Barring major spring training injuries, the 2014 Detroit Tigers profiled as the team to beat in the American League Central. Yet, if Jose Iglesias—last year's AL Rookie of the Year candidate—misses significant time, the Tigers actually could be an even bigger lock to reach the postseason.
Of course, that's assuming that Detroit uses its financial muscle to lure free-agent shortstop Stephen Drew off the street and onto the Comerica Park diamond to replace a now-injured Iglesias.
The news and accompanying Drew-to-Detroit theory was offered by ESPN and Sirius XM baseball analyst Jim Bowden. Outside of media work, the former Reds and Nationals executive is familiar with front-office thinking around the sport.
Iglesias will miss most of 2014 with shin injury according to another player that is close to him. Speculation that Tigers will pursue Drew— JIM BOWDEN (@JimBowdenESPNxm) March 15, 2014
ESPN's Jerry Crasnick later confirmed these reports, as it looks like the All-Star break could be the earliest Iglesias returns:
With shin issues sidelining the Tigers infielder, manager Brad Ausmus thinks reinforcements could be necessary, per Jason Beck of MLB.com.
"Depending on how long he's going to be out, we may or may not need two shortstops," Ausmus said.
In this case, the connection is easy to make. Detroit is a legitimate World Series candidate, with or without a high-caliber shortstop. Yet, after trading for Iglesias' dynamic glove, youth and upside last summer, the team was prepared to watch the 24-year-old infielder graduate into a dynamic two-way player in 2014 and beyond.
With those plans on hold for the majority of 2014, Drew's free-agent plight can become a blessing in disguise for a veteran team eager to win a championship before the roster ages and decays into a mediocre outfit.
Drew isn't a difference-making player, but he represents an upgrade from the young, unproven Iglesias.
And while Stephen Drew isn't quite Jose Iglesias with the glove, he's still pretty darn good. And he's obviously an upgrade offensively.— D.J. Short (@djshort) March 15, 2014
At this point, swapping Drew for Iglesias actually would bring the veteran Tigers closer to the World Series ring that has alluded them over the course of a highly-successful run atop the AL Central.
Here comes the part where the Tigers sign Stephen Drew and wind up with a better team than the one they had with a healthy Iglesias.— Mike Axisa (@mikeaxisa) March 15, 2014
During Drew's eight-year career, the left-handed hitting shortstop has averaged 11 home runs per season and posted a .329 on-base percentage. While those numbers aren't eye-opening, they are much more prolific than what the light-hitting Iglesias did with the bat during a 294-game minor league apprenticeship.
Prior to last year's call up in Boston, Iglesias owned a career minor league OPS of .622. Barring an unexpected uptick in offensive production, Detroit's future shortstop will rack up value almost solely with his dynamic glove. On the other hand, Drew is more of a complete, all-around shortstop.
Not only is Drew a clearly better offensive player, Fangraphs' defensive numbers actually painted him as the better shortstop last season. Despite the highlight plays from the young and athletic Iglesias, Drew had a tremendous defensive season in Boston.
While the average fan might call Drew a defensive downgrade, the numbers refute that notion.
Over the long haul, the Tigers would be foolish to contemplate keeping Drew in favor of Iglesias. Over the next four or five years, Detroit could have a cheap, ascending option at shortstop, allowing the front office to spend lavishly on veterans like Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera.
If a contract discussion with Drew's agent—Scott Boras—does commence, expect a one-year deal to be as far as Detroit would be willing to go for a shortstop stopgap. Blocking Iglesias' path and future in Detroit makes little sense.
However, with the Royals and Indians owning the potential to crack the 90-win plateau and challenge an injury-plagued Tigers team in 2014, general manager Dave Dombrowski and owner Mike Ilitch can't sit around and wait for Iglesias to heal.
For some teams, 2015 and 2016 represent windows to contention and championship baseball. In Detroit, 30-or-over stars are the norm and potential big-money free-agent cases hang over the fate of this franchise.
From Torii Hunter (38) to Victor Martinez (35) to Joe Nathan (39), the Tigers aren't built for tomorrow. In fact, at Comerica Park, there is no tomorrow.
Max Scherzer—the reigning AL Cy Young winner—is set to hit the open market next winter, perhaps carrying a price tag of $150-plus million. Miguel Cabrera—attempting to win three consecutive AL MVP crowns—could do the same after 2016, with an outside chance of scoring the biggest contract in the history of the sport.
Which shortstop is the better option in 2014?
Through a combination of offense, veteran acumen, underrated defense and desperation for a place to play baseball in 2014, Stephen Drew represents the perfect antidote to what ails the Tigers heading into the final weeks of spring training.
If Drew simply held the fort and kept Detroit afloat at shortstop, this fit would be obvious. But a stroke of luck has allowed the Tigers the avenue to pursue a shortstop better equipped to help win a title in 2014.
Iglesias will be the better player over the next handful of years, but Drew is better now.
For the Tigers, that's all that should matter.