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November 30, 2010

On the Beat

Tigers on the Off-Season Prowl

by John Perrotto

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The story was a potentially good one, and the members of the media who were on a conference call announcing the Tigers' signing of free agent Victor Martinez over the holiday weekend tried their best to get the catcher to help make it so. Everyone wanted to know what role Detroit first baseman Miguel Cabrera had in wooing his fellow Venezuelan to Detroit. It makes for a good story, considering that at the end of the 2009 season it seemed Cabrera would be persona non grata with the Tigers after getting into a drunken altercation with his wife on the penultimate day of the regular season while his team was in the process of blowing the last of what had been a seven-game lead in early September to the Twins in the American League Central.

However, Martinez wasn't playing along. Regardless of how the question was framed about Cabrera's role in his recruitment, Martinez kept coming back to one reason why he signed a four-year, $50 million contract with the Tigers. He felt they gave him the best chance to win even though he also had the chance to re-sign with the Red Sox and was also reportedly pursued heavily by the White Sox and Orioles. Martinez has been selected to four All-Star Games during his nine-year career but has yet to play in a World Series.

"The most important thing is that I can see how the Tigers try to improve the team each and every year," Martinez said. "They just put a good team on the field every year—a competitive team. That was one of the reasons I wanted to come here. It just gives you a greater chance to win a championship. That’s something I’m really looking forward to. I really want to win, and this was the place that I chose because it’s going to give me and the rest of the team a lot of chances to win a championship and World Series. I want that ring."

The Tigers have gone four seasons without a post-season berth since their surprising American League pennant and subsequent loss to the Cardinals in the 2006 World Series, Jim Leyland's first year as manager. That drought is something that eats at Leyland, who enters next season in the final year of his contract, and makes him readily admit that if he doesn't get the Tigers back to the postseason soon then owner Mike Ilitch would be justified in switching managers.

However, that players of Martinez's caliber keep coming to the Tigers is a testament to the strength of the franchise, even though it plays in the city most affected by the downturn in the United States' economy. Also remember that it was just seven years ago that the Tigers finished 43-119 and had to win five of their last six games to avoid breaking the modern-day record for losses in a season of 120 held by the 1962 Mets.

"I'm biased here, but I don't think there's a better place to play than Detroit," Leyland said. "We have a great owner that is committed to winning, a great organization, a great ballpark, and great fans. It's an attractive place to play."

Martinez was said to be adamant that he wanted to remain a catcher when he entered the free-agent market last month. Yet he was willing to take on a hybrid role with the Tigers in which he will primarily be a designated hitter while usually spelling catcher Alex Avila twice a week and playing first base on the rare occasions that Cabrera gets a day off.

"If I can do anything to get this team better, I want to," Martinez said. "I'm more than happy to do it. I come here because I want to win. I just want to win badly. I want that ring."

The Tigers have been looking for a World Series championship since the 1984 team got off to its memorable 35-5 start then crushed the Royals and Padres in the postseason. No one is saying the 2011 Tigers will stack up with that club, especially coming off a season in which they led the AL Central at the All-Star break but faded to an 81-81 finish. However, club president and general manager Dave Dombrowski has moved decisively so far this winter while the majority of teams are still in the punch/counter-punch stage.

The Tigers signed reliever Joaquin Benoit to a three-year, $16.5 million contract as a free agent to serve as the primary set-up man for closer Jose Valverde. The team also re-signed the left side of their infield to two-year contracts, retaining third baseman Brandon Inge for $11.5 million and shortstop Jhonny Peralta for $11.25 million.

"It's always been my belief that the best way to approach the offseason is to clearly identify your needs and then be very aggressive in filling them," Dombrowski said.

Even though the Tigers have already spent $89.25 million this winter, there have been reports that they are still after a big right-handed bat for the outfield, whether it's re-signing Magglio Ordonez or landing Jayson Werth on the free-agent market. Dombrowski, as usual, is playing things close to the vest.

"We would still like to do some things," Dombrowski said. "You're always looking to improve."

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The Astros are up for sale as Drayton McLane is looking to divest himself of the franchise he has owned for 18 years. However, despite the team being on the block, it is business as usual this winter for the Astros' front office.

"Our marching orders are the same, our discussions are the same, how we perceive the offseason to play out, all is in line with what we've discussed for the last three, four, five months," general manager Ed Wade said.

McLane had been considering selling the team for the last few years. He then decided to ramp up efforts once last season ended.

"We have no buyer in mind, but this is something we're going to explore," McLane said. "This has been a wonderful experience for Elizabeth and I and our families."

McLane bought the team for $117 million and is reportedly looking to resell it for more than five times that amount. He has retained Steve Greenberg of Allen & Company and grandson of Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg to help facilitate the sale. The New York investment bank is one of the foremost brokers of major deals in sports and entertainment. Greenberg feels a deal could be in place and possibly done before the 2011 season ends.

"If you have a great house that presents well with a beautiful garden and the lawn looks nice and it's a good neighborhood, it's a lot easier," Greenberg said. "The asset here is that the Astros are a great sports franchise in a great city. It is a lot of work. It takes time, but I think we will have a good result."

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The Rays beat out the two biggest spenders in the game in the Yankees and Red Sox to win the American League East last season. However, don't expect the Rays to generate nearly as many headlines as those two teams this winter.

Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman has plenty of moves to make. A majority of the bullpen became free agents last month along with first baseman Carlos Pena and left fielder Carl Crawford.

The Rays, though, are expected to significantly cut payroll after they reached a franchise high of $72 million this year. Thus, the Rays figure to do a lot of bargain shopping once the free-agent market begins to thin out, which likely won't happen until January.

"With us not having the most resources, relatively speaking, it's difficult for us to ever preempt a market," Friedman said. "So it's hard for us to say now how it's going to shake out. We have to be extra prepared and aggressive when an opportunity presents itself."

The Rays have made restocking their relief corps their main priority and would also like to add two hitters.

"I think we can get creative and add one or two bats that will help balance us offensively," Friedman said. "I don't mean to minimize the difficulty in doing so, I'm just more optimistic on that front than I am on the bullpen because inherently it's difficult to build a good bullpen, and to do so when you're looking to add four or five guys it makes it that much more difficult."

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Everybody deals with grief in his or her own way, and Reds first baseman Joey Votto admittedly had a very hard time coping with the death of his father in 2008. Votto missed 31 games the following season because of depression and anxiety, the root of which stemmed from trying to adjust to life without his dad. Thus, it was quite emotional last week when Votto was chosen as the National League Most Valuable Player.

"Not to be dramatic or anything, but after I was told I won I couldn't help but cry because I knew how much something like this meant to me and would have meant to my father," Votto said. "It's an individual award, but it's such a great accomplishment. It's the pinnacle of all the awards. It's a great moment. I have overcome a lot and I am very proud of myself."

Votto had a fine year in 2009 despite needing time off as he had a .331 TAv and 4.6 WARP. However, he increased those figures to .350 and 7.7 this year.

"It was a huge step," he said. "I had a difficult time getting over the death of someone that close to me and 2009 was a difficult year. Last (season) was quite a bit less difficult. I'm making progress in my life."

Votto was also proud that he finished ahead of Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, the two-time reigning MVP, in the voting. Pujols had a .344 TAv and 8.9 WARP, but Votto got 31 of the 32 first-place votes as the electorate was likely swayed by the Reds beating out the Cardinals for the NL Central title.

"It's pretty freaking awesome to beat Albert Pujols for the MVP Award," Votto said. "I don't like throwing the word great around. Albert is the only great guy I would mention. There are only four or five great players in our game. That's not a commentary on us. I just don't like using that word. Albert is a great player. Myself and Carlos (Gonzalez, the third-place finisher) are learning how to be major leaguers and establish ourselves. I think Carlos would agree with that."

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MLB Rumors & Rumblings: Among the marquee free agents, only Cliff Lee might pick a team by the time the Winter Meetings end next Thursday in Orlando as Carl Crawford and Werth aren't close to signing. … The deadline for tendering contracts to arbitration-eligible players is Thursday, and the notable names who might become free agents include White Sox closer Bobby Jenks; Braves outfielder Matt Diaz; Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya; Dodgers left-handed reliever George Sherrill, catcher Russell Martin, and infielder Ryan Theriot; Twins shortstop J.J. Hardy; Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett; Angels catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli; and Mets right-hander John Maine. … There is growing sentiment that Pena might re-sign with the Rays on a one-year contract, though he is also drawing interest from the Nationals, Cubs, and Blue Jays. … Free-agent relievers Jesse Crain and Jason Frasor are using Benoit's contract as a measuring stick in their own negotiations. … Despite making just one start in the past two seasons, right-hander Brandon Webb is a popular free-agent target, with the Cubs, Rockies, Pirates, Twins, and Rangers all showing interest. … The Rangers would still like to re-sign designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero despite failing to offer him arbitration. The Rays are ready to get involved if his price drops. … Lance Berkman is also drawing plenty of interest as he can play first base, left field, and designated hitter; the Cubs, Rockies, Athletics, Pirates, Cardinals, and Blue Jays are all interested. … The Mets would consider trading shortstop Jose Reyes, but as a front-office type of one club who has inquired about him said, "They want a whole helluva lot for him." … The Rockies, Yankees, and Phillies are among the teams who have inquired about free-agent super utilityman Bill Hall.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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