The Tigers are the earliest winners of this offseason. In a players' market, they already added two exceptionally talented guys -- Victor Martinez, an excellent hitter, and Joaquin Benoit, a dominant reliever. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, who engineered the deals, said, "We've been happy so far.''
Without reading too much into that phrasing, the Tigers are still seen as a threat for more, perhaps much more. An awe-inspiring $50 million came off their books from the 2010 payroll, even if one doesn't count Brandon Inge and Jhonny Peralta, who were quickly re-signed before the market really got going. Among the others removed from the payroll are Magglio Ordoñez (who remains a candidate to return at a lesser rate than the whopping $18 million he made last year), underperforming pitchers Dontrelle Willis (who already is on to his second new team since the Tigers dispatched him), Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson.
With a majority of the newfound payroll money still unspent, folks around the game speculate that the Tigers could be in the market for even more spending. "I wouldn't get that into that publicly,'' said Dombrowski about that question, though he also said. "We did clear an exceptional amount of payroll. We wanted to be proactive.'' And they are exactly that. It also doesn't hurt to have one of baseball's most proactive owners, Mike Ilitch, who despite operating in downtrodden Detroit, has done his part for years to invest in players and try to bring a winner to the city. "We're trying to win a world championship,'' Dombrowski said. "We're making moves to try to do that.''
The moves so far are nothing short of excellent and add to a team that starts with a bona fie ace (Justin Verlander) and an everyday superstar (Miguel Cabrera). Martinez, who signed for $50 million over four years, is a career .300 hitter with power and joins the middle of an order that is anchored by Cabrera, who finished second in the AL MVP voting last season and may be at his peak. Benoit, who signed for $16.5 million over three years, brings a superb righthanded arm to a bullpen that is already stacked with them (Jose Valverde, Joel Zumaya and Ryan Perry are hard-throwing holdovers). Benoit dominated in the set-up role for Tampa Bay last year after the Rays rehabbed and resurrected him, positing a 0.68 WHIP and pitching as dominantly as their star closer Rafael Soriano, only in a slightly less intense role. In a market strong on talented relievers, Benoit is a standout.
Before locking up V-Mart, the Tigers considered Adam Dunn, who is believed to be seeking slightly more (about $60 million) than V-Mart got, but Dombrowski said, "We needed a bat that was not just a DH.'' And with Cabrera set at first base, Dunn would have just been a DH for them. "Victor gives us more versatility,'' Dombrowski said. "Dunn's as good a power hitter as there is in the game. Victor hits for a higher average. Both are very good.''
There's been speculation that might even look to add another huge bat, perhaps even Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth, with their excess riches. And once again, Dombrowski responded, "I wouldn't get into that'' to the question of whether yet another major offensive player has been targeted. (The two major marks of Dombrowski's mostly successful tenure in Detroit are 1) bold moves, and 2) tight lips.)
They've been in contact with Ordoñez, whose ankle injury that ended this past season is not thought serious. But the rumors persist that they may have their eye on someone even bigger than Ordoñez. The Angels are favored for Crawford and probably the Red Sox are for Werth, but the Tigers "shouldn't be counted out'' one admiring competing executive said.
There are lots of ways they can go from here. They could try to get into the mix to trade for available star pitcher Zack Greinke of the Royals. Thanks to some very aggressive drafting and a willingness to spend on the picks that rivals the Yankees and Red Sox, they have the young pitchers in Jacob Turner and Andy Oliver who could interest Kansas City.
After beating out the incumbent Red Sox and Orioles for Martinez, the Tigers' plan is to catch him two to three times a week, with Alex Avila, the son of Tigers assistant GM Al Avila, being used as the main catcher, Dombrowski said. The signing of V-Mart has been generally praised, as it's known that the Orioles and Red Sox weren't that far behind in the bidding. But some folks have wondered about the three years for Benoit, who's had some shoulder concerns in the past. But Dombrowski said he knew there was at least one more team at $15 million for three years (he declined to say who), and said, "We looked at him as the No 1 set-up guy in the league, and felt very good about his medicals. Ideally, we would have signed him for two years. But if we offered two years we wouldn't have (gotten) him.
As it stands they got two players who greatly enhanced the Tigers, and perhaps whet the appetite of Tigers' fans, who are wondering if there's even more to come.
• The time is now for the Royals to trade Greinke. An acquaintance of his said, "He is ready to go.'' That could be partly because his partial no-trade list expires late this season. The Rangers, seen as a potential second-place finisher in the Cliff Lee derby, have been viewed as the favorite. Greinke has an extensive no-trade list but he's said to be willing to consider a lot of different options. Even if he will OK some teams on his list, friends of his say New York is not a good fit for Greinke, who has successfully battled anxiety and is said to prefer a smaller city. Other teams that might have the prospects and financial wherewithal to pull off a Greinke trade could include the Tigers, Orioles and Braves. While momentum is gathering for a Greinke trade, a Royals person said it "would have to be a blockbuster to move him.''
• The Rockies were wise to lock up Troy Tulowitzki, a superstar shortstop who wanted to stay in Colorado. And boy is he ever staying -- for 10 years and $157 million total. The Rockies probably believes it's going to be hard to keep Carlos Gonzalez long-term since he is represented by Scott Boras, based on their past experience with Matt Holliday and their budget limitations. So Tulo was a natural, getting a $119-million extension on top of a $15-million 2014 option the Rockies agreed to pick up and the three years that existed on his previous contract.
• It didn't hurt the Rockies that both Tulowitzki and pitcher Jorge De La Rosa are represented by the TWC tandem of Paul Cohen and Bobby Barad, and that both clients wanted to stay and continue to play with each other. As the sides kept talking about Tulo, it led to more discussion about De La Rosa. Cohen joked that he's "getting a condo in Denver'' after all the attention he's given to the Rockies in recent days. De La Rosa's deal, which is for three years and $32 million, with the third year being three-year, $32 million deal, with the third year a player option and the fourth year a team option, was a solid one for the agent even in a tight pitching market. De La Rosa had bounced around for a while but finally settled down in Colorado, and is said to really love their pitching coach, Bob Apodaca.
• There is new optimism for a Derek Jeter deal after Yankees GM Brian Cashman and co-owner Hal Steinbrenner met with Derek Jeter and Jeter's agent, Casey Close, in Tampa on Tuesday. Word is that Hal Steinbrenner wants to get a deal done and is willing to enhance their initial $45 million, three-year bid (though it's been suggested that brother Hank has no interest in budging). With Hal in charge, a deal will very likely be done.
• The world champion Giants ended any Jeter speculation for them when they agreed to a deal with free-agent Miguel Tejada. Sources confirm the deal, which was reported by Enrique Rojas of ESPN Deportes, to be for $6.5 million. The Giants were one intriguing possibility for Jeter since their GM, Brian Sabean, was the head of the Yankees' minor-league department when Jeter was picked by the Yankees in 1992. Sabean succeeded with older shortstop Edgar Renteria, and he must feel comfortable with Tejada. Pablo Sandoval remains the third baseman, though Giants people are urging him to get on a workout program that works. The Rays still had talks with the Giants about Jason Bartlett after acquiring Tejada, but it's believed they offered little since they now view Bartlett as only insurance in case Sandoval doesn't shape up and bounce back.
• According to a friend of Andy Pettitte's, "he will return to the Yankees as long as the offer isn't insulting.'' Pettitte has been thought unlikely to retire after a dissatisfying season, but so far Pettitte hasn't indicated officially that he wants to keep playing, at least not to the Yankees. The Rangers would have interest, as well, but people close to Pettitte say he prefers to remain a Yankee.
• At least a couple teams are said to be "laying in the weeds'' for top free-agent Cliff Lee. But the Yankees are still everyone's strong favorite to sign Lee, who does not seem afraid of New York and seeks top dollar. The incumbent Rangers and aggressive Nationals are also known to have strong interest, as are the Astros and presumably several others.
• Padres superstar Adrian Gonzalez underwent offseason shoulder surgery, but his agent, John Boggs, said, "I think he's going to be ready for Opening Day. I don't think there's any doubt about that. Everything's going as planned or better.'' The conventional wisdom is that the Padres take Gonzalez into the season, but a trade still can't be ruled out. The Red Sox retain hope they can land Gonzalez, their intended target for a year now, if not shortly after seeing him in spring training then sometime in the season. Boston has the young players to land Gonzalez, including Lars Anderson, Jacoby Ellsbury, Daniel Bard, Jed Lowrie and others, and one Boston person said he believed a deal could get done without including top pitching prospect Casey Kelly.
• Boston's chances to retain Adrian Beltre aren't believed to be great, though the team remains interested. If Beltre bolts, they'll most likely move Kevin Youkilis to third base and sign a stop-gap one-year first baseman. One possibility could be Derrek Lee, an excellent player coming off a so-so season with the Cubs and Braves. Another is Adam LaRoche. Of lesser note on the free agent first base list are Ty Wigginton and Troy Glaus. The Sox don't seem to be considering Carlos Peña, who appears more likely to go to the Nationals or Cubs.
• One scout opined that the Dodgers did well to get Blake Hawksworth for Ryan Theriot since Theriot looked like a non-tender candidate following L.A.'s acquisition of postseason hero Juan Uribe for $21 million over three years. "Hawksworth is a usable guy whose best pitch is the changeup,'' the scout said. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the Giants' offered $20 million for three for Uribe.
• The Cardinals aren't necessarily done tinkering with their infield setup even after acquiring Theriot. They've been in a talks for Bartlett, because they want to improve their depth while at the same time saving the big money to keep superstar Albert Pujols in St. Louis.
• The Rays' bullpen has been -- at least temporarily -- decimated with Benoit gone to Detroit and Grant Balfour and Randy Choate joining closer Rafael Soriano in declining arbitration. They are collecting draft choices, but they need relievers now. Tampa Bay did a terrific job last year putting together a great bullpen, but this may be an even bigger challenge.
• The Twins are expected to have little trouble signing Tsuyoshi Nishioka following winning the rights to bid on him for a reported figure of just over $5 million.
• Orlando Hudson remains on the free-agent market after declining arbitration. He's been going year-to-year the past few years but could be an asset to several teams.
• Dunn may have been hurt by being squeezed out of Detroit, and his strong preference to play the field might hurt him since some teams see him as a DH. The Cubs and Orioles are two teams that seem more interested in better defensive first baseman.
• Texas wants to bring back Vladimir Guerrero but appears reluctant to give him the two-to-three year deal he seeks.
• The Giants have some interest in bringing back Pat Burrell, but that may be a back-burner issue.
• The Rangers were not unhappy that Frank Francisco agreed to accept arbitration, tying him to the team for another year. Francisco was a Type A free-agent, which is tough for relievers who aren't slam-dunk closers. He and top Blue Jays reliever Jason Frasor, another Type A free-agent, were the only players to accept arbitration.
• The Dodgers will try to get Russell Martin signed to a contract before Thursday's tender date because they wouldn't offer Martin the chance for arbitration, which would mean a raise from the $5.05 million he made in 2010. Any offer before Thursday would have to be for at least $4.04 million since players under control can't be cut more than 20 percent. They are considering other catchers, as well, in case the Martin talks don't produce a contract. Remaining free-agent catchers include A.J. Pierzynski, Rod Barajas, Miguel Olivo and Jason Varitek.
• The Mets are expected to non-tender John Maine and probably also Sean Green.
• Ollie Perez has strung together some scoreless innings in winter ball but the Mets would still be expected to pay about $11 million of the $12 million on Perez's remaining salary if they can find a suitor for him. It seems untenable to take Perez north with the team following a brutal 2010 season.