Tigers get shortstop Gonzalez from Orioles
Lombardozzi goes to Baltimore in attempt to fill hole created by Iglesias injuries
BRADENTON, Fla. -- For the second time in four days, the Tigers have traded for a shortstop on the recommendation of their future Hall of Fame shortstop turned infield coach. This time, they got a veteran one.
At age 37, Alex Gonzalez is so experienced that fans and scouts wonder how much he has left at short, a position he hasn't played regularly since 2011. Tigers scouts, who watched him since the winter, and Omar Vizquel, who watched him in winter ball in Venezuela, believe he can still play there.
The Tigers had enough belief that they traded utilityman Steve Lombardozzi -- a Tiger for just three months after coming over in the Doug Fister trade -- to Baltimore, where Gonzalez was competing as a third baseman with Manny Machado recovering from knee surgery. With Monday's deal, Gonzalez now lines up as the primary answer to replace injured Jose Iglesias in Detroit's infield.
"I'm excited for the change to play every day," Gonzalez told reporters in Orioles camp. "In Spring Training, I had a chance to show the team I could still play. I'm excited about the opportunity. I can play short, and they know me."
The Tigers, who have been scrambling to figure out their options since Iglesias was diagnosed with stress fractures in both legs a week and a half ago, are believed to be done adding shortstops.
"I wouldn't anticipate anything [more]," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "I mean, how many shortstops do we have?"
They've had seven this camp, which began with Iglesias as the unquestioned starter and Lombardozzi backing him up. Since then, they went from a competition between Danny Worth, Hernan Perez and Eugenio Suarez, to what now looks likely as a mix of Gonzalez and Andrew Romine, who made his start in a Tigers uniform on Sunday after being acquired from the Angels.
All the while, some scouts and observers suspected the Tigers would try to add a veteran -- if not free agent Stephen Drew, then somebody on the trade market. With rookie Nick Castellanos at third base, there was reason for trepidation about having two untested players on the same side of the infield.
With Gonzalez, they'll have a player who dates back to Dombrowski's time as GM of the Marlins. Tigers assistant GM Al Avila, once the Marlins scouting director, signed Gonzalez as a teenager in 1994.
Gonzalez took over at shortstop in Florida for Edgar Renteria near the end of 1998. Castellanos, who grew up a Marlins fan in South Florida, was 6 years old at the time.
"He was an outstanding shortstop," Dombrowski said. "I mean, Alex Gonzalez is a very good player. We go back with him a long time. It has been a while, a couple years since he's played [there], but our guys are telling me: You're going to lose a step just through age, but he's playing very well.
"He's been through pennant races, world championships. And with our club, we figure we're going to be in a race. Having somebody who's been through it, supplemented with some other guys, is good for us."
His new manager, Brad Ausmus, played against him for more than a decade.
"I think with Alex, you get someone who's a proven shortstop," Ausmus said. "Granted, he's not as young as he once was, but he's always had great hands, and I can't imagine his hands have gotten any worse. I've heard great things about him in Spring Training in terms of how well he's moving. I think the experience is a huge advantage in that sense."
A National League scout who watched Gonzalez in Orioles camp this spring had a similar sentiment -- he doesn't have the same range, but he'll make the plays on the balls he can reach. It's a similar evaluation to Jhonny Peralta during his time in Detroit, though Peralta was younger.
Gonzalez was the Marlins' everyday shortstop from 1999-2005. He has bounced around since then, including the past two years as a utilityman in Milwaukee. Gonzalez's last time as a regular shortstop was in 2011 in Atlanta, where he batted .241 with 15 home runs and 56 RBIs.
Gonzalez seemingly was on his way out of the Majors last year, when he hit just .177 in 41 games with the Brewers before being released in June. He revived his career in winter ball, where he was a primary shortstop for Caracas in the Venezuelan League. He batted .310 with a .790 OPS in 35 games, and supposedly looked like he was in better shape.
"Omar Vizquel was with him in the wintertime and he saw him play a lot, and he said he thought he definitely could play shortstop," Dombrowski said. "And we also at the time, our scouts in Venezuela separately had recommended him at that time, said he was moving around very well."
Said Gonzalez: "Detroit was the first team that tried to sign me [this winter] when I played in Venezuela, but I signed with these guys, but I came back and signed with Baltimore."
That deal happened at the start of February. Gonzalez went 12-for-28 as a hitter in O's camp, including two home runs and six RBIs, but it was his mobility that the Tigers were watching once they realized they needed a shortstop.
"We had two scouts this spring see him in Bruce Tanner and Jeff Wetherby," Dombrowski said. "They both think he can play shortstop, too. Now, when I say that, I'm not looking at a 150-game shortstop. He's an older guy at this point. We do think he can be a key guy for us, yes."
The fact he was key enough to trade Lombardozzi, who now has a chance to play a big role in Baltimore, was a bigger surprise. He wasn't the key part of the Fister trade, but he was somebody the Tigers wanted to add.
He went 9-for-39 with no extra-base hits this spring, but he was 6-for-6 stealing bases, responding well to Ausmus' push for aggressiveness on the basepaths. The Tigers' evaluation didn't change on him, team officials said, but the role they needed did.
"Before Iglesias was hurt, Lombo was actually a perfect fit," Ausmus said, "because he could play shortstop for a day or two, we could stick him at third, we could stick him at second, give those guys a rest. And I really, quite frankly, loved the way Lombo played the game. ...
"This is a guy that we liked and wanted on our team. But with the injury to Iglesias, it kind of changed things. Unfortunately we had to adapt to the situation. I don't think any of us wanted to lose him, because we all liked him, as a player and as a person. So it wasn't an easy decision."
The more likely it appeared the Tigers would carry two shortstops, the more Lombardozzi profiled as an outfielder on this team. He was scheduled to start in left field Monday against the Pirates when the Tigers called him into Ausmus' office back in Lakeland, Fla., about 45 minutes before the bus for Bradenton took off.
"I guess I'd say he was shocked," Dombrowski said. "He was not anticipating that."
Nobody really was. Even without a set role, Lombardozzi is a 25-year-old switch-hitter with Minor League options remaining.
"We looked at him as a real good utility player when we got him," Dombrowski said, "and that's how we looked at him now. We figured he'd play that role, but we're somewhat in a jam. And we're getting a guy that we like and we think can do the job.
"The other way to look at it is we're trading a guy that we do like for a guy that we think can play the majority of our games at shortstop."