Tigers eye lefty relief at Meetings

Tigers eye lefty relief at Winter Meetings

DETROIT -- Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski will probably do more listening than talking during the upcoming Winter Meetings in Orlando. To really get his attention, however, teams should use these magic words: Left-handed relief.

It's the glaring need that opened when the Orioles signed Jamie Walker off the free-agent market two weeks ago, and it's the one part of the club where the Tigers have lost what they had from this past year. Everything after that, from trade talks to free agents, is secondary.

"We're always open to talk," Dombrowski said, "but I think we're in a position where our club is pretty well set when you come to this point. Sean Casey's coming back. We have a big bat in [Gary] Sheffield. We get [Mike] Maroth back. The club is basically back with a few additions. It's not like you can't talk about getting better, but it's not like you have [a glaring need]."

Even that much-sought lefty reliever, Dombrowski indicated, isn't as glaring of a weak spot in the Tigers arsenal as it might've been without Walker in seasons past. With this year's emergence of Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney, the Tigers established two right-handed relievers whose velocity and ability to change speeds -- especially in Rodney's case -- make them just about as difficult for left-handed hitters to handle as right-handed batters.

Both Zumaya and Rodney allowed lower batting averages to left-handed hitters -- .183 and .202, respectively -- than Walker. Because of that, whoever succeeds Walker will probably be a more specialized reliever than the oft-used Walker was during his Tigers tenure.

It's a spot in enough flux that Dombrowski won't rule out moving someone in-house into the role, whether it be swingman Wilfredo Ledezma (who allowed a .241 average to lefties this year) or Minor League free-agent signing Vic Darensbourg (who held lefties to a .231 average during his brief time in Detroit in 2005). The preference, however, would be to fill from outside the organization with experience.

To do that, they'll have to join the crowd. Several teams are looking for effective lefty relief, making precious commodities out of what once looked like a well-stocked market of free-agent southpaws. Plus, the Orioles' splurge on relievers -- from Walker's three-year, $12 million contract to the three-year, $19 million deal signed by right-handed Danys Baez -- has set an already lucrative market higher.

Dombrowski takes a simple outlook on the new pricing, calling it a continuation of a market that escalated for relievers last winter with the contracts signed by Scott Eyre and former Tiger Kyle Farnsworth.

"The market just changed a little bit," Dombrowski said. "The market goes where clubs want it to go."

Lefty relievers still left on the market include Ron Villone, Scott Schoeneweis, Alan Embree, Eddie Guardado, Steve Kline and Ray King. Because the Tigers have Rodney and Zumaya as options against lefties, however, they could be just as likely to take a chance on rebound players if they go the free-agent route, such as Scott Sauerbeck, J.C. Romero or Wayne Franklin.

The Tigers have explored trade options as well with teams that have lefties to spare. So far, nothing has come close to filling the void, but it's expected that these Winter Meetings -- more than others in recent years -- will be known for creating trade talks.

"I think part of the reason you start hearing about trades," Dombrowski said, "is that a lot of positional free agents have already signed and some of the relievers have already signed, too. I think that creates more trade talk."

Another reason for the pickup in trade talks leaguewide, Dombrowski believes, is the change in the new collective bargaining that allows teams to sign Type B free agents without giving up a draft pick. By lessening the compensation, Dombrowski said, more Type B free agents have signed earlier in the offseason, removing another part of the market. Walker was a Type B free agent.

Dombrowski can't say whether or not he expects to fill the lefty void during the Winter Meetings, but he said he isn't pressed to do it under any particular timetable. It helps that it's the only real need the Tigers have going into next season. Much as Detroit might like to add some catching depth in the farm system, it's not something it has to do immediately, with both Ivan Rodriguez and Vance Wilson under control potentially through 2008. Beyond a set lineup, the Tigers bench also looks much the same with Wilson, two utility infielders and most likely Marcus Thames as an extra outfielder.

The Tigers will still listen. They'll just listen closer if the word "lefty" pops up in the conversation.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.