Henning: Why Tigers need to consider adding a new star in George Springer

Detroit News

Lynn Henning
| The Detroit News

Aggressive thinking has returned to Comerica Park. Or, at least it should.

It’s time to at least see if George Springer would consider a handsome one-year offer to play for the Detroit Tigers, all as vaccines arrive, as a pandemic wanes, and as calmer times presumably return to big-league baseball at some point in 2021.

Here’s why it makes sense to at least discuss – discuss – the possibility of signing a 31-year-old star outfielder and billboard free-agent to a Tigers contract.

Because the Tigers desperately need reinvigoration. Desperately, they need it.

And, just as important, because Springer could conceivably be interested, all because he has such respect for new Tigers manager AJ Hinch.

A couple of qualifiers come with this fanciful thought of signing a many-dimensional center fielder whose career numbers are rather nice: .270 batting average. .361 on-base percentage, .852 OPS.

It has been argued here that premier talent on the scale of Springer rarely is interested in hitching-up with a team that has made last place its specialty the past few years.

And that, generally speaking, is true. Players want to win. Winning can be more important than raw dollars, all because athletes foremost like to compete, and to triumph, and also because winning tends to pay off for players in any number of market-reflected ways.

What changes the equation on a Tigers-Springer hook-up is tied solely to a team’s good fortune and prudence two months ago in making Hinch its new skipper.

Do not underestimate the importance Hinch brings to player recruitment. That is particularly true in the case of Springer, and even Justin Verlander, should a year from now, as Verlander heals from his Tommy John surgery, he and the Tigers contemplate a most plausible 2022 reunion.

Springer and the Astros players who worked for him in Houston have an appreciation for each other uncommon in player-manager relationships. Astros players pretty much unfailingly regarded Hinch as everything you could want in a skipper: straight, caring, smart.

The Tigers can avail themselves of that mutual-admiration reality. They can, much as they were able to convince Pudge Rodriguez to sign 17 years ago, possibly – possibly – take advantage of a funky market and coax Springer to Detroit.

Dare to dream

Again, the more likely scenario for both parties is they would bring aboard Springer at a premium for a single season. The Tigers would overpay to a defensible extent and free Springer from the chilly COVID-19 winter market, allowing him a prosperous 2021 ahead of that anticipated hotter free-agent landscape a year from now.

There might even be a shot at extending Springer sometime in 2021 if all parties saw it as gainful.

There are plenty of impediments, here, you bet.

►1. Springer might well get his big long-term bucks from the Mets (new ownership is itching to write checks, as was confirmed with a dizzying deal handed catcher James McCann) or Blue Jays or some such suitor. A few, very few, ambitious shoppers are out there and Springer might yet cash in.

►2. Tigers ownership-general Chris Ilitch might decide, legitimately, that he simply can’t pay Springer when the Tigers needs two starting pitchers, a catcher, and another hitter for the infield, etc. As a man who delights in spending other people’s money but who understands that might not be something an owner can abide, I understand there are limits, just as most MLB owners are observing ceilings during a year when they’ve lost their tail and stand to lose whatever grows in the tail’s place in 2021.

But, again, there is room for Detroit’s baseball fans to dream. Those visions rest squarely on the fact Springer and Hinch absolutely would be happy to reunite – if something justifiable could be worked out on the financial end.

You wonder if the Tigers have much choice, even after this horror story of a year.

Baseball is so very important to this town. Fans are exhausted from losing. They want almost as much as a vaccine that will knock out COVID a baseball player or two or three who give them something to genuinely feel good about heading into spring.

Their devotion, their soulful partnership with this Tigers team, is extraordinary. Once you can fill those seats with people and not cutouts, they’re going to show up, probably in surprising numbers – and definitely if there are players they want to see perform.

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There are other ways the Tigers can go, sure.

They can sign those two essential starting pitchers, maybe grab a big bat for the infield, and a decent catcher. They might get some bargain help for the outfield, although they’ll need to be careful there, because if defense isn’t a big part of that player’s profile they’ll not stand to gain much. And neither will a pitching staff that will be on a tight-innings leash in 2021.

Which prompted a wild thought.

What if the Tigers went pretty much all-defense with their outfield in 2021?

What if they stuck JaCoby Jones in left field, assuming he will regain some of that old range and magic he last displayed (to the analytics gang’s satisfaction) in 2021?

What if (gulp) they decided to put Derek Hill, who is a true defensive wizard, in center field and (double gulp) deploy Daz Cameron in right, simply to maximize gloves and acres that could best be covered in Comerica Park, which might as well be named Tri-County Park?

The theory here is that the best way to limit innings is to limit outs. Put three guys out there who can track down batted balls galore and you, philosophically, gain a significant edge that might be the ticket when you have so many young pitchers and others who won’t have pitched sufficient meaningful innings in 2020.

Granted, you still need offense. And even if you have three gazelles prancing across Comerica’s turf, it can’t be incumbent on them to shut down innings. Balls will still be hit into seats, and over heads, and between outfielders who can’t quite surmount the 100-mph exit velocities that too many bad pitchers or bad pitches will allow.

Factors to consider

This notion was run past a man, Mike Petriello, whose expertise and analytical mind is immense. Petriello works for MLB.com and has written for ESPN.com, FanGraphs – just about all the places where baseball’s best thinkers are displayed.

Petriello confirms what was suspected. The combined projected OPS of Jones, Hill, and Cameron for 2021 would be .677. The only team, he reports, in MLB’s 30-team era that made the playoffs with a sub-.700 OPS was the 2003 A’s.

Which actually is intriguing, and even bolstering, given that it indeed has happened.

But, of course, there were other guys on that A’s roster and daily lineup. Oh, were there.

No surprise, the A’s had superb starting pitching in ’03. No surprise, either, they had hitters – four guys who hit 21 or more home runs.

There have been few other exceptions to the outfielders-better-hit axiom, and all of those exceptions (2019 Indians, 2003 Marlins, 2001 A’s, 1998 Red Sox) featured ballast in the rotation and in the teams’ infields.

“The common thread,” Petriello said, “is if you have no offense in the outfield, you’d better have a few elite starting pitchers and some superstar infield bats, which the Tigers do not.”

Another national analytics guru, Dan Szymborski, was also quizzed on how imaginatively the Tigers might consider a weak-hitting, heavy-defense outfield. As can be seen from the accompanying chart data offered by Szymborki, gambling on gloves bailing out three tepid bats in Hinch’s regular lineup is not likely to be a winning wager.

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“JaCoby Jones has a really good shot if he can get back to his 2018 level of defense,” said Szymborski, who is a senior writer for FanGraphs, a contributor to ESPN.com, and who invented the ZiPS system by which a player’s numbers for the following season can be projected,

“It’s much trickier for Hill and Cameron as they have had OPS of .700 or under in the upper minors. They’d probably have to be Gold Glove contenders to be average, overall.”

It might be noted that regardless what the Tigers do between now and whenever Opening Day arrives, they will not advertise a 2021 team with pitching and hitting that hints at the word “playoffs.”

But they are obliged to play a full season of baseball in 2021. They have a mandate, never disputed by ownership, to be as competitive as is reasonable and achievable.

Chris Ilitch will likely have a different interpretation of “reasonable” and “achievable” than fans who buy tickets and whose financial obligations do not extend to financing payroll and mopping up red ink that will flood Comerica Park’s business offices again in 2021.

But at some point, an investment makes sense. At some point, a team concludes, as Chris Ilitch’s late father, Mike, determined in the winter of 2003-04, that a guy sitting on the free-agent shelf might do wonders for the psyche of a baseball audience, and its lineup.

I remember back to that winter of 2003-04. What seemed unimaginable in December, signing Pudge Rodriguez, gradually became more coherent, more doable.

The Tigers and Pudge finally shook hands.

It’s not the same situation this time around – Pudge was being ignored because of health issues, and there was no pandemic wrecking an industry – but if even a one-year venture could be launched by the Tigers and by Springer, here’s a bet, based as much on history as on a town’s current appetite, that a team and a town would dance a long-deserved baseball jig.

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