski’s mind Iglesias and his history are nothing he can bank on, Suarez, naturally will be protected.
And that will force Dombrowski to make some kind of move, probably centered on young pitching prospects, in his potential July safari to find a shortstop who can sew up a division title the Tigers have every responsibility to win.
Suarez will at least give Dombrowski a sense for where he and his team — and Detroit’s shortstop crisis — sit during this increasingly bizarre season. A first-place team is performing these days at Comerica Park. But the Tigers tend to craft last-place interludes that leave fans, and a certain general manager, wondering.