Over the last few years, we’ve seen several players with stalled markets become the beneficiary of an unexpected serious injury. Prince Fielder failed to generate interest at the price that he was asking until Victor Martinez blew out his knee and the Tigers suddenly had an opening in their line-up. Ervin Santana apparently wasn’t all that interested in playing in Baltimore or Toronto, so Kris Medlen‘s elbow problems led him to Atlanta. One team’s needs in November and December might not be the same as their needs in February or March, and while players who sign late generally get less money than players who sign early, needs can develop that increase demand for a player closer to Opening Day.
So, naturally, when news broke on Saturday that Jose Iglesias was going to miss at least four months and maybe the entire season, all eyes turned to Stephen Drew. He’s the only free agent SS of substance left on the market, a solid contributor who held down the position for the defending World Champs a year ago and would perhaps even be an upgrade over Iglesias for the 2014 season. Drew’s market has been essentially non-existent at the price that Scott Boras is asking for, but the Tigers make all kinds of sense for Drew.
They’re a contender with a sudden need for a shortstop, they pick towards the end of the first round, they’ve historically been willing to give up draft picks to sign free agents, and they’re a strong contender with a real shot at winning the World Series. Once Iglesias’ injury became known, the general assumption is that Drew would be in camp with the Tigers within a few days. Except the obvious fit isn’t such an obvious fit for Dave Dombrowski, who has reportedly suggested to local media that he will not pursue Drew as a replacement for Iglesias. And in this instance, I think he’s entirely correct: the Tigers do not need Stephen Drew.
This isn’t because I believe strongly in the value of Hernan Perez, Don Kelly, or Eugenio Suarez. The Tigers internal solutions for replacing Iglesias essentially define replacement level, as none of them should be expected to hit at all and none makes up for it with Iglesias-style defense. If pressed into action, they will look like utility players being asked to carry a load above their pay grade, and the Tigers will see a real drop-off in value at shortstop.
It isn’t a question of whether or not Drew is better than the Tigers’ existing options; he is, unquestionably. But adding Drew isn’t simply as easy as “he’s an upgrade, so let’s sign him”, because the marginal impact of adding Drew now versus waiting a few months to collect some information simply isn’t likely to move the Tigers odds of reaching the postseason much at all.
The math is the easy part. Drew projects as roughly a two win player for 2014, and would keep them around a forecast level of 90 wins, which is where they were pre-Iglesias injury; without either, they’re probably closer to an 88 win team. But the question the Tigers are asking isn’t really Drew versus full season performances of a replacement level player, or players. There’s no reason to think that signing Drew will be their only chance to upgrade the position this year, and even if teams aren’t selling shortstops before the All-Star break that often, the lost value between signing Drew now and waiting until the summer to evaluate their options is likely to cost them roughly one win.
At that point, they may still very well be able to sign Drew himself, and his cost of acquisition will come down once the draft pick compensation no longer attaches in mid-June. If the Tigers think that Boras is serious about holding Drew out until after the draft if he doesn’t get an offer to their liking, then it is quite possible that the Tigers could simply sign Drew for the final 3 1/2 months of the season without surrendering the 23rd pick in the draft, and the lost value that comes with not having him for April and May would be of little impact on the team’s overall expected record.
Or, other options may very well present themselves. The Tigers have not said that Iglesias is out for the year, and they should have a better understanding of his ability to return for the stretch run by mid-summer. If Iglesias’ legs heal, the need to acquire a full-time shortstop diminishes greatly, and they could simply turn towards acquiring a stop-gap type who would give them insurance in case Iglesias got hurt again. A guy like Cliff Pennington might be more useful than a guy like Drew if Iglesias looks like he could play again in 2014.
And even if Iglesias is out for the year, well, the Tigers still don’t really need Drew that badly. As we’ve noted before, no team has a larger cushion in their division than the Tigers in the AL Central; the Indians are projected as the second best AL Central team with an expected record of 83-79. The Royals, who are seen as an up-and-coming challenger, project as a .500 team, according to our calculations. Even knocking the Tigers down by a win or two, they’re still going to be the prohibitive favorites to win that division. The rest of their roster is so good that they can run away from Cleveland and Kansas City even with Hernan Perez starting at shortstop.
The Tigers shouldn’t go into August with Perez, Kelly, or Suarez as their regular SS for the stretch run, but not signing Drew now doesn’t mean that is the alternative. There will be shortstops available in trade this summer. Iglesias might be able to come back for the postseason. Drew could still be a free agent in a few months, only without the draft pick tax in place. The Tigers are not choosing between a full year of Drew and a full year of Scrubby McScrubberson. For right now, the choice is what they should pay for a shortstop for the next few months of the season. Given their cushion in the division and the limited marginal difference between a few months of an average player and a replacement level player, they can afford to sit around and collect more information.
It’s an unfortunate injury for Detroit, but they aren’t the Braves. They don’t need every last marginal upgrade in order to keep up with a team like Washington. The mediocrity of the AL Central gives them flexibility, and Dave Dombrowski is right to use it. If the kids can’t hack it, they can adjust, but there simply isn’t that much to lose by telling Drew that they may or may not have interest in a few months if he wants to wait until after the draft to sign.