Both men are physical freaks. Bot are tremendously strong and gifted with statuesque bodies but also quick. But while one is preparing to slip on a Detroit uniform for the first time, the other may be on his way out of Motown.
Ndamukong Suh and Yoenis Céspedes are two men headed in different directions.
The Detroit Tigers have coveted Céspedes for years, flying around the globe to woo the five-tool Cuban defector. They just got him in a trade last week at baseball’s winter meetings.
But just when the Tigers got their man, the Lions are probably losing theirs.
Defensive lineman Suh might have played his final game at Ford Field on Sunday. In his fifth NFL season, the three-time All-Pro is having his best year in the trenches, crunching offensive linemen and swallowing running backs in his massive arms. In large part due to his play, the Lions’ defense is the stingiest in football and leading the team toward a possible playoff spot. But every game the Lions play in the postseason has the chance to be the last for Suh in the Honolulu Blue. He’s a free agent this offseason and there are few indications that he and the Lions are going to come to an agreement on a contract.
Suh could redefine the market for defensive linemen and command more than $100 million in a long-term deal with a majority of it guaranteed. The Lions have rarely been willing to write big checks to linemen no matter who great they are. Many think Suh already has one giant foot out the door already, but his teammates hope that isn’t the case.
“I don’t want to think what [our defensive line] would be like without him,” said one teammate back in July when it was reported that Suh’s camp and the Lions’ front office had halted negotiations.
Even though he’s had his share of controversy (Suh has paid more than $200,000 to the NFL in fines so far in his career), it’s all been on the field. Suh is not an off-the-field distraction. He’s a solid teammate and he’s developed into a leader on this team. Just when new coach Jim Caldwell has rounded out the defense and shaped it into one of the best in the game, it’s not the time to let the centerpiece go. If history is a guide, it won’t matter if the Lions miss the playoffs or finally win their second postseason game since James Dean was a matinee idol. Whether Suh remains a Lion will be a matter of money. The Lions should pony up the $100 million plus that it will take to keep the big man in Detroit.
The Tigers’ long courtship
When his scouting department first showed Dave Dombrowski a video of Yoenis Céspedes, his eyes lit up. The young Cuban ballplayer was hitting baseball after baseball over the fence and deep into the corners of the outfield. He was running the bases like no big man is supposed to. He was firing lasers into the plate from his position in the outfield.
“We loved him right away,” assistant GM Alex Avila said back in 2012 when several major league teams were hot on the trail of Céspedes. The right-handed slugger had already proven himself in international competition as a star for the Cuban national team. A Tigers’ scout had seen Céspedes in Europe, and Dombrowski and the Tigers’ brass traveled to the Dominican Republic early in 2012 to see the 26-year old where he had defected with his family in the summer of 2011. Céspedes impressed in a private workout for the Tigers. He was quiet but a hard worker. Avila and the scouting department were drooling. The Tigers wanted him badly to fill a hole in right field.
But Victor Martinez hurt himself in offseason workouts and suddenly the Tigers needed an established bat in the middle of their lineup. Instead of going after a player who had yet to have an at-bat in the big leagues, the Tigers shocked the baseball world by signing free agent Prince Fielder. Their courtship of Céspedes was over.
But the young Cuban outfielder never left the radar of Dombrowski. After the Athletics signed Céspedes to a four-year $36 million contract, the Tigers got a chance to see the slugger up close many teams each season and twice in the postseason. Céspedes hit .350 with four extra-base hits and two stolen bases against Detroit in the ALDS in 2012 and 2013. He was obviously an impact player. Dombrowski didn’t fail to notice.
Last July at the trade deadline, Oakland dealt Céspedes to the Red Sox to get more pitching (to position themselves to beat their playoff nemesis the Tigers). But Boston was just a stopover for the two-time Home Run Derby champion and ’14 All-Star, and with the Red Sox wanting to retool a team that went from World Champions to last place, Céspedes was a nice piece to dangle. The Tigers bit quickly before anyone else could get into the action. The cost was starting pitcher Rick Porcello, who like Céspedes is entering the final season of his contract and is eligible to be a free agent after the 2015 campaign.
The Tigers got their man and now they have a middle of the lineup that will read something like this: Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Yoenis Céspedes, and J.D. Martinez. That quartet had 102 homers and 388 RBI last season. The acquisition of Céspedes improves an outfield that (even with the surprising emergence of J.D. Martinez) was subpar in 2014. It took a few years and he’s worn a few different uniforms, but Céspedes is finally a Detroit Tiger and Dave Dombrowski got his man.
“We’re happy to reunite with him,” Dombrowski said at the winter meetings last week.
The Tigers got their man, time will tell if the Lions keep theirs.