Tigers down starting shortstop, but hardly out
Expect GM Dombrowski to swiftly find solution with Iglesias on the shelf
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Hey, at least the Tigers know who their closer is.
That would be Joe Nathan, a $20 million answer to the question that has plagued them since Jose Valverde lost track of the strike zone.
You also can't miss that they've got a two-time defending American League MVP Award winner at first base, one of the game's true igniters at second base, a very promising hitter at third base and arguably the best starting rotation in the game.
They may not have a qualified shortstop as we speak, but you can bet that they will before the Comerica Park carousel starts spinning. That's because they're also blessed with one of the best executives in the game in Dave Dombrowski and backed by an owner in Mike Ilitch who has relentlessly provided funding to fix holes as they appear.
Looking in from the outside, the potentially season-ending health situation with shortstop Jose Iglesias seems like a disaster for a Prince Fielder-less Tigers team built around speed and defense. But for Dombrowski and his staffers, it's just the latest reason for them to do what they've done since he and top assistants Al Avila, Scott Reid, John Westhoff migrated to Detroit from Florida 12 seasons ago.
"It is what it is," Dombrowski said about being unsettled at shortstop 10 days before breaking camp. "It's always something. Something's always the focus, when it comes down to those things. As I've often said, if you have a club, you as a club are always looking to get better. [But] as soon as you address whatever you think the weakest part of your team is, well, you're not done, it's not over. You [now] have something else that is the weakest part of your club."
That's true. But when you've already committed a record of $160 million to the pursuit of winning the World Series, can you really take comfort in the view from 10,000 feet?
While the Tigers won't know how long to expect to be without Iglesias until they get a report from his trip to see Dr. Thomas Clanton on Tuesday in Colorado, they are well down the road toward exploring a variety of possible replacements. There are internal ones and those befitting the aggressive nature of the Ilitch/Dombrowski partnership, such as free agent Stephen Drew and possible trade targets, the most viable of which might be the Cubs' Darwin Barney (no, not Jimmy Rollins, unless he switches his view on waiving a no-trade clause).
"We have to find a shortstop by March 31," manager Brad Ausmus said before a split-squad team of Tigers pounded Ricky Romero, Marcus Stroman and the Blue Jays on Tuesday; while Hernan Perez, a 22-year-old Venezuelan, was playing shortstop at Joker Merchant Stadium, another 22-year-old Venezuelan, Eugenio Suarez, was in Port St. Lucie, Fla., playing against the Mets.
Yet another Venezuelan shortstop, Omar Vizquel, coached first base for Detroit. Why not talk him out of retiring?
"He probably could do it, but it'd be asking a lot of him at age 46," said Ausmus, smiling. "I don't think we could get him 50 at-bats by the end of spring at this point."
That wasn't the only time on Tuesday that Ausmus showed a sense of humor. He jumped into the conversation when I referred to shortstop as baseball's most important position.
"Catcher," Ausmus said.
Of course he did. No position produces more future managers, with Ausmus one of 11 former catchers currently managing in the big leagues. Unlike most of the others, he was given a chance to take over a team that was already built to win big, although following an icon like Jim Leyland comes with its own set of challenges.
It's been an interesting first Spring Training for Ausmus. Back surgery sidelined platoon left fielder Andy Dirks for half a season, and Ian Kinsler, acquired from Texas in the out-of-nowhere Fielder trade, was in the news for saying bad things about his former manager, Ron Washington. Bruce Rondon, a focal point last spring, has started dazzling scouts since he was taken out of the equation for closer.
But that probably didn't dominate conversations when Dombrowski met with Ausmus on Tuesday.
"It's a different dynamic in that you're talking to somebody different, but he's handled it very well," Dombrowski said about Ausmus. "It doesn't surprise me, because he has that type of background. He's been able to react -- 'OK, let's go. What do we do next?'"
Everybody wants to know.
Dombrowski points out that no one was expecting Iglesias to be "an offensive force," but nevertheless he was being counted on as an impact player in his own way. Drew Smyly, who threw five scoreless innings against Toronto, calls Iglesias "one of the top defenders in Major League Baseball." He's been seen as part of a massive defensive improvement for the Tigers, who are hoping to win more 3-2 and 2-1 games this season than in recent years.
"Pitching and defense wins championships," Ausmus said. "They've had that phrase for years, and shortstop is a premium defensive position. Certainly you need somebody who catches and throws the ball consistently, especially when you have the type of pitching we have. ... Most organizations in the last couple of years have switched back to the idea that high-scoring games are going to be more rare. Defense becomes more important."
Ausmus said he's assuming the Opening Day shortstop will be Perez (who had an up-and-down Tuesday, with a triple and a throwing error), Suarez or the versatile Danny Worth, who played third base against the Blue Jays. But his three seasons as a special assistant to Padres general managers Jed Hoyer and Josh Byrnes taught Ausmus how teams are always exploring outside options.
Detroit could pull the trigger at any point between now and Opening Day in Kansas City, or the Tigers could play the cards they're holding. Dombrowski's history suggests the former, not the latter, even if he said this is more business as usual than a late-spring crisis.
"It's a constant evaluation of keeping abreast of everything," Dombrowski said. "That's why you have scouts out there looking. That's why you are accumulating information. It's why you read box scores, read notes and talk to GMs and talk to your scouts, try to have as much of a pulse of what is going on at a particular time -- for whatever else could happen out of the blue."
Ausmus said he hopes the shortstop position isn't unsettled for too long. He wants Iglesias' replacement to get time working with Kinsler. But there is no one right answer for the problem Detroit is facing, just as there is no easy answer.
Ausmus was asked if it would be a problem if the Tigers added a shortstop at the end of Spring Training, limiting his time working with Kinsler.
"Depends on who it was," he said.
And he laughed.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.