Tigers ink four, ponder Verlander terms

Tigers ink four, ponder Verlander terms

DETROIT -- For the second straight year, the Tigers avoided arbitration on a slew of potential cases by settling on the day players and teams were scheduled to exchange figures. This year, however, the Tigers will still have one major case remaining.

The Tigers reached agreements Tuesday on one-year deals with four of their five remaining arbitration-eligible players -- relievers Joel Zumaya and Bobby Seay, right-hander Edwin Jackson and catcher Gerald Laird. However, they have yet to reach an agreement with top starter Justin Verlander, setting the stage for a hearing next month if the two sides can't make up their difference.

The two sides exchanged figures Tuesday -- Verlander at $4.15 million, the Tigers at $3.2 million. The Tigers haven't gone to an arbitration hearing since Dave Dombrowski took on general manager duties in 2002.

Both Jackson and Laird came over to Detroit in December trades. Neither will have to start out their Tigers tenures with a hearing. Jackson settled for a $2.2 million salary, while Laird will earn $2.8 million.

Jackson was eligible for arbitration for the first time after coming over from the American League champion Rays, where the 25-year-old right-hander enjoyed a breakout season in his sixth year in the Majors. Jackson's 14 wins, 183 1/3 innings and 4.42 ERA all marked career bests as the former Dodgers prospect became a mainstay in the Tampa Bay rotation. However, he was shifted to the bullpen for the postseason, pitching 4 1/3 innings of one-run ball over three appearances.

Jackson projects as the fourth starter in Detroit alongside Verlander, Armando Galarraga and Jeremy Bonderman in the rotation. His pure stuff, including a mid-90s fastball, gives him the potential to further blossom on a Tigers staff looking to rebound from a disappointing 2008 season that saw nearly all of Detroit's young pitchers fall back from their previous couple seasons.

The Tigers acquired Laird from the Rangers to fill their catching void that started with the July 30 trade of Ivan Rodriguez and continued into the offseason. The 29-year-old is coming off of a season in which he hit .276 with six home runs and 41 RBIs in 95 games and 344 at-bats, but is expected to garner the bulk of the playing time in Detroit.

Defensively, Laird threw out 21 of 74 would-be basestealers. His experience is expected to be one of many keys for a Tigers pitching staff trying to bounce back from a generally struggling 2008 season.

Laird was eligible for arbitration for the second time. The Scott Boras client settled with the Rangers last January on a one-year, $1.6 million contract.

Hot Stove

Like Verlander, Zumaya emerged as a key part of the Tigers' run to the World Series in his rookie season of 2006. Armed with a fastball that often topped 100 mph, Zumaya overpowered opponents for 97 strikeouts and a .187 batting average over 83 1/3 innings that year on his way to 30 holds and a 1.94 ERA.

His two seasons since have been defined by injuries -- a ruptured tendon in his right-middle finger early in the 2007 season, a home accident that fall that resulted in a damaged shoulder joint and reconstructive surgery, then a stress fracture in his shoulder late last season. He began a throwing program earlier this month, but it's unclear yet whether he'll be ready to pitch in games at the start of the season.

Zumaya, who will make $735,000 this year, finished the 2008 season with an 0-2 record and a 3.47 ERA in 21 outings, covering 23 1/3 innings. He allowed a lone earned run and racked up 14 strikeouts over 13 2/3 innings from June 27 to July 25 before picking up both of his losses with six earned runs over seven innings in his ensuing seven games.

If the 24-year-old can recover and regain his fastball, it would be a major boost to a Tigers bullpen that will have to rely on some unproven arms. It could also put Zumaya back on a career track that seemingly had him poised to move into Detroit's closer role last year before his shoulder injury. The contract agreement eliminates one potential distraction.

While Seay might not have been a high-profile case, he's one of just two players assured of spots in Detroit's bullpen this year. After emerging in 2007 as Detroit's primary lefty specialist, Seay set career highs with 60 appearances, 56 1/3 innings and 58 strikeouts last year. Yet his batting average allowed to left-handed hitters rose from .209 two years ago to .303 in 2008, including a .770 OPS. By contrast, he allowed a .252 average and .711 OPS to right-handed batters. He also walked 25 batters, 10 of them batting from the left side.

Much of that damage came in the season's second half, when he allowed a 6.18 ERA compared to his 2.83 mark heading into the All-Star break. However, he allowed just 16 of 52 inherited runners to score on the year.

Seay was eligible for arbitration for the second time, settling on a 1.3 million salary. Including performance incentives, he made $825,000 last season after avoiding arbitration on a one-year contract.

Verlander is one of a few first-year arbitration-eligible pitchers who emerged as front-line starters early in their careers. Seattle's Felix Hernandez settled on a one-year, $3.8 million deal on Monday. Cole Hamels, who won World Series Most Valuable Player honors with the Phillies last fall, reached a three-year, $20.5 million contract with the reigning World Series champions on Sunday.

In Verlander's case, the soon-to-be 26-year-old right-hander won 35 games over his first two seasons and emerged as a young star, tossing a no-hitter against Milwaukee at Comerica Park on June 12, 2007.

As with the vast majority of the Tigers in a last-place season, last year ended up a disappointment for Verlander with an 11-17 record, a 4.84 ERA and questions as to what went wrong. Still, with back-to-back 200-inning seasons and otherwise solid numbers, Verlander remains a cornerstone of the Tigers' future, and a critical part of any turnaround in 2009 under new pitching coach Rick Knapp.

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