Dave Dombrowski seems fairly content to go into the season with the roster he currently has, though injuries or spring struggles can change perspectives quickly in March. We Tigers fans are far from content with the team’s bullpen as it currently stands, but with organizational resources apparently tapped out we aren’t likely to get the roster additions we crave (at least before the trade deadline). The buzz – to the extent that there is buzz – is that the Tigers may be looking to add a reliever on a minor league deal.
On that face of it, that doesn’t sound too silly – for a team that can’t afford a $7 million per year setup man right now. We don’t think the Tigers ‘pen looks great on paper, but it isn’t as though the Tigers don’t have quality candidates to fill those 7 April roster spots. The problem is simply that too many of the Tigers current relievers represent big gambles. Signing the kind of guy that the Tigers might be able to sign for a million or two in guaranteed money (like Ryan Madson) might therefore not make sense at all – since a guy like that would represent exactly the same kind of risk that the Tigers are currently overloaded with and simply bump a potentially equivalent player to Toledo (and I assume that guy’s name would be Luke Putkonen). While Ryan Madson could turn out to be tremendous this year, he could also throw paraffin on flames for a few months and then hit the DL again. What the Tigers need is a guy that they can bring in later in the year when it becomes apparent that one of their gambles on the initial 25 has not paid off.
In essence, the Tigers could use another minor league free agent or two for purposes of risk aversion – making it potentially unnecessary to trade for someone to replace (hypothetically speaking) Phil Coke in June. There’s one big problem with that, though… for the most part the best minor league free agents (guys that weren’t quite able to swing the big league deal) want out clauses and they want them early – either by the end of spring training or by the beginning of May. The Tigers may not know who is really falling apart by mid-April and they may not know if their risky minor league free agent is worth calling up at that point either. If it’s a lower level minor league free agent, he’s probably not adding anything that the Tigers don’t already have in the organization in the form of guys like Casey Crosby and Jose Ortega.
What the Tigers need is a guy with a high probability of being a PREMIUM under-the-radar signing, but one who won’t actually be champing at the bit to be added to the roster until the Tigers know what they need. Last season there was a lot of discussion about signing The Beard to a deal midseason while he was rehabbing from injury. In the end Dombrowski decided that he didn’t want to wait that long (since he wasn’t close to ready when the Tigers were scouting him) and went the Jose Valverde route instead. Couldn’t have been a worse decision. Not only did Valverde stink, but as a result of not adding Brian Wilson as an asset for future use the Tigers were forced to deal for Jose Veras to fill the gaping hole in the setup role – in which he was fairly mediocre during the regular season and allowed some catastrophic hits in the postseason (which is why his option was not picked up). Wilson wound up signing a bargain deal on July 30 when he was finally healthy and pitching exceptionally well (an 0.66 ERA with an .878 WHIP for the Dodgers down the stretch as well as 6 scoreless innings in the postseason). If the Tigers had decided to bet on Wilson (and it’s unclear how much of that decision was theirs to make, Wilson had a preference for the West Coast) they could very well have been World Series champions instead of Boston. We’ll never know.
Wilson is no longer a high-risk, under-the-radar option but every offseason there are guys that fit that mold out there: guys that would be elite if healthy that no one wants to sign because they aren’t ready for the start of the season. Ryan Madson might be one, but he might also be “ready to go” at the beginning of the season (which isn’t really what the Tigers want). When considering what the Tigers need, it’s also worth bearing in mind that the greatest non-Cabrera risk to the Tigers season is that one of their 5 starters goes down with an injury. Unlike many other organizations the Tigers do not have anything approximating a 6th starter or quality swingman waiting in the wings. We might hope and pray that midway through the season Robbie Ray would look ready to handle big league action, but that’s not a bet you want to have to make. It’s pretty clear that Jose Alvarez wasn’t and isn’t going to be ready to provide more than replacement level 4-inning starts either. If you need a spot starter, you could get by with that but not if a horse goes down for the rest of the season. So… the Tigers have an extreme likelihood that they will need a good reliever to replace somebody by midseason, and should also be worried about the devastating impact of needing and not having a replacement starter.
There is a guy who could fill either of those needs by midseason, if he could be convinced to sign with Detroit. His name (as you have deduced from the title) is Johan Santana. Everybody that knows anything about baseball knows just how good Santana used to be, before the shoulder woes really got the better of him. Over the past 3 seasons, he hasn’t seen much action and he isn’t expected to be really ready to go until sometime this summer (like Wilson, but unlike Madson and probably Joel Hanrahan). It’s not unlikely that someone is going to have to take a gamble on him before he’s clearly ready to return or lose him to someone who is willing to make him that guarantee, I think that team should be Detroit. It seems fairly unlikely that Johan Santana is going to be able to pitch and just be mediocre. It seems less unlikely that, when he comes back, a bullpen role is going to prove most appropriate – he is a guy in his mid-30s with an injury history, and throwing fewer innings might help keep him healthy and prolong his career a la John Smoltz. He should also be looking for an opportunity to play on a big stage to make a case for himself in the 2014-2015 offseason and for a landing spot that would give him a good shot at the postseason (since that’s something everybody wants). Detroit should be able to make a better case than the Twins at least, even if they can only promise Santana that they would definitely find a bullpen spot for him when healthy and possibly fit him into the rotation if need were to arise. With Santana, like any other high-risk, high-reward signing the chance that he’ll have a setback and never throw a pitch in 2013 is non-trivial. Nonetheless, the only other way to even attempt to get that caliber of arm in the system as a backup plan would be signing an Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana in order to push Smyly/Porcello into the ‘pen which the team can’t afford and shouldn’t be willing to OR to deal whatever cream of the farm system is left in July for a rental.