Tigers haven't ruled out pursuit of Cespedes
By Jason Beck / MLB.com | 02/01/12 11:51 AM EST
DETROIT -- The Tigers hit the jackpot as the "mystery team" interested in Prince Fielder at the last minute. Their pursuit of Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes has been just the opposite.
At this point, though, it has still ended up a mystery. And the man in charge of it isn't giving away the ending.
Fittingly, while the Tigers were putting the finishing touches on their nine-year, $214 million contract on Fielder on Wednesday, Cespedes was about 1,800 miles away, clearing the most important hurdle left between him and negotiations with Major League teams to realize his dream of playing in the United States. With an official recognition of his residency in the Dominican Republic, Cespedes became the next big free-agent hitter on the market, though he hasn't played a game here at any level.
A day later, Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski was still taking in the elation over Fielder's return to Detroit in the minutes after the formal news conference when someone asked him if the Fielder signing rules out the Tigers on a Cespedes pursuit.
Dombrowski paused, carefully pondering his answer.
"I don't want to say on that," Dombrowski said. "Most likely [out], but you never can tell."
That didn't really clarify their standing. Nor did a tweet from MLB Network Radio host Jim Bowden earlier this week saying that the Tigers are one of "six clubs that have been the most serious in negotiations with Cespedes' agents."
The latter sounded a lot like reports that have trickled out over the past few weeks listing a half-dozen teams with the most intense interest in Cespedes. Earlier this month, the five-tool athlete himself listed the Tigers along with five other clubs with the most interest, though he later gave a nod to the Cubs as the most interested club.
While Cespedes and his agents, led by Adam Katz, are free to talk with teams about his services, he can't officially sign until he clears one more diplomatic hurdle, this one stateside. Until the Office of Foreign Assets Control grants him an unblocking license, he isn't allowed to enter into an agreement. That isn't expected to take nearly as long to resolve as his residency issue did, but it isn't instantaneous, either.
The Tigers have been extremely guarded in their comments about Cespedes, which have almost exclusively been limited to quotes from Dombrowski. The limited remarks are just enough to truly make the Tigers a mystery team in these dealings.
Dombrowski, however, is just a minor part of the mystery. The influence of owner Mike Ilitch is another.
The way the Fielder negotiations unfolded, from interest by the Tigers in a short-term deal to the sudden aggressiveness by Ilitch to go longer than any other team was reportedly offering, changes the Tigers' perception in the market. It's now more difficult to completely rule out the Tigers from a deal for purely financial reasons.
Ilitch has coveted star players, from Fielder to Miguel Cabrera to Magglio Ordonez and Ivan Rodriguez. Cespedes isn't a star, not yet, but he has star talent in the eyes of many scouts, from home run power to basestealing speed to a strong arm in the outfield. At age 26, he's anything but a long-term project, at least not in the Minors.
Opinions are supposedly divided among scouts as to whether Cespedes could go straight to the big leagues, which might depend more on the club that gets him. Even if it's simply for the cultural adjustment to the American lifestyle, many believe he could benefit from even a short stint in the Minors before hitting the Major League spotlight.
Cespedes isn't necessarily a win-now type of signing, but he has the talent to compete now, which explains in part why the field of interested teams reportedly includes the Marlins, Cubs, White Sox and Orioles. And he has the skill set and pure athleticism to help a team like the Tigers by the season's home stretch, if not sooner.
By most accounts, the Tigers have the hitting to win now. They do not have an abundance of speed. If they were to pursue Cespedes, that would be a huge appeal. The chance to add a legitimate offensive prospect on the cusp of the big leagues in a year when the Tigers will again forfeit their first-round Draft pick as free-agent compensation is another potential appeal. The opportunity to finish a process they started long ago might be another.
The Tigers have been watching Cespedes for well over a year, and they sent so many officials to watch him work out in the Dominican that even Dombrowski made a trip to see him first hand. If they get out of the running, it won't be for lack of interest in Cespedes so much as lack of interest in the chase. If they stay in, it won't be an immediate need to fill, but definitely an intriguing one.