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Baseball Notes

Tigers are going for broke

They'll pay the price to compete in the AL

Email|Print| Text size + By Nick Cafardo
December 9, 2007

Tigers owner Mike Ilitch told the Booth Newspapers earlier this year, "I've never had a [payroll] limit from a standpoint that if a player comes along and we need him, somehow you always try to figure out how you can get him. That's how I always look at it."

If you're an elite team in the American League, that's the way you have to look at it.

"Yeah, the Red Sox have won two World Series in the last four years; they are a dominant team," said Cubs manager Lou Piniella. "And I think these American League teams say to themselves, 'Boy, if we want to get where they are at, we've got to improve.'

"But I think if you start seeing a team that people start fearing a little bit as a team that can dominate for a few years, you've got to get after it, and that's exactly what Detroit did."

So Ilitch, watching the Red Sox dominate, watching the Yankees make the playoffs, and watching his American League Central rivals, the Indians, become a solid playoff team, gave president Dave Dombrowski the OK to take the next step, trading for lefthander Dontrelle Willis and third baseman Miguel Cabrera, two players who are on the verge of making huge money. There was a price paid in talent, too: six players, including former No. 1 draft choices Andrew Miller, a lefthanded pitcher, and Cameron Maybin, an outfielder.

The Tigers had discussed flipping Willis and catcher Pudge Rodriguez to the Mets to make payroll room, but once Ilitch decided that he could add about another $20 million this year and much more next season, Dombrowski was able to keep everyone.

So the Tigers emptied out their farm system in deals for Edgar Renteria, Willis, and Cabrera. To say they are "going for it" is an understatement. But it's risky, because they have reduced the padding on the cushion they might have had if a major player goes down.

Ilitch and Dombrowski were sick about how the team performed in 2007 after such a tremendous 2006 in which they knocked off the Yankees in the playoffs and lost to the Cardinals in the World Series. The demise was due in part to injuries to key players like relievers Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney, and starter Kenny Rogers.

Under Dombrowski, the Tigers for the most part have made sound management decisions, including investing in their amateur draft and paying high prices for Miller and Maybin. Dombrowski has also been able to add pricey major league pieces such as Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield.

Ilitch, 78, would love to win a World Series soon. He also owns the Detroit Red Wings and has won Stanley Cups while spending a ton of money on those players. His Tiger payroll is likely to rise to $120 million-$130 million with a lineup of All-Stars.

If Rodriguez can stave off a decline, if Sheffield can still be a ferocious hitter, if Magglio Ordonez can come close to matching his off-the-charts offensive season, and if Cabrera continues his rise among the elite hitters in the game, watch out.

The starting rotation looks good, but there's no guarantee Willis can turn his career around in the tougher American League, though he's only 25.

Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman have to reinvent themselves after poor seasons; Bonderman was 11-9 with a 5.01 ERA in 28 starts and Robertson struggled to a 9-13 record and 4.76 ERA in 30 starts. They have a true ace in Justin Verlander (18-6, 3.66), who is only 24, but Rogers has to be closer to his 2006 form for the rotation to truly be dominant.

The loss of Zumaya with reconstructive shoulder surgery (there are no guarantees he comes back at all, but certainly not before midseason) really hurts. The bullpen could cripple the Tigers if multi-inning assistance is regularly required to close out games.

There is no Jonathan Papelbon (Zumaya would have been that) to be a real stopper. Veteran Todd Jones has had a terrific career and was at his best when Zumaya and Rodney were lights-out in front of him. Rodney had to shake off a few minor injuries last season and could be back strong.

The Tigers took a huge step. But are they better than the Red Sox?

"I don't know," said Sox manager Terry Francona. "I know it made their lineup better. Probably made their pitching staff better. But you know, it's December. How do you know?

"The American League's got a lot of good teams. And when you go through cities like Detroit, if your pitching is not in line, they cannot just beat you - they can beat you up and hurt you for about a week because they just maul you."

the great debate

A matter of pitcher's location

Is it harmful to baseball if the Yankees or Red Sox wind up with Johan Santana? White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen and Toronto manager John Gibbons weigh in.

Guillen: "This is business. God bless them. I think when the games start, you never know what's going to happen, and you have the opportunity and the players. I hope Santana goes to the National League. That's my hope. I think I got like 15 less wins because of him. I feel proud this year. The first time I ever come to this winter meeting, the two top people they talk about [Santana and Miguel Cabrera] are from my country and they're my friends. I'm just so happy my country come out in the top and talk about the two best players they have this year, 2008, they're from Venezuela and should be proud."

Gibbons: "Boston, that's what they do. They're always looking to upgrade and definitely have the resources to do it. They don't sit tight. It's obvious what's going on there; they're going to do whatever they have to do to win. We're going to have to have some big years to compete, no question. You always shoot for the postseason. When [general manager] J.P. [Ricciardi] arrived, it was basically clean house, get everything in order. Then we kind of took the turn and the talk has been we want to be a competitive club. We're past rebuilding. Whether it happens, it hasn't happened yet. But we have to take care of our own team and not worry about the others."

Randolph expands a little on the collapsible Mets

A few questions for Mets manager Willie Randolph:

How important is it to get off to a good start to restore equilibrium?

WR: "It's important from a media and fan standpoint more than anything else. I think our players understand that getting off to a good, fast, or slow start is not going to really make a difference in the big picture. Obviously we want to get off to a good start. That's important for any team, but we're not going to panic, overreact if we get off to a slow or sluggish start, because we know that this year was a perfect example of that. We got off to a fast start, played great baseball all year until maybe the last month of the season where we sputtered around."

The way the season ended, do you guys need as a team some sort of mental jolt or something that a big trade would bring just for a new face, a new look, a new something?

WR: "I don't think so. I think that's overrated, really. Whoever you bring in obviously has to produce. That's where it's going to be the jolt. So to go get someone just for the sake of doing it or just bringing the name in, that does nothing for us.

"Everyone knows who is out there. The big fish are out there. [Johan ] Santana is still out there. I don't think that we're necessarily out of the picture even though I think Boston and the Yankees get most of the play on that."

With no resolution to the Santana situation, has that impacted your club's ability to get something done secondarily?

WR: "Once he falls by the wayside - not saying that we're waiting for that to happen, and I think everyone could probably speak to that - there are a second tier of guys who are probably sitting back waiting. So, yeah, I guess, obviously when Santana goes, wherever he goes, hopefully to us, then everything else will fall into place."

What has the last month been like for you after the end of the season? What do you want your players to think about?

WR: "Well, they should still be thinking about it. I'm still dealing with it and flushing it out. You do it in your own way. I've talked to my players briefly but we didn't address anything about last year. We'll get to that in spring training."

Touching the bases

Apropos of nothing: 1. Brandon Inge, whose wife is from the Boston area, would be a terrific super-sub (first, third, catcher, and outfield) for the Red Sox; 2. Good to see former Sox lefty Tom Bolton, a Brentwood, Tenn., resident, walking the lobby with his son last week at Opryland; 3. Could the Marlins' payroll now be around Manny Ramírez's annual salary?; 4. Forbes ranked the Sox third in baseball in team value at $724 million. First were the Yankees at $1.2 billion and second the Mets at $736 million; 5. Jim Leyland's cellphone plays "Sweet Caroline."

Putting the onus in bonus

The tentative decision of the Baseball Writers Association of America to stop voting for players who have financial incentives tied to major postseason awards (as of 2013), received a lot of high-fives from general managers who are sick of including goofy bonuses in multimillion-dollar contracts. The reaction of the other side was quite different. The BBWAA decided to table the issue for the time being until it can speak to both sides. The hope is that the union and MLB can come to a consensus that money should not be attached to these awards. In his last contract, Alex Rodriguez had a $50,000 bonus for being named Division Series MVP. Problem is, there's no such thing. MLB has to scrutinize contracts a little closer.

Will Cleveland be a Bay area?

A deal that could get revived over the next week or two is Jason Bay going from Pittsburgh to Cleveland. New Pirates GM Neal Huntington entertained talks with his former team during the winter meetings, but they fizzled out. The Indians would love to have Bay to play left field and add much-needed thump to their lineup. They were willing to offer lefty Cliff Lee, an 18-game winner just two years ago, but the Pirates prefer Jeremy Sowers or Aaron Laffey as well as former Red Sox catcher Kelly Shoppach. Indians outfielder Franklin Gutierrez has also been talked about in a deal.

One that got away

New Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker feels he has three starting pitchers right now, but he almost had a fourth. The Reds appeared to be in on Dontrelle Willis before he was included in the Miguel Cabrera package for Detroit. Baker was happy to land Francisco Cordero as his new closer, but he thought he also had his lefty starter. Asked what his reaction was to losing out on Willis, Baker said, "Damn!" and shook his head. "That was it. My wife grew up with Dontrelle's aunt. I was like, man, we could have rode to spring training together."

Bird watching

The Orioles are all over the map on potential deals. New president Andy MacPhail is desperately trying to get real value for Miguel Tejada, who has something left but either has to move to third base or move on to the National League. Houston had interest, perhaps with a package of Adam Everett, Chris Burke, and more for Baltimore. There's also been chatter about a Brian Roberts-Rich Hill deal with the Cubs. The Orioles are entertaining offers on Erik Bedard, but as of now, no team, including the Red Sox, has been able to offer the Orioles enough to make it worth their while.

Sky is the limit in SeattleMariners manager John McLaren was asked how many bases Ichiro Suzuki was capable of stealing. "Let's just say 80 to start with," he said. "Let's go there." When asked to elaborate, McLaren said, "There's nothing Ichiro can't do. I kind of mentioned to him last spring training, I'm going to say I told him, 'If you had 15 more bunt hits, you would hit .400.' He was looking at me and thinking hard. He's such a structured player and I don't want to change anything. He can't be much better than he already is, but I just kind of planted the seed."

Lucrative relief effort

The most outrageous aspect of offseason signings has been the silly money for relievers: Scott Linebrink, four years, $19 million from the White Sox; David Riske, three years, $13 million from the Brewers; Cordero, four years, $42 million from the Reds. It could be that teams get desperate and give out huge salaries for relievers who could be good one year and released the next. Colorado manager Clint Hurdle said, "The thing is, you can't fall into the trap that the industry presents opportunities for players. You don't have to be a slave to that. We've learned some very valuable lessons that have taught us there. It's such a reactive industry that what we've tried to do is stay proactive on our side of it, not just to be reactive to the industry or what the market dictates."

Unfocused groups

Why so little activity at the winter meetings? "It just seems that teams are trying to juggle too many things at once," said Giants GM Brian Sabean, who needs to get something going for an impact hitter to replace Barry "I'm not guilty" Bonds. "It's been hard to get everyone to just focus on getting one thing done." Sabean has explored talks with Toronto on Alex Rios and the Yankees on Hideki Matsui. He's trying not to deal Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain. But he might have to.

Extra bases

A few quick things: If you want a heck of a book with old-time baseball stories, then "Podnuh" by legendary scout Mel Didier and mlb.com writer T.R Sullivan is a terrific read. To order: 1-866-405-1300 . . . The Rockies like Boston infielder Jed Lowrie, who projects as a second baseman, but it doesn't appear that they'll give up reliever Brian Fuentes for him . . . Happy 50th birthday, Ed Romero.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com

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