Tigers pass on extending offers to free-agent trio
Club won't receive compensation if Benoit, Infante and Peralta leave
DETROIT -- The Tigers have free agents they're interested in re-signing. Bringing them back at $14.1 million, however, is another matter.
That, in essence, was team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski's reason for not making qualifying offers to any of their free agents. In every case, the choice was fairly obvious. While the reward of a Draft pick as compensation should free agents sign elsewhere would be enticing, the risk of adding another huge salary to an already heavy payroll wasn't worth it.
The question the Tigers now must debate in organizational meetings this week is how much money some of their free agents will draw, and how high they're willing to go to keep any of them.
They have interest in re-signing Joaquin Benoit, whose transition from setup reliever to closer has the 36-year-old in a nice position on the market. With so many closers on the free-agent market, however, the Tigers are going to have their choice.
After going last offseason without a proven closer, having passed up free agents in a thin market, they're making it a priority to find one this year.
"We're going to have a closer," Dombrowski said Sunday. "We're going to pursue somebody to pitch at the back end of the bullpen. Joaquin is in that group, but there are a lot of closers out there. It's the one area where there's a lot of guys.
"That is one area I think we need to address with [Benoit] or someone else, and then we'll look at the rest of our club."
Benoit said when the Tigers' postseason run ended last month that he'd like to be back, but that he wanted to wait until the offseason before thinking about free agency. When he signed with the Tigers a few years ago, Detroit's willingness to offer a three-year contract -- rather than two seasons and an option year -- was a determining factor, so a multiyear contract is expected to be a goal for him now.
A one-year contract would give Detroit the flexibility to groom Bruce Rondon for another season in setup relief, then move him into the job in 2015. For the Tigers to pursue a free-agent closer, though, a one-year deal probably isn't realistic.
Among the closers on the market are former Twins and Rangers reliever Joe Nathan, a longtime Tigers nemesis who's 36-for-36 in save opportunities against Detroit for his career. Beyond him, there's former Tigers closer Fernando Rodney, who revived his career closing for the Rays the past two years, Oakland's Grant Balfour and Cleveland's Chris Perez.
"We'll know a lot more coming out of meetings, but in early research by myself, I find that's one area that's pretty deep is closer, guys that you think have that veteran status that you wouldn't mind having close for you," Dombrowski said.
On the flip side to Benoit is former Tigers shortstop-turned-left-fielder Jhonny Peralta, whose days in Detroit are likely done. The Tigers essentially sealed his spot on the market by trading for Jose Iglesias at the non-waiver Trade Deadline in July, and his postseason success couldn't change that.
"I would say with that situation, I still think of [Peralta] as being a shortstop and not really a left fielder," Dombrowski said. "He filled in fine for us by all means in the postseason, but it's a situation where, with Iglesias being our shortstop, I'd say it's highly unlikely, but I'm not ready to say at this point no for sure."
Dombrowski was far less clear about second baseman Omar Infante, who hits the market coming off a career high .795 OPS and 3.1 Wins Above Replacement despite missing over a month with a sprained ankle. He batted .318 with 24 doubles, 10 home runs, 51 RBIs and 54 runs scored in 118 games before struggling in the postseason.
Infante changed agents late in the regular season to Gene Mato, who navigated Anibal Sanchez's trip through free agency last winter. The move seemingly set up Infante to work the market as a potential mid-market alternative to Robinson Cano for teams needing a second baseman.
The Tigers could replace Infante in-house with Hernan Perez, arguably Detroit's best middle-infield prospect since Infante came up in 2002. There's an opinion among team officials that Perez, who turns 23 next spring, is ready defensively. The difference would be the offensive dropoff from the speedy contact hitter, who has 24 home runs over his six-year professional career.
"We like Perez a lot," Dombrowski said. "We think he's really perhaps ready, but I'm not going to say anything about that situation."
However, the Tigers are expected to see what it would take to keep Infante. He said at season's end that he'd like to stick around, but that he'd wait to see what the market brings.