Tigers sitting pretty in Nashville
Signing Rogers, Cruceta removes urgency at Winter Meetings
DETROIT -- Once again, the Tigers head into baseball's Winter Meetings able to make a move because they want to, not because they have to. It took a couple of signings on Friday to give them that luxury.
While Detroit's shortstop needs were filled the day after the World Series, and Todd Jones is back at closer, the long-running saga of Kenny Rogers and the Tigers reached its conclusion Friday with a one-year contract agreement. That was expected, once he decided to negotiate directly with the Tigers and part ways with longtime agent Scott Boras. The fact that the Tigers might have solved their relief woes at the same time, though, was a surprise.
With Friday's signing of Minor League free agent Francisco Cruceta, team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski indicated he's comfortable with the roster he has. They could do something this week if they want to, but they don't feel they need to.
"We'll look at any opportunity where we think we can get better," Dombrowski said, "but I don't think we have a gaping situation we have to address. We'll talk to people. We'll explore. We'll see what makes sense, but I don't feel there's a pressing need at this time."
In other words, they won't dip into the expensive free-agent reliever market unless they feel there's a fit they like. They've had early talks with a few relievers, reportedly including LaTroy Hawkins and Octavio Dotel, but nothing has progressed close to a deal.
Likewise, though the Tigers had preliminary contact with agents for other free-agent starters, including Carlos Silva and Livan Hernandez, Dombrowski admitted they never had serious discussions while the chance to re-sign Rogers was still alive. Now that Rogers is back, that search is over. Rogers joins Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson in Detroit's rotation, with the final spot left open for a Spring Training competition. Contestants for that role include not only prospects Andrew Miller and Yorman Bazardo, but former starters such as Chad Durbin, Zach Miner and Jason Grilli.
"We like the guys we have," Dombrowski said. "We think somebody will step forward. There are other names, too. There are a lot of guys. I kind of like that. We have four veteran pitchers now. A couple of them are younger guys, Justin and Jeremy, but they've been through a lot at this point."
Robertson and Durbin are two of five Tigers eligible for arbitration, an issue the Tigers will be trying to address. Verlander and Bonderman are already under contract.
The bullpen, of course, is a trickier situation. It wasn't an area the Tigers had to emphasize during their organizational meetings and into the offseason until Joel Zumaya underwent right shoulder surgery in November, knocking him out of action until at least next July.
They won't be able to replace Zumaya -- not at his fastball-firing form, anyway -- but they've sought to add the depth in middle innings and setup duty that they lacked at times last summer while Zumaya was on the disabled list with a ruptured tendon in his right middle finger. In a similar situation a year ago at this time, the Tigers signed Jose Mesa. He was released around the beginning of June.
That kind of move likely won't be repeated, but the Tigers have traditionally been reluctant to sign setup and middle relievers to multiyear contracts off the open market. That's where they felt adding Cruceta was a key. Scouting on Cruceta in the Dominican Winter League suggested he could pitch well in big situations in the Majors right now, prompting Detroit to become aggressive in talks with him.
"He's someone we like," Dombrowski said. "We wouldn't do it unless we liked him a great deal."
Cruceta, however, isn't the most critical part of the Tigers' bullpen plans. To Dombrowski, Fernando Rodney is going to be a crucial piece as the primary setup man. He's coming off an injury-riddled 2007 season, but his work down the stretch again showed the talent the Tigers believe can shore up the eighth inning ahead of Jones, with or without Zumaya.
"If he goes out and pitches the way he's capable, you have someone that can solidly pitch that eighth inning as a setup guy," Dombrowski said of Rodney. "[Manager] Jim [Leyland] is so good at mixing and matching. You can see, sometimes, people come out of the blue to pitch very well in middle relief for clubs, and you don't necessarily have to be in a position where the names are there, but they don't necessarily have the consistency in that role throughout the years. For us, we think [signing Cruceta] is a wise move at this time."
Dombrowski wouldn't rule out pursuing more help. However, the reports they've received from doctors have given them a degree of confidence that they'll have Zumaya back for the second half of the season. More importantly, the team believes from talking with doctors that there's a good chance Zumaya can regain his pre-surgery form.
"We still feel hopeful that Zumaya will be back," Dombrowski said. "I just don't think it's one [situation] where we felt comfortable to spend big dollars in that area based upon where we are as an organization. We have a lot of good arms in our organization. We don't talk a lot about some of them, but we also feel that guys like Miner and Grilli had a real good last couple of months of the season, that they can step up a little bit for us."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.