Published February 17, 2010
TAMPA, Fla. – If the Tigers sign free-agent outfielder Johnny Damon -- and even if they do not -- fans again will ask, "Why the heck did they trade Curtis Granderson?"
The question will not go away unless Granderson stumbles with the Yankees (unlikely) or Austin Jackson emerges as a legitimate, immediate replacement for him in center field (even more unlikely).
If the trade was just about money -- and certainly finances were part of it -- then fine, the Tigers were forced to play a bad hand.
But hold on.
The Tigers likely would pay Damon more this season than the $5.5 million that they would have paid Granderson, prompting several rival executives to speculate on a more fundamental motivation for the trade: The Tigers had soured on Granderson as a player.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland said in a telephone interview Tuesday that such a conclusion is "absolutely not true," but why wouldn't it be, at least to a degree?
Several parts of Granderson's game regressed last season: His routes in center field; his ability to make contact; his performance against left-handed pitching.
All that surely was enough for Tigers officials to rationalize the deal, particularly when Granderson and pitcher Edwin Jackson were their only attractive trade chips.
Still, Granderson did not need to go.
True, the Tigers saved at least $7 million this season by sending Granderson to the Yankees and Jackson to the Diamondbacks for four less expensive players. They also saved money by parting with free-agent second baseman Placido Polanco, outfielder Marcus Thames and relievers Brandon Lyon and Fernando Rodney.
Yet, if the Tigers add Damon to their other free-agent signees -- closer Jose Valverde and shortstop Adam Everett -- they will top $110 million for 11 players and approach last year's Opening Day payroll of $130 million.
Owner Mike Ilitch, who wants to win, sure does not seem to mind.
In fairness, the Tigers did not know at the time of the Granderson trade that Damon would be available this late in the offseason; circumstances change, teams adjust.
But Granderson, who turns 29 next month, is 7½ years younger than Damon. If the Tigers could afford Damon, they could have kept Granderson, traded Edwin Jackson and been in a similar position financially.
That is not what happened.
Leyland declines to criticize Granderson, whom he said is, "everything that is right about baseball, good-looking, bright, articulate, a good player with a chance to be a helluva player."
The only negative that Leyland raises, if you even want to call it that, is that Granderson might have been too occupied with his community and charitable work in Detroit.
"I do think we took a little bit advantage of him from an organizational standpoint. He was one of those guys who wouldn't say no to anybody," Leyland said. "And there were some things he and his agent were doing on their own.
"Did it hinder his performance? I can't answer that question. ... But if he comes into New York and tries to do too much (off-the field work), that will be tough for him. New York is a little bit different than Detroit."
Granderson, after a workout at the Yankees' minor-league complex Tuesday, repeated what he told FOXSports.com's Jon Paul Morosi last month -- that he had his best all-around season in 2007, his busiest year of community work.
"My most important priority is the field, plain and simple," Granderson said. "I know who pays me. I know what my job is. I'm just in a position where I can do certain (off-the-field) things."
The issue seems absurd when compared with the Tigers' more notable off- the-field problem at the end of last season -- first baseman Miguel Cabrera's struggles with alcohol, which led him to pursue counseling.
The real issue is whether Granderson's performance last season marked the start of a downward slide, or whether it was something of an aberration.
Guess what the Yankees think?
Granderson's .484 OPS against left-handed pitching last season was the lowest among American League players who had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. But in 2008, his OPS against lefties was a respectable .739.
Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long acknowledged, "There is some work to be done," both with Granderson's mechanics and approach against left- handed pitching. Long, however, said he was confident that Granderson could make the necessary adjustments.
"I'm not too concerned about it," Long said. "I really feel like he's going to have a good year and that is not even going to be an issue. And you know what? We're not going to make it an issue.
"We're going to be positive about it, work on it. Half of it might be the battle of, 'People don't think I can do it.' If we get him over that obstacle, we can go from there."
Yankees third base coach Rob Thomson, who works with the team's outfielders, seemed equally unfazed by Granderson's difficulties in center late last season.
"Not giving anybody an excuse, but I've heard it from a lot of our outfielders -- it's very tough to see in Comerica Park," Thomson said. "You see a lot of route problems, read problems -- it happens in Comerica, the glare off the seats ...
"I've watched a lot of tape on him. This kid is a special cat. He's really athletic, really strong, really fast, a quick-twitch guy. I think a lot of that stuff is overblown. He is a much better defender than people are giving him credit for."
Leyland said that center field is indeed "a tough place to play in Detroit," but that Granderson experienced problems on the road "a little bit, too." Granderson could wind up in left for the Yankees, with Brett Gardner taking over in center. Yet, such a move probably will not happen right away.
No one argues that Granderson is a perfect player -- he struck out 141 times last season, 21 of his 30 homers were solo, his misplays in the outfield cost the Tigers in a pennant race. But really, how many perfect players are there?
For $23.75 million over the next three years, Granderson should have easily fit in Detroit, particularly when the team's payroll will become far more flexible after this season.
Whatever the Tigers were thinking, they will regret trading him.