If the Tigers aren’t done dealing, they should go after Choo

Outfielder Shin-Soo Choo is one of the most coveted free agents still available.

Outfielder Shin-Soo Choo is one of the most coveted free agents still available.

The Prince Fielder and Doug Fister trades and the signing of Joe Nathan have left many Detroit Tiger fans with mixed feelings. The initial positive reaction to getting out from under Prince’s contract and getting Miguel Cabrera off third base have given way to new worries: Is the Tiger lineup weaker? Is the starting rotation less formidable?

And, most importantly, is general manager Dave Dombrowski done making changes this off-season? I think not. I think I know — or hope — what’s coming next.

By the end of last season, any fan could see that the Tigers’ daring experiment of having three DHs in the middle of the order had to end. Short of trying to get Victor Martinez to catch 100 games a year again — which would have been its own disaster — the only plausible solution was the Fielder trade.

That move made sense. And moving Drew Smyly into the rotation was overdue. It’s fair to ask, however, if trading Fister’s salary for Nathan’s (which is essentially what occurred) makes sense. Is a reliable though aged closer worth as much as the league’s best number four starter?

Did Dombrowski get enough for Fister? The kindest thing I heard any credible commentator say about this trade was that it was “puzzling.” Others ripped apart the trade as one-sided.

Accepting that the Tigers adequately assessed the upsides of the two lefty pitchers they got in return from the Nationals requires a leap of faith in the judgment of Dave D. Such faith, at least in the case of southpaw hurlers, already has been shown to be shaky (can you say Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth?) It’s impossible to say what Robbie Ray and Ian Krol may be worth in years to come.

Future value is important but unknown, and the Tigers need to keep contending now. It’s appalling how little present value they got for Fister; in fact, next to nothing. If Dombrowski wanted to fix the lefty side of the bullpen, why not spring for a proven LOOGY like Eric O’Flaherty? If they wanted a second Don Kelly (and isn’t one Don Kelly already one too many?), there are plenty of other utility guys better than Steve Lombardozzi available (and some that could play shortstop, where the Tigers have no backup). Yes, very puzzling.

For now the Tigers appear to have subtracted value. Based on Baseball Reference’s 2013 WAR ratings, the Tigers lost these wins: Fielder 1.7, Infante 2.4, Fister 4.1, Benoit 2.8 — that’s 11 wins — and gained these: Kinsler 4.9, Nathan 3.2.Krol 0.1, and Lombardozzi -0.5. That’s just 7.7 wins plus the unknown contributions of Castellano and Krol plus the hope for starter Smyly to yield more than the 2.6 WAR he contributed last year and for Bruce Rondon to add significantly to last year’s 0.5 WAR by taking over the job of set-up man full time.

In the best-case scenario, it looks like a wash and it’s probably a small step backwards. It leaves fans wondering how you trade a four-win player in his prime and get a net negative WAR in return? If the prospect starter in question were top-notch, maybe it makes sense, but that depends on whether Ray is potentially a star (as Dombrowski seems to feel) or a useful fourth starter (as most other prognosticators peg him).

Last year’s team was a fascinating experiment of maximizing offense at all costs. And it arguably worked pretty well until it didn’t — until Cabrera got hurt and Fielder slumped. But it wasn’t very pretty. The 2014 team will be more balanced and will nicely mix in younger talent (Iglesias, Castellanos, Rondon, Smyly) in more prominent roles. They’ll look more like a baseball team and less like a slow-pitch softball team. Tiger fans are right to worry that the offense isn’t as potent. But the defense is better. Smyly will probably be close to Fister, so the rotation is still solid. And Nathan makes the bullpen better — but only in the ninth.

With luck, they could still win it all with this roster. But what if Dombrowski isn’t done yet? When Fielder was traded, the widespread assumption was that the Tigers were freeing up money to sign Scherzer for the long term. But what if that’s not the plan? What if, instead, Detroit is planning to outbid the many suitors for Shin-Soo Choo?

Dombrowski may be willing to gamble it all on the idea that a championship will bring enough revenue to let the Tigers keep Mad Max anyway as they let aging stars Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez go after this season. If not, and Scherzer leaves next year, Ray should be ready to take his a rotation spot in 2015 or 2016, and the Tigers would still have a formidable starting rotation.

Choo had a WAR of 4.2 last year, so whatever it takes to add him would be worth it. Choo, the premiere leadoff man in the game right now, would make the offense much better than last year, getting Austin Jackson out of the leadoff spot and maximizing his RBI potential. I love the lineup of Choo, Kinsler, Miggy, V-Mart, Hunter, Jackson, Castellanos, Avila, and Iglesias: it has everything: on-base ability, power, and speed. With that lineup, with a great starting rotation, and with a proven closer, the Tigers would be World Series bound and pickin’ up steam.

Choo would be the last puzzle piece falling into place in Dombrowski’s master plan. I called the Fielder-Kinsler trade correctly. I’d be overjoyed to be right about this move too.

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About Michael Betzold

Author of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story and other books, former Detroit Free Press reporter Michael Betzold always wore #4 to honor his first hero, the "Sunday Punch," Charlie "Paw Paw" Maxwell.