Two of Dave Dombrowski's best moves as Tigers general manager have involved Carlos Guillen. First, he acquired Guillen from the Mariners for Ramon Santiago and minor leaguer Juan Gonzalez prior to the 2004 season. Santiago was released by the Mariners after fewer than 50 at bats over two years and was then signed by the Tigers before last season. Gonzalez has never appeared in the majors, is no longer in the Mariners system and appears destined to be a minor league journeyman.
The second big move was signing Guillen to a three year $14 million extension during the 2004 season. It seemed like a good move at the time and it proved to be a fantastic move as Guillen has been the most valuable Tiger over the course of his three years with the team. In light of other contracts, such as 4 years/$40 million for Edgar Renteria and 4 years/$32 million for Orlando Cabrera, the deal was a steal for the Tigers.
Now, Guillen's contract is running out and he'll be a free agent after the season unless the Tigers lock him up before then. He wants to remain a Tiger and Dombrowski certainly wants to keep him but it won't be so easy this time. Not much has been said by either side and no contract has been offered but there was an important development this week which definitely should impact the situation. The Rangers have signed Michael Young to a 5 year $80 million contract extension which will take him through 2013.
What does the Young signing mean to Guillen and the Tigers? Well, they are pretty comparable players. Both are shortstops. Young is 30. Guillen is 31. They are two of the best hitters in the game at their position. Guillen has batted .320/.385/.508 in 376 games over three years. Young has batted .319/.365/.485 although in a better hittinmg environment. Guillen's 7.11 runs created per game leads all Major League shortstops over that period by a good margin. Derek Jeter is second at 6.77 and Young is 3rd at 6.40.
So, it definitely appears as if Guillen is worth as much per year as Young and he'll likely get it from the Tigers or somebody else. The bigger question is probably going to be how many years. Guillen is only a year older than Young and the Ranger shortstop will be 36 at the end of his contract. Thus, a similar five year extension for Guillen seems reasonable on the surface. It's not that simple though.
The big difference between the two shortstops is durability. While Young has averaged 159 games per year over his career, Guillen has averaged only 124 games per year over the past five years. Even last year, when Guillen played 150+ games for the first time, his health was in question. He knee swelled up on a couple of occasions and I believe it affected his fielding. He never seemed comfortable setting himself to make throws and I think that may be one of reasons he led all shortstops with 28 errors last year.
Because of the health concerns, the Tigers can not be sure whether he will last another four plus years as a shortstop. He already may have begun a decline last year finishing 21st in the league out of 30 qualifying shortstops in Average Fielding Rank (Young finished 11th). A switch to another position would make Guillen a little less valuable than he is as a shortstop simply because there are so few shortstops who are top hitters. Not only that but, given his injury history, it's even questionable how long he'll hold up as a hitter.
At the same time, they really need his bat in the line-up. He is really their only impact left-handed bat (actually a switch hitter) and he would be really difficult to replace. In fact, if they lose him, it would probably take two players to cover the loss. One would be a new shortstop and since most shorstops don't hit anywhere near as well as Guillen, they would likely need to upgrade offensively at another position.
How many years will Dombrowski go? Only he knows that but when you consider that he already has Sheffield locked up through the age of 40 and Ordonez through the age of 37 (assuming his two option years kick in), you would have to think he'll be cautious about signing the injury prone Guillen through age 35 or 36. My feeling is that he'd probably grab him without hesitation if he could get him for three years. Four years would be a big risk but given Guillen's importance to the team, I think he'd consider that. It would be difficult seeing him go five or more years.
Dombrowski stole Guillen once. He stole him twice. He won't steal him a third time though. I have a feeling this is going to be a drawn out negotiation which will not be resolved before the season starts.