Inside Pitch: Winter Meetings Focus

Once again the Tigers head into the Winter Meetings having already completed most of their heavy lifting. What will be the focus this year at the annual gathering?

GM Dave Dombrowski enters the winter meetings with a one-line "to-do" list -- and maybe not even that.

Dombrowski filled the hole in his starting rotation, as expected, with the Friday announcement that the Tigers had re-signed free agent left-hander Kenny Rogers to a one-year deal at roughly $8 million with incentives.

He also did something unusual in moving to address a hole in the bullpen, giving relative unknown right-hander Francisco Cruceta a guaranteed major league contract off his performance last season in Triple-A and this year in winter ball.

The Tigers weren't crazy about entering the free agent market for a starter on a long-term contract, and signing Rogers allows them to avoid that. Cruceta, who served a 50-game suspension for a positive banned-substance test result, was drawing attention for posting a 3.02 ERA in 25 Class AAA games plus a 1.08 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 16 2/3 innings in the Dominican Winter League.

Dombrowski sent special assistant scout Dick Egan to watch Cruceta, and he "came back and said, 'I think he can pitch for our club right now in a very important role with what he has,' " the GM said. "And he's seen him numerous times in the past. So when he sign him, we're talking about a guy who throws in the mid-90s who looks like he's finally starting to mature.

"It's something you're always evaluating. Do you think that the dollars you're spending and the length of contract you're spending merit that type of financial situation? For us, we signed Todd (Jones) as the closer. We have Fernando (Rodney), who we feel real good about coming in and having a good year for us. We still feel hopeful that (Joel) Zumaya will be back, and I just don't think it's one where we felt comfortable to spend big dollars in that area based upon where we are as an organization."

So Detroit will go to the winter meetings looking only for something that might fall into its lap -- a cheap back-end starter on a short-term contract, a reliever who might be an upgrade and won't cost a great deal. But, more than likely, the only thing the Tigers will look for is a left-handed bat for use off the bench.

"It's been a more active trade market all winter," Dombrowski said, "so I would expect that to continue. It seems like anytime you get into meetings like that, it makes conversations easier. There have been some big names discussed from what's been in the paper. I think it will be an active time."

--LHP Kenny Rogers re-signed with Detroit as a free agent Nov. 30, agreeing to an $8 million contract. Rogers, 43, pitched only 11 games (3-4, 4.43 ERA) because of two separate injuries last season, but the tipoff he was serious about returning to the Tigers was when he fired his agent, Scott Boras, to short-circuit the search process. "We are pleased to have Kenny back in a Tigers uniform for the 2008 season," president/CEO/GM Dave Dombrowski said. "Kenny is a veteran presence that stabilizes our starting rotation." Rogers said, "I think everyone knows that I'm ecstatic about being back with Detroit. This was pretty much my only decision. It was pretty much an easy one. Me changing representation, I guess you could say, was more so my desire to stay with Detroit. It had nothing to do with Scott as an agent or an attorney. He's as good or better than anyone else out there. But my position was (to re-sign) with Detroit. If I felt like being a true free agent, Scott would still be my representative. But in my heart of hearts, I felt like I didn't want to pitch anywhere else."

--DH Gary Sheffield has started the rehabilitation program for his surgically repaired right shoulder, which means he should be able to participate when spring training rolls around. "It's still early in the process, but, if anything, there's reason for optimism," said Rufus Williams, Sheffield's attorney. "There have been no complications since the surgery."

Sheffield, 39, underwent arthroscopic surgery on Oct. 8 to repair a torn labrum and remove bone chips from the shoulder. Detroit was told Sheffield should be able to hit during spring training but may not be ready to play in the outfield.

"He's progressing well," Williams said. "The rehab will go as his body takes it. I'm sure he's going to pick up (more activity) as time goes along."

Sheffield hit .265 with 25 home runs and 75 RBIs in 133 games this year.

--LHP Casey Crosby cost Detroit $748,500 to sign last summer -- plus the cost of Tommy John surgery. Crosby, 19, underwent successful ligament replacement surgery on his left elbow Nov. 27 by Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala. Crosby, the Tigers' fifth-round draft choice, is expected to miss the 2008 season.

"There is no doubt in my mind, or in anybody else's mind, that he'll be able to rebound from this," said Dan Lunetta, Detroit's director of minor league operations. "Unfortunately, this happened very early in his career, but we know the success rate of pitchers who have had Tommy John surgery. We all feel quite assured that he'll come back and pitch effectively, but it will be an extended period of time before that happens. We're not going to rush him back. It does not serve a purpose for him to make an attempt to pitch competitively that late in the (2008) season."

Crosby experienced elbow discomfort after a promising first outing in the Tigers' Instructional League in October, and club officials postponed his next start. He felt even more soreness following his second start, which led to examination and surgery.

--RHP Rick Porcello, Detroit's $7.28 million, first-round draft choice, had a very impressive Instructional League, according to Tigers officials. Porcello took a regular turn against Detroit's top prospects and also those of Cleveland and Atlanta, drawing raves from minor league pitching coach Jon Matlack and director of player development Glenn Ezell. "I don't know what he'll pitch at," Matlack said, "but he hit 97 (mph) numerous times and worked comfortably at 94-95. He has two quality breaking balls (overhand curve and slider), which are occasionally above-average, and one of which I believe will become better than average. And he has a plus changeup. He can do things with his fastball: sink it, run it in, ride it. He is far, far advanced beyond just about anyone 18 years old I've ever worked with."

"I worked with a young guy by the name of Jon Matlack when he was 18 1/2 or 19," Ezell said. "I said to Porcello, 'There's only one other youngster your age who came out of high school who commanded his delivery and carried himself like you, and that was Jon Matlack, who happens to be your pitching instructor.' He didn't have your velocity, but he had your location."

The Tigers are likely to start Porcello at low Class A West Michigan next season, bumping him up a notch if warranted.

"I think the biggest challenge for Porcello, for any young guy coming into professional ball, is going into his first 140-game schedule," Ezell said. "It's grueling. He's going to learn at a young age, with a lot of help, how he's got to progress each day to get ready."

--CF Curtis Granderson spoke to athletes at Southern Methodist on Nov. 26-27, passing along some traits he thinks translate from athletics to other fields. Granderson is developing as a baseball spokesman following only his second full season in the majors. He was scheduled for a December tour of South Africa as an ambassador for baseball, his second overseas trip in that role in two years. Granderson also worked as a studio analyst for ESPN and TBS during this year's postseason.

--Detroit has signed five players to minor league contracts, including RHP Aquilino Lopez, who pitched 10 games with the Tigers last season. Also signed were RHPs Gabe Benitez and Preston Larrison, along with C Nick Trzesniak and INF Erick Almonte. Benitez spent the 2007 season with high Class A Lakeland, where he struck out 54 batters in 60 1/3 innings. Larrison appeared in 45 games with Class AAA Toledo, going 2-2 with a 3.84 ERA. Lopez had a 5.19 ERA for Detroit but was 3-5 with a 2.35 ERA and 26 saves in 48 appearances with the Mud Hens. Trzesniak batted .299 in 33 games with Class AA Erie after signing with the Tigers as a minor league free agent on June 23. Almonte saw action with both Class AAA Toledo and Erie, hitting .276 in 38 games with the Mud Hens and .293 in 50 games for the SeaWolves.

BY THE NUMBERS: 14.3 -- Average number of at-bats per strikeout for 2B Placido Polanco, second among active major league players with 1,000 career plate appearances. It's the best ratio for an active right-handed hitter.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think guys in my position who have been around for a while, I think we understand where we fit into any market, but also how much it means to play in the place that you enjoy. That has value, and sometimes a very significant value. I wasn't really worried about how to go about this process. I've been basically involved in this process for, what, 20-some years. I felt like I had a relationship here that I was comfortable with, and I think I could be honest." -- Free agent LHP Kenny Rogers on why he fired his agent, Scott Boras, and negotiated his return to Detroit by himself.

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