| The Detroit News
Detroit — Tigers general manager Al Avila and his staff face maybe the most difficult and unusual offseason since the rebuild started — and that’s saying something.
Even though the club saved a ton of money paying prorated salaries this season, and the contracts of free agents-to-be Jordan Zimmermann, C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop, Austin Romine and Ivan Nova come off the books — as does the annual payment of $6,million to Prince Fielder — there is still financial uncertainty.
Nobody knows if fans will be let back into the stadium next season. And if they are, it’s probably optimistic to think Major League Baseball will sanction full capacity. So the Tigers are looking at the possibility of limited or no ticket sales revenue again.
On top of that, 2021 is the final year of the current collective bargaining agreement. The economic landscape may look a lot different in 2022. What that means, for most teams, is probably another off-season of seeking bargain-rate free agents and offering one-year deals.
And that process is complicated by the truncated 2020 season.
How do you evaluate players off a 60-game season played in empty stadiums after an interrupted spring training, a rushed and abbreviated summer camp, in a pandemic with daily testing and unremitting stress and anxiety over not only the virus but also the ugly and stormy socio-political climate that impacted every clubhouse in baseball?
How do you evaluate your own roster? Niko Goodrum got himself into a horrendous hitting slump almost right out of the gate. He was showing signs of coming out of it last week when the season ended. Do you write him off based on his struggles in a year like this?
Conversely, Willi Castro got hot the minute he was called up from Toledo and stayed hot. So based on 36 games and 140 plate appearances, do you give him the starting shortstop job for 2021?
Romine started strong and faded hard. Did the Tigers see enough to warrant re-signing him, do they fall back on the data they used to sign him in the first place, or do they go back on the catcher market and seek an upgrade? What about Schoop? As well as he played before the injury, as much as he seemed to like playing in Detroit and given the icy market, the Tigers could probably re-sign him affordably.
Unless, of course, they feel like Castro at short and Goodrum at second is the way to go up the middle in 2021 — essentially validating Castro’s short-season numbers and disregarding Goodrum’s.
These aren’t the kind of questions front offices are usually confronted with in the off-season. There are typically reams of data on players, based at least on a fresh, full season. Usually it’s, compare Player A to Player B. Now in a lot of cases it’s, compare what we think Player A might be to what we think Player B might be, based on a smaller sample.
And what to do about the pitching next season? Almost certainly the Tigers will have to add at least one and probably two more veteran starters. But think about this: Every pitcher, young or old, will be coming off a vastly-reduced innings load.
Maybe it won’t be much of an issue for older pitchers like Matthew Boyd to drop from 185 innings in 2019 to 60 innings this year and then throw another 185 innings in 2021. Same for Spencer Turnbull, who dropped from 148 innings to 56.2.
But what about young starters like Casey Mize (28.1 innings) and Tarik Skubal (23)? What kind of innings jump will be deemed safe and healthy for them in 2021? Typically, teams use a 30 percent jump in innings as a guide and that’s not going to get them through 30 starts.
It’s even a bigger problem for prospects like Matt Manning and Alex Faedo, two pitchers who will likely be in the fight for a rotation spot next spring. They barely pitched at all this season, both ending their alternate site work early with forearm strains.
It seems doubtful they’d be able to pitch anywhere near 100 innings next season.
The Tigers will have to either go 10 or 12 deep — Triple-A and big leagues — in starting pitching. Or, they will have to stock up on extended-inning relievers. Lefties Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander check both of those boxes and will likely be invaluable parts of the pitching staff next season.
Throw all that in the hat — plus the likelihood of an entirely new manager and coaching staff — and 2021 will almost have to be viewed as another transition year for the Tigers. That doesn’t mean another 100 losses, mind you. Hopefully those days are over.
But it will likely be a year of getting all levels of the minor league system reset after a lost season for all but 60-some players in the organization. It will be a year of pruning the 40-man roster, adding another group of one-year free agents and giving the younger players the full year of seasoning they didn’t get this year.
Here’s a position-by-position look at what the Tigers’ 40-man roster looks like heading into the off-season.
Back: Grayson Greiner, Jake Rogers
Bubble: Eric Haase
Next up prospect (non-40 man): Brady Policelli (2022)
Free agent: Austin Romine
Outlook: Greiner, Rogers and Haase all have minor-league options left, and none of them project to be the starting catcher in 2021. The Tigers likely will be shopping for a catcher this winter.
Back: Miguel Cabrera, Jeimer Candelario (arbitration eligible), Willi Castro, Harold Castro, Niko Goodrum (arbitration eligible), Isaac Paredes, Sergio Alcantara, Zack Short
Free agents: C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop
Bubble: Brandon Dixon (two options left)
Next up prospect (non-40 man): Kody Clemens, Spencer Torkelson (2022)
Outlook: The Tigers likely will try to add either a first baseman or third baseman — the best run producer they can get at one or the other position. Candelario would play whatever corner spot is left uncovered. They will have to make hard decisions on Willi Castro (give him the shortstop spot?) and Goodrum (is he the second baseman or use him in a super-utility role again?). Paredes, Alcantara and Short likely will spent a lot of the season at Triple A.
Back: JaCoby Jones (second-year arbitration), Victor Reyes, Derek Hill and Daz Cameron
Bubble: Christin Stewart, Jorge Bonifacio, Travis Demeritte, Troy Stokes, Jr.
Next up prospect (non-40): Riley Greene (late 2022, 2023)
Outlook: It wouldn’t be a complete surprise if the Tigers blew this outfield group up. It seems likely Jones will be back, but his injury history could cloud the arbitration process. Stewart has options left, but it appears he is no longer considered an everyday left fielder. Bonifacio, Demeritte and Stokes all have options but may not be part of the long-term plan. Reyes, Cameron and Hill, all under team control, may be the only sure bets for 2021, with Hill likely ticketed for a season in Triple A.
Back: Matthew Boyd (third-year arbitration), Michael Fulmer (third-year arbitration), Spencer Turnbull, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal
Free agents: Ivan Nova, Jordan Zimmermann
Bubble: Dario Agrazal, Dereck Rodriguez
Next-up prospects (non-40 man): Matt Manning, Alex Faedo (2021)
Outlook: As mentioned, there will have to be some significant additions here. And those additions could come from within if the Tigers decide to move Daniel Norris and-or Tyler Alexander into the rotation. They could also start Rule 5 right-hander Rony Garcia in Triple A as a starting pitcher. Keep an eye on Boyd’s arbitration situation, too. They Tigers historically get a little fussy with third-year arbitration cases. Boyd made $5.3 million pre-proration last year. Hard to imagine they don’t sign him back but take nothing for granted.
Back: Bryan Garcia, Gregory Soto, Joe Jimenez (arbitration eligible), Jose Cisnero (arbitration eligible), Buck Farmer (second-year arbitration), Daniel Norris (third-year arbitration), Tyler Alexander, Rony Garcia, Anthony Castro, Kyle Funkhouser, Franklin Perez
Bubble: Beau Burrows, John Schreiber, Nick Ramirez
Next-up prospects (non-40 man): Nolan Blackwood (2021), Jason Foley (late 2021, 2022)
Outlook: All three pitchers on the bubble here have options and of the three, Ramirez is the least deserving of being so designated. But, the Tigers DFA’d him after 2019 when he led the bullpen in innings pitched. He pitched well again, once he was finally called up and added to the 40-man, and he’s a guy who has and can pitch multiple innings — which he knows is no guarantee of anything. Most likely, Bryan Garcia will retain the closer role heading into spring training but Jimenez finished the year throwing nine scoreless innings in his last 10 outings, with his fastball climbing back to 95 mph. He might be back in the mix, too.