Detroit's second signing of a player from Taiwan, left-hander Fu-Te Ni, in two years can be taken as an indication the Tigers intend to become much more active in their pursuit of players from across the Pacific Ocean.
The Tigers hinted at the move last fall with the naming of Kevin Hooker as their Pacific Rim scouting coordinator.
Last April, Detroit signed its first native of Taiwan, outfielder Chao-Ting Tang. Tang, 21, batted .222 in 38 games with the rookie Gulf Coast League Tigers last summer. He had one home run and 15 RBI.
Ni, 26, is a lefty who throws in the high 80s and lower 90s and is described as having a decent curve and a good changeup. He's not overpowering, which would explain his relatively low signing bonus of about $15,000, and statistics from his league show he's more effective against right-handed hitters than lefties.
But the Tigers think converting him from starting to relieving will make him more effective. He is expected to open the season in Class AA or Class AAA to get adjusted to baseball -- and life -- in the United States.
Ni spent the past two seasons pitching for the China Trust Whales in the Chinese Professional Baseball League. Last year he was 5-12 with a 3.34 ERA and 132 strikeouts in 145 1/3 innings. His strikeout total led the league.
He was third in the league with 125 strikeouts in 2007, when he went 7-12 with a 3.53 ERA in 122 1/3.
"Our personnel that have scouted Ni project him as a major league pitcher," general manager Dave Dombrowski said.
--RHP Fernando Rodney avoided arbitration Jan. 14 by agreeing to a $1 million raise that will earn him $2.7 million the season before he can become a free agent. Detroit's failure to obtain a proven closer makes it look more and more as though the Tigers will enter the season with the potentially excellent but erratic Rodney as their ninth-inning pitcher. He was 0-6 with 13 saves and a 4.91 ERA last season. "There's some nights when he takes unhittable stuff out there with good control," manager Jim Leyland said recently on WXYT-AM 1270. "There are some other nights when the control is not good enough. So I would say he's a very good part-time closer, but probably not a real perfect closer at this particular time -- consistent enough, maybe, is the right term."
--LF Marcus Thames accepted a $1 million raise, to $2.275 million, on a one-year deal to avoid going through salary arbitration next month. Thames hit .241 with 25 home runs, second on the team, and 56 RBI in 316 at-bats. His rate of one home run every 13.52 at-bats since he began receiving more playing time in 2006 is the fourth-highest among major league players with 1,000 plate appearances. He tied the Detroit record by hitting home runs in five consecutive games from June 13 to 17.
--LHP Fu-Te Ni, 26, has agreed to terms on a minor league deal with Detroit that makes the Taiwan native the first member of the Chinese Professional Baseball League to sign with a major league team. Ni is scheduled to pitch for Taiwan in the 2009 World Baseball Classic and has pitched for his country in several international competitions. Ni pitched the last two years for the China Trust Whales as a starter but will be used out of the bullpen by the Tigers. He is expected to begin his career in the U.S. at either the Triple-A or Double-A level but will participate in spring training with the Tigers. Ni finished the 2008 season with a 5-12 record and a 3.34 ERA with a league-best 132 strikeouts in 145 1/3 innings. He was 7-12 with a 3.53 ERA and 125 strikeouts in 122 1/3 innings the year before. "Our personnel that have scouted Ni project him as a major league pitcher," general manager Dave Dombrowski said. Ni pitched for the Taiwan National Team at the 2007 Baseball World Cup and in the 2008 Summer Olympics. He joins OF Chao-Ting Tang, 21, as the second Taiwan native signed by the Tigers.
--RHP Freddy Garcia is apparently no longer a possibility to sign with the Tigers, who brought him to the majors for a tryout last September. A baseball source told the Detroit News on Jan. 15 the Tigers have not had any recent contact with Garcia's agent and do not plan to re-sign him as a free agent. Garcia, a 32-year-old two-time All-Star, was 1-1 with a 4.20 ERA after Detroit brought him up from the minors. He has had some neck and shoulder tightness this winter, which might be why the Tigers are no longer interested. Obtaining RHP Edwin Jackson for the rotation is also a factor.
--1B Miguel Cabrera has been selected as King Tiger for 2008 by the Mayo Smith Society, a nationwide group of Tigers fans. Cabrera's 37 home runs led the American League in his first year out of the NL, and he tied for the league lead with 331 total bases. He finished third in the league with 127 RBI, fifth with 75 extra-base hits and seventh with a .537 slugging percentage. Cabrera is the first Tigers player to lead the league in home runs since Cecil Fielder belted 44 home runs in 1991 to share the league lead.
--INF Don Kelly, originally signed by the Tigers, has returned to the organization on a minor league deal with an invitation to major league spring training. The middle infielder, 29, spent last season in the Arizona organization and hit .275 at Tucson. He played 25 games for Pittsburgh in 2007, hitting .148. Kelly was drafted and signed by Detroit in 2001 but was traded to Pittsburgh after the 2006 season.
BY THE NUMBERS: 2 -- Natives of Taiwan in the Detroit organization following the recent signing of LHP Fu-Te Ni. The Tigers believe Ni has the potential to help them as a relief pitcher, but a bigger reason for the signing could be to emphasize the fact Detroit wants to become a factor in the Asian talent market.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm looking forward to (RHP Fernando) Rodney this year, because, whether people believe this or not, Rodney's a free agent (after 2009) and I think he's going to do everything he can. He knows this is a big year for him. So we should be able to get quite a bit out of Rodney this year. But to say that he's going to be our definite closer, I couldn't say that at this time." -- Manager Jim Leyland of the Tigers commenting on the erratic pitcher Detroit apparently will count on to close games entering the 2009 season.
The Tigers added another starter (RHP Edwin Jackson) and made moves they believe strengthened a deficient defense by adding C Gerald Laird and SS Adam Everett while shifting Brandon Inge to third and Carlos Guillen to left, but they still need to improve a bullpen that was one of the worst in baseball last season. Detroit has no proven closer and no highly touted candidates. Shedding one of the DH types remains a quiet priority.
BIGGEST NEEDS: Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski took care of his positional tweaking and added a starter at the winter meetings but essentially exited the conclave without materially aiding the relief corps. Detroit may have to rely on a shaky RHP Fernando Rodney as its closer. A bona fide closer would help, but a stout setup man and some middle-inning assistance are also essential.
ARRIVALS: C Gerald Laird (trade with Rangers), SS Adam Everett (free agent from Twins), RHP Edwin Jackson (trade with Rays), LHP Kyle Bloom (Rule 5 selection from Pirates), C Matt Treanor (free agent from Marlins).
DEPARTURES: RHP Kyle Farnsworth (free agent, signed with Royals), RHP Todd Jones (retired), SS Edgar Renteria (free agent, signed with Giants), OF Matt Joyce (traded to Rays), C Vance Wilson (free agent, signed minor league deal with Royals).
FREE AGENTS: RHP Freddy Garcia, LHP Kenny Rogers, LHP Casey Fossum, RHP Gary Glover, RHP Aquilino Lopez (non-tendered).
There was some early interest in Garcia, but that has waned with the acquisition of RHP Edwin Jackson and Garcia's shoulder troubles in winter ball. Rogers could be brought back but only on a low-risk contract and only if he expresses interest. Glover and Fossum won't be back.
ARBITRATION-ELIGIBLE: RHP Edwin Jackson, C Gerald Laird, RHP Justin Verlander, LHP Bobby Seay, RHP Joel Zumaya.
All were tendered contracts but are likely to be signed before arbitration hearings begin. Detroit will explore offering Verlander a longer-term contract but may go with a one-year deal to see how he rebounds off his poor 2008 campaign.
IN LIMBO: LHP Nate Robertson, LHP Dontrelle Willis, OF Marcus Thames, UT Ryan Raburn.
Even though Robertson and Willis have guaranteed contracts, Detroit can't afford to keep both unless both are in the rotation. Thames and Raburn have limited market value.
RHP Joel Zumaya (right shoulder soreness due to scar tissue breakup) will keep building up his shoulder and could begin throwing in December.
RHP Jeremy Bonderman (right rib removal, blood clot surgery in June 2008) resumed throwing before Thanksgiving and is expected to be fully ready when spring training begins.