02/02/2004 9:09 AM ET
Pudge signing to be announced
Tigers press conference to be held at 1 p.m.
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
DETROIT -- The Tigers have scheduled a 1 p.m. ET press conference for Monday, when they'll formally announce their four-year, $40 million contract with free agent catcher Ivan Rodriguez.
|Ivan Rodriguez and President Bush pose at the White House on Friday. (Susan Walsh/AP)
The finishing touches were put on the deal over the weekend between the Tigers and agent Scott Boras. It includes clauses that allow the Tigers to end the deal early if Rodriguez spends more than five weeks on the disabled list with a lumbar spinal injury in one of the next three seasons. There's also a team option for 2008, which the Tigers can either pick up at $10 million or buy out for a substantial cost.
The announcement at Comerica Park will officially end the Pudge pursuit, which began more than three weeks ago, included plenty of false reports and made the Tigers the hot topic of Detroit sports. It also just about completes the team's makeover from an American League-record 119-loss season that earned attention as a symbol of futility.
Three weeks ago, the question was whether the Tigers could overcome that stigma to attract a top free agent. With two weeks remaining before pitchers and catchers report to Lakeland, Fla., for Spring Training, the question has changed to how much the team can improve off of last year's record. Simply avoiding 100 losses in 2004 would mark a 20-game turnaround.
Add Rodriguez to a list that includes the Tigers' other free-agent signings -- left fielder Rondell White, second baseman Fernando Viña, starter Jason Johnson, right-handed reliever Al Levine and backup catcher Mike DiFelice -- and the Tigers have made over a young club into a veteran-laden team while increasing the payroll about $5 million from last season.
Rodriguez, 32, was not on the Tigers' list of free agents to pursue at the start of the offseason, let alone anywhere near the top. But owner Mike Ilitch and president/general manager Dave Dombrowski found little interest from their top targeted free agent, shortstop Miguel Tejada, who signed with the Orioles during the Winter Meetings in December.
After adding Viña and White to what had been the AL's least productive lineup, the Tigers went into January with money left over from the approximate $18 million in payroll freed up in contracts that expired at season's end. Rodriguez, meanwhile, was without a new team and short on suitors. Negotiations picked up following a meeting in Detroit two weeks ago with Ilitch, who reportedly convinced Rodriguez he was committed to improving his club in coming seasons as well.
Since then, developments have come slowly, a delay believed to be related to health concerns. A physical in Detroit turned up a lumbar misalignment that Rodriguez has had since his career began but which has never caused him to go on the disabled list.
The contract clauses would protect the Tigers from being financially hamstrung should Rodriguez develop a lumbar problem in the coming seasons. It's a situation Ilitch encountered with his NHL franchise when the Red Wings signed Uwe Krupp to a free agent contract, only to see his career soon grind to a halt with back problems.
In return, Rodriguez has an otherwise guaranteed contract plus the long-term commitment he has been seeking from a club for the past two years. He was in a similar situation as a free agent last winter, when he settled in late January on a one-year, $10 million contract with the Florida Marlins. Much of that money was deferred.
Thanks in part to Rodriguez's leadership, the Marlins went from a young team that hadn't broken through to world champions, picking up a fan following in the process. Rodriguez hit .313 in the postseason with 17 RBIs, 10 of them in the NLCS. He was named NLCS Most Valuable Player.
The Tigers have been in flux at catcher since trading Brad Ausmus to Houston three years ago. They went into the offseason prepared to give young Brandon Inge one more try to show the offense necessary to hold down the job. Rodriguez's acquisition changes Inge's status. He could stay on in a backup role, start the season at Triple-A Toledo or become trade bait in a quest for one more starting pitcher.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.