What to expect from the Detroit Tigers as MLB’s 2020 winter meetings begin

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
| Detroit Free Press

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Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila and his colleagues are facing a unique challenge as MLB’s winter meetings get underway this week.

Trade conversations and free-agent rumors will unfold, but not in the same way they normally do. This year’s winter meetings, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, shifted from the Omni Hotel in Dallas, Texas, to a virtual format.

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Still, the Tigers — led by Avila and new manager AJ Hinch — have plenty of work to do in building a postseason-ready squad.

“I do believe that the organization understands that, in order to advance this, we’re going to need to invest in players,” Hinch said in mid-November. “We’re going to need some player development, to have some players come up and contribute. Takes a little bit of everything.

“Whether that happens in ’21, the market is going to kind of tell us that. The early talks with Al, he has been very forward with me about the fact that we’re not going into camp (spring training) with the same team that we have today.”

Tigers’ biggest needs

1. Starting pitcher (x2)

The most important task for the Tigers this winter is finding a starting pitcher. Actually, they need two of them. Detroit’s rotation combined for a 6.37 ERA last season — the worst in baseball. It won’t get easier in 2021, as industry-wide innings limits are expected to combat the change from 60 to 162 games.

Right-hander Taijuan Walker is a candidate. He posted a 2.70 ERA in 55⅓ innings for the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays last season. The 28-year-old, who projects to receive a one-year deal, appeared in just four games between 2018 and 2019 because of Tommy John surgery.

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Matthew Boyd, who had a 6.71 ERA last year, can eat innings and stay healthy. The Tigers know this, which is why they tendered him even though he led the majors in earned runs (45) and home runs (15). Spencer Turnbull is poised to become a frontline starter, but must show further improvement.

Besides Boyd and Turnbull, the Tigers can’t guarantee the other three starters — Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and ex-Tommy John victim Michael Fulmer — will be able to handle a significant workload increase. That’s why the Tigers are on the prowl for starting pitchers this winter.

2. Impact bat

Once the Tigers add two starters of their liking, the focus should shift to an impact bat. That means power. To get the best deal, they would be wise to pursue an outfielder who was recently nontendered such as David Dahl, Adam Duvall, Eddie Rosario or Kyle Schwarber. Michael Brantley and Joc Pederson are two more expensive options.

It’s unlikely they will make a run at George Springer, who played for Hinch with the Houston Astros from 2015-19. He would not only be costly, but would have to want to come to Detroit for a deal to get done.

[ Detroit should dig into nontender free-agent market to add power and pitching ]

3. Catcher

The Tigers are stuck with Grayson GreinerEric Haase and Jake Rogers entering spring training. It says a lot (and not in a good way) that Rogers wasn’t called up this year. In 2019, he hit .125 with four homers and eight RBIs in 35 games. Yet Hinch thinks he can get Rogers back on track.

“We’d like to have an upgrade on the offensive side,” Avila said in early October. “We’re hopeful that Jake is that guy and, of course, Greiner has an opportunity to bounce back. And Haase will be there as a candidate. The free-agent market looks the same almost every year. If you really want an upgrade (at catcher), you have to develop your own.”

The Tigers aren’t making a marquee catcher, namely J.T. Realmuto and James McCann, the priority this winter. They’ll seek starting pitchers and an impact bat before turning their attention to adding a catcher for depth. A low-cost option is Curt Casali, who was nontendered by Cincinnati Reds.


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4. Middle infielder

Next year’s free-agent class is loaded with premier shortstops: Javier Baez, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager and Trevor Story. Right now, DJ LeMahieu is the prize at second base, with Marcus Semien as the top shortstop on the market. 

Because of the Tigers’ infield flexibility and next year’s strong free-agent class, Avila might not focus much of his attention on a shortstop or second baseman this winter. The Tigers could look at Hanser Alberto, who was nontendered by the Baltimore Orioles and knows how to play second base, third base and shortstop.

Money talks

The Tigers will have money to spend this winter, as right-hander Jordan Zimmermann’s $25 million is off the books. Also, they don’t have to pay Prince Fielder his $6 million ever again.

That leaves the Tigers with $30 million guaranteed to Miguel Cabrera and an estimated $20-23 million to the nine arbitration-eligible players they tendered contracts to for the 2021 season. Everyone else will be near the major-league minimum of $570,500.

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But how much will owner Christopher Ilitch give Avila to pay out after the pandemic dampened profits?

“We’re working at this as fast as we can,” Avila told the Free Press in late October. “Now, when there’s enough (prospects) there (in the majors), obviously, at that point, just like every team, you’re gonna go outside, and you’re going to put together the players you need to complete that team. I couldn’t give you a timeframe right now.”

Rule 5 draft, roster management

The Tigers have the No. 3 pick in the Rule 5 draft on Dec. 10, but making a selection is up in the air. If the Tigers aren’t willing to sacrifice a spot on the 26-man roster, then they’ll pass on the draft.

[ Detroit Tigers protect four important prospects from Rule 5 draft ]

In the Rule 5 draft, an unprotected player is selected from a different team for $100,000 and must remain on the active roster for the entire season or be offered back to the original ballclub for $50,000. 

The Tigers’ 40-man roster is full, but the organization is ready to make cuts to add free agents and, if necessary, a Rule 5 player.

Free agents

1B C.J. Cron: Despite a .190 batting average, the veteran slugger did his job in 13 games with the Tigers, crushing four homers and eight RBIs. The Tigers went 9-4 with him in the lineup. Cron had season-ending knee surgery in August, but his agent, Mike Moye, told the Free Press on Friday he will be healthy by spring training and his rehab is going “extremely well.”

If the Tigers want to move Jeimer Candelario back to third base, re-signing Cron makes sense. But he probably isn’t first on the pecking order, as the team seems interested in signing starting pitchers — and even a corner outfielder — before filling the void at first base.

2B Jonathan Schoop: The 29-year-old hit .278 with eight homers and 23 RBIs for the Tigers in 44 games, proving he is capable of starting at second base for a contender. Gauging his monetary value is difficult. The Tigers should consider bringing him back, but Schoop could have his sights set on a team with World Series potential.

C Austin Romine: After inking a one-year contract from the Tigers, Romine was 23-for-79 (.291) through August, with two homers and 14 RBIs. At the time, it made sense for the Tigers to consider re-signing him as their starting catcher. But he slumped the rest of the way and ended with a .238 batting average. A platoon role might be Romine’s only option this winter. Despite his offensive struggles in September, the 32-year-old knows how to work with young pitchers, which is a plus.

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RHP Ivan Nova: It is unlikely that the Tigers will re-sign Nova, who is entering his 12th year in the majors. He only made four starts in 2020, logging an 8.53 ERA, before right triceps tendinitis in August ended his season.

Why might the Tigers still be interested? From 2016-19, Nova pitched more than 160 innings in each season.

RHP Jordan Zimmermann: There is no chance the Tigers will re-sign Zimmermann, who joined the team on a five-year, $110 million deal in November 2015. He had a 5.63 ERA and sustained numerous injuries in his tenure with the Tigers.

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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