Tigers have chance to land affordable upgrades on buyer-friendly free-agent market

Detroit News

Chris McCosky
| The Detroit News

Detroit – Tigers general manager Al Avila has been very tip-lipped about his plans in free agency this winter. Understandably so.

Not only is he loathe to tip his hand to the other 29 teams he’ll be bidding against, but probably never before has he entered an offseason with so much economic uncertainty.

The entire industry has been severely damaged by the COVID-19 pandemic. Commissioner Rob Manfred estimated recently that baseball accrued $8.3 billion in debt and close to $3 billion in operational losses this past season.

Teams, the Tigers included, have been forced to lay off and furlough employees in both business and baseball operations. Not an ideal landscape for doling out nine-figure, multi-year contracts.

Under normal conditions, the Tigers would be sitting pretty entering free agency. It’s been a four-year process, but Avila and his staff have finally whittled what was nearly a $200 million payroll to one guaranteed contract – Miguel Cabrera’s annual $30 million.

They have the financial wherewithal to spend big. But given the losses sustained in 2020 and with no certainty of a 162-game schedule or full-capacity stadiums in 2021, and with the Tigers’ top prospects still a year or two from making a full impact at the big-league level, it may not be prudent to be handing out $100 million multi-year contracts this winter.

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But here’s the other side of that coin: It’s a buyer’s market, deep in talent with a large percentage of owners unwilling or unable to open their wallets. It’s a simple case of supply and demand. If the supply is greater than the demand, the prices typically go down.

The tone has already been set. The Cardinals declined a $12.5 million option on Gold Glove second baseman Kolten Wong. The Indians declined a $10 million option on closer Brad Hand. Both of those players passed through waivers unclaimed and are now in the free-agent pool.

That pool will likely get deeper on Dec. 2 when teams announce their non-tender list – players who are eligible for salary arbitration that teams chose to release. The Tigers have nine arbitration-eligible players – Matthew Boyd, Jeimer Candelario, Jose Cisnero, Buck Farmer, Michael Fulmer, Niko Goodrum, Joe Jimenez, JaCoby Jones and Daniel Norris – and most, if not all, are expected to be either tendered or signed prior to arbitration.

The point is, there will be very good players available at reduced prices and the Tigers are in position to possibly do more than just fill their many roster holes with short-term veterans whom they’d hope to flip for prospects at the trade deadline.

Not suggesting that they will go out and get a top-tier free agent like catcher J.T. Realmuto – though that would be a coup – or a top of the rotation starter like Trevor Bauer. But if ever there was a year to find gold in the bargain bins, this is it.

In order of importance, the Tigers top needs this offseason are catcher, corner infield (either first base or third base), second base, starting pitching and outfield. Here are some possible, though not in any way official, targets.

►Catcher: James McCann (30). Realmuto will probably command a contract with average annual valuation of close to $20 million. McCann is considered the second-best catcher on the market and likely will sign for less than half of that. The sticky issue, of course, is whether McCann will want to sign back here after the Tigers unceremoniously dumped him two years ago.

Other options: Austin Romine (32), Wilson Ramos (33), Jason Castro (33), Alex Avila (34), Tyler Flowers (35), Mike Zunino (30).

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►Corner infielder: Carlos Santana (34). Jeimer Candelario finished last season at first base but Avila has made it clear he had no issues with him playing third base. Santana never got on track in the 60-game season, hitting .199 with nine home runs. Still, he led the American League with 47 walks and had an on-base percentage of .349. If the Tigers are sure Spencer Torkelson is only a year away, this would be an ideal filler.

Other options: Mitch Moreland (35), Jedd Gyorko (32), C.J. Cron (31), Jake Lamb (30).

►Second base: Kolten Wong (30). The assumption is the Tigers will let Willi Castro and Niko Goodrum fight for the shortstop spot. And conceivably, the loser would be the everyday second baseman. Or, the Tigers could see how far the price drops for Wong, who would be an instant game-changer both defensively and in the batting order.

Other options: Jonathan Schoop (29), Cesar Hernandez (30), Marwin Gonzalez (32), Joe Panik (30), Brad Miller (31).

►Starting pitching: Garrett Richards (32). It’s doubtful the Tigers will get 30 starts from Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal or Michael Fulmer next season; all will be on some restrictions. Richards has only thrown 198 innings over the last five years, but he was solid in 2020. The spin rate on his fastball (mid-90s) and curve ball are among the best in baseball. The Tigers might not be looking to spend a lot to accumulate starting pitchers, but this would an intriguing get.

Other options: Taijuan Walker (28), Mike Minor (33), Rick Porcello (32), Matt Shoemaker (34), Michael Wacha (29), Robbie Ray (29).

►Outfield: Jurickson Profar (28). It’s uncertain how the Tigers view the outfield situation these days. Presumably Christin Stewart is no longer the everyday left fielder, which is where Profar would slide in. He had a productive year in San Diego (113 OPS-plus, .343 on-base percentage) and had back-to-back 20-home run seasons in 2018 and 2019. He’d be a valuable plug-in until Daz Cameron and Riley Greene are ready.

Other options: Jake Marisnick (30), Michael A. Taylor (30), Adam Eaton (32), Domingo Santana (28), Josh Reddick (34).

Thinning of the herd 

Among the 422 players who were declared minor league free agents on Monday were outfielder Jorge Bonifacio, infielder Dawel Lugo and pitcher Dario Agrazal – all of whom were on the Tigers big-league roster at some point last season.

Also becoming minor-league free agents were former outfield prospect Jose Azocar, pitchers Tim Adleman, Sandy Baez, Shao-Ching Chiang, Dereck Rodriguez and Tom De Blok, infielder Brian Schales and Frank Schwindel, and catchers Jhon Nunez and Kade Scivicque. 

Twitter @cmccosky

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