If they're going to make a major free-agent signing, short of middle relief, it's looking more and more like the best candidate is a guy who doesn't even qualify as a free agent yet. Cuban-born outfielder Yoenis Cespedes hasn't been cleared for free agency, but once he does in the coming days, he'll have no shortage of interest from teams around the big leagues.
The Tigers could be foremost among them. They've stayed away from the big-ticket Major League free agents so far, even on short-term contracts, saying they're more interested in tweaking than something that changes the heart of their club. But the one major free agent who has drawn more than speculation is Cespedes, who has drawn the Tigers' actual attention.
Dombrowski's limited comments about Cespedes said almost as much about the level of the Tigers' interest as his travel itinerary. Before Dombrowski and the rest of the Tigers' contingent headed here for the Winter Meetings, Dombrowski was in the Dominican Republic last week to get a first-hand look at the hyper-athletic outfielder. It was a rare venture for Dombrowski, who usually leaves those duties to his core group of assistants and top scouts.
"Other than he has a tremendous body and he does a lot of things well, I don't really want to say much about him," Dombrowski said Monday when the Winter Meetings began.
Most of Dombrowski's support staff had already had their look at Cespedes. Vice president/assistant GM Al Avila had already seen him, as had special assistant David Chadd. International operations director Tom Moore and other scouts had seen him in international competitions well before he defected from Cuba. Latin American operations director Miguel Garcia and Dominican operations director Ramon Perez saw him during open workouts once he arrived in the Dominican.
That's at least six top Tigers officials, and that's a rarity for a franchise with a free agent who has never played in the big leagues. Even when the Tigers showed interest in Aroldis Chapman two years ago, they didn't have as many sets of eyes on him. It'll be one concerted effort from the Tigers, Dombrowski and owner Mike Ilitch once Cespedes and his agent, Adam Katz, start entertaining bids.
What makes Cespedes so valuable is his combination of skills. Even those scouts who question his readiness for the big leagues at this point consider the 26-year-old a five-tool player, with home run power and triples speed. His range and arm are believed to allow him play center field for a team that wants him there, or transition into the corners, as the Tigers would seemingly do if they had him.
His 5-foot-11 stature isn't imposing in height, but it is in muscle. The Tigers haven't had that type of outfielder in years; Curtis Granderson and Bobby Higginson had their share of power and speed, but not in that package.
More than one scout suggested Cespedes had a long swing. But as one pointed out, there's a difference between a swing that's long to get to the ball and a swing that's long on the follow-through. Whether that swing will translate into a high strikeout total remains to be seen once he finally gets a chance to face big league competition.
The mystery with Cespedes might not be athletic, but social. When 2011 began, he was a gifted athlete in an impoverished country under socialist rule. By the time the year ends, he'll likely have millions in wealth before he begins his first big league Spring Training and starts his transition to life in the United States. At some point, a scout and an organization have to make an educated guess on how a player would handle that, after talking with former teammates, former opponents and friends.
Put all the evaluation together and the Tigers will have a decision to make on how much money they're willing to offer. Unlike some other teams with reported interest in Cespedes, the Tigers could go into the bidding having saved their money from what is so far a relatively quiet Winter Meetings.