Could Jose Iglesias' injury open door for Stephen Drew in Detroit?
Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias will open the 2014 season on the disabled list with a shin injury, general manager Dave Dombrowski said on Sunday, and reports from outside the organization indicate that Iglesias could miss the majority of the season with stress fractures in both shins. For now, the Tigers are waiting for an additional medical opinion on Iglesias and won't speculate about how long he will be out; Iglesias believes he will be able to play this season. They also won't cop to having a sudden interest in signing free agent Stephen Drew, though the confluence of Iglesias's injury, Drew's availability, and the Tigers' status as a win-now contender—with Max Scherzer, Victor Martinez, and Torii Hunter all entering their walk year—is so perfect that it's hard to believe that Detroit won't pursue Drew if Iglesias' prognosis is as dire as expected.
For the moment, however, the Tigers say they are focused on their internal options, which are underwhelming at best. Iglesias' injury has created a three-way battle for the shortstop job between 28-year-old organizational mainstay Danny Worth, Hernan Perez—who turns 23 next week and has 73 major league plate appearances under his belt—and 22-year-old Eugenio Suarez, who has never played above Double-A.
As a rookie in 2010, Worth started 24 games at shortstop for the Tigers before the team traded for Jhonny Peralta. He is by far the most experienced of the three, having played in 115 major league games, and is having the best spring, hitting .300/.389/.500 in 36 plate appearances. Worth is a non-roster invitee (Perez and Suarez are both on the 40-man roster), but would be an easy addition to the 40-man if Iglesias is placed on the 60-day disabled list. However, Worth is also a proven dud at the plate, having hit .242/.307/.315 in his 246 major league plate appearances and .248/.323/.359 in parts of seven minor league seasons, including a .223/.305/.308 line in Triple-A last year. Worth has also never played more than 80 games at shortstop in a single season at any level, and hasn't played more than 28 games at the position in a single season since 2008.
Perez, who was on the Tigers' postseason roster last year as a pinch-runner, played 124 games at shortstop as a 19-year-old in 2010, but has primarily been a second baseman since and has a weak offensive profile, as well. Perez does have speed and could steal 25 to 30 bases at a good percentage over a full season, but he is a career .256 hitter in the minors who doesn't take walks, has only modest doubles power, did next to nothing against major league pitching in 71 plate appearances last year, and isn't hitting this spring (.167 with a double and two walks in 34 PA).
Suarez is a true shortstop, one with a good defensive reputation at that, and has more ability at the plate than either Worth or Perez, showing both more power and more patience than either (though that's a low bar to clear in both cases, and some observers say it's Perez who has the most power of the trio). Still, that translated to a mere .253/.332/.387 line in his first look at Double-A last year, a performance which included his being caught on more than half of his stolen base attempts. It seems clear that Suarez, who also isn't hitting this spring (.231 with a double and a walk in 28 PA), isn't ready to make the jump to the major leagues.
Given that all three are right-handed hitters, there's no potential for a platoon here. The net effect is that the Tigers will effectively be punting the position unless they bring in outside help, with Drew once again being by far the most obvious and available solution. Drew would cost the Tigers their first-round pick in June's amateur draft, but the Tigers' pick is the 23rd overall, which comes at a point in the draft when first-round picks aren't as likely to yield franchise-altering talent.
There's an argument to be made that the Tigers should sign Drew even if Iglesias will be able to return by mid-season. That argument is based in part on the fact that Iglesias, despite his strong rookie showing, doesn't have an offensive profile that separates him from his three potential replacements, and despite his reputation as an elite fielder and a few outstanding highlight-reel plays, didn't grade out as anything special on defense last year.
The latter appears to be largely due to the amount of time Iglesias spent at third base while with the Red Sox last year, as his fielding numbers were much better when he was at shortstop with the Tigers. The concerns about his hitting remain, however. The 24-year-old Iglesias was a .257/.307/.314 career hitter in the minors and, even after hitting .303 last year, has a career .325 on-base percentage and .354 slugging percentage after 465 major league plate appearances. Iglesias hit just .259/.306/.348 after joining the Tigers at the trading deadline, and his .330 batting average with the Red Sox from earlier in the year occurred over just 234 plate appearances and with the help of an inflated .376 batting average on balls in play.
Drew, meanwhile, is an above-average fielder who compensates for middling batting averages by taking his share of walks and hitting for modest power, averaging double-digits in triples and home runs per 162 games. If Drew could be had on a one-year contract, his presence would greatly improve the Tigers' outlook this season and, potentially, into the postseason.
As it is, the Tigers have bid farewell to Peralta, Prince Fielder, Doug Fister, Omar Infante, Avisail Garcia, and Brayan Peña in the last eight months and, if Iglesias is lost for the year, have only Ian Kinsler, utilityman Steve Lombardozzi, and lefty reliever Ian Krol to show for it on their major league roster. They have also lost incumbent leftfielder Andy Dirks, who was set to be the strong side of a lefty/righty platoon with free agent addition Rajai Davis, for roughly half the year following back surgery.
With Kinsler at second, Davis in left, Drew Smyly moving into the rotation to replace Fister, and top prospect Nick Castellanos taking over third base, allowing Miguel Cabrera to return to first in Fielder's stead (thus improving the team's infield defense), the Tigers' only glaring hole remains shortstop, but their depth has been sapped. Their bench currently projects to consist of one of the three competitors for the shortstop job, twin weak-hitting utility men Lombardozzi and Don Kelly (neither of whom is viable at shortstop), and backup catcher Bryan Holaday, who may wind up platooning with left-handed-hitting starter Alex Avila.
That's problematic for a team that's punting one position, has an unproven rookie starting at another, and a player assuming a role larger than intended at a third. Signing Drew could solve one of those three problems and take some of the pressure off Castellanos, who has had a hot spring, hitting .415/.432/.707 with just three strikeouts in 44 plate appearances, but has just 18 major league plate appearances to his name and has yet to collect his first major league walk or extra-base hit. Truth be told, the Tigers are a good bet to win their division with or without Drew or Iglesias (the Indians and Royals both played over their heads last year), but the challenge for the Tigers isn't so much the regular season as the playoffs. As they continue to chase their first championship since 1984, it's hard to argue that signing the shortstop from last year's champions, much as he might have struggled in October, won't increase Detroit's chances of capturing that elusive ring.