Tigers content to slow-play catcher market, but big plays are out there

Detroit News

Chris McCosky
| The Detroit News

Detroit — Here’s a simple truth: The media (present company included) and fanbase are way more worried about the Tigers’ catching situation than the Tigers are.

That seems counterintuitive since the only two catchers presently on the 40-man roster are Grayson Greiner (who hasn’t caught more than 58 games in any of his three seasons and has a .194 career batting average) and Jake Rogers (the club’s top catching prospect (35 big-league games total, all in 2019).

You’d think general manager Al Avila, like he was last offseason when he signed Austin Romine early in the hot stove process, would be aggressively courting catchers. But he’s not. In fact, when he was asked about his priorities for the offseason, he talked about adding starting pitching (re: the signing of right-hander Jose Urena) and run-producing bats, preferably outfielders (re: the signing of Robbie Grossman).

He didn’t talk about catchers until he was asked specifically about them.

“I mean, there’s a possibility of bringing in a catcher,” he said last month. “But I couldn’t tell you when.”

He also made the point of saying, “We also want to give some of our young guys opportunities to continue to develop and improve at the major league level. It’s that combination. It’s going to be a year where we want some improvement and we want some advancement.”

The Tigers went this route in 2019, when they started the season with two unproven catchers — Greiner and John Hicks. Didn’t go well. They ended up having to bring in veteran Bobby Wilson to stabilize the position before rushing Rogers to the big leagues at least a year too soon.

That didn’t go well, either.

They have the veteran stabilizer in place. They signed 33-year-old journeyman Dustin Garneau to a minor-league deal with an invitation to big-league camp. Eric Haase, who was designated for assignment last month, could also return to the organization on a minor-league contract.

In the meantime, James McCann (four years, $40 million to the Mets), Curt Casali ($1.5 million to the Giants), Mike Zunino ($2 million to the Rays), Kevan Smith (minor league deal to Brewers), Luke Maile (Brewers), Sandy Leon (minor league deal to Marlins) and Bruce Maxwell (minor league deal to the Mets) have all come off the catcher market.

McCann was clearly out of the Tigers’ price range, but Casali and Zunino were not. We don’t know, though. The Tigers might’ve bid on one or both and lost out for any number of other non-monetary reasons. More likely, the Tigers never intended on shopping for catchers until after their other needs and goals were met.

This wasn’t the year — post-2020 with no revenue certainty in 2021 — for Avila to go into the offseason with a blank check.  

In Urena ($3.5 million) and Grossman ($5 million), the Tigers have spent $8.25 million on free agents for 2021. Grossman was given a second year at $5 million. If recent history is a guideline, the Tigers aren’t likely to spend more than $20 million on free agents this offseason.

So figure with the remaining $17 million, they will continue to pursue starting pitchers, with the hope of signing at least one more veteran and possibly two.

They aren’t likely to be done shopping for hitters, either. The Tigers gave identical $6.1 million contracts to C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop last winter. They could, conceivably, still be in the market for more of a power bat — Adam Duvall, Nomar Mazara, Eddie Rosario, Joc Pederson, Kyle Schwarber or Jurickson Profar.

That is pure speculation, of course. But it’s meant to show why the Tigers aren’t fretting about the catching market right now. Avila has listed his priorities — pitching and hitting first. Adding the right talent in those areas, so goes the thinking, will have the biggest impact on the team’s success in 2021.

After that, plug the other holes, namely a catcher and possibly a veteran middle infielder, with whatever money is left over.

Eventually, come February, the Tigers could reach out to old friend Alex Avila, who is 34 and battled a back injury with the Twins last year. Others still on the market include Jason Castro, who probably won’t be there much longer, Kurt Suzuki, Wilson Ramos and Robinson Chirinos.

Bringing Romine back is another option, certainly, but if there was any mutual interest there, you figure that deal would’ve already been done. The guess here is both parties agreed to pursue other partnerships.  

New manager AJ Hinch is somewhat of a catcher whisperer. He caught for parts of seven big-league seasons and he takes pride in grooming, mentoring and developing catchers.

“It’s a blessing and a curse to play for an ex-catcher,” Hinch joked. “The blessing is we have a lot of expertise and a lot of feel for the position. The bad news is, we have a lot of expertise and feel for the position.”

Quality control coach Josh Paul is a catcher’s coach, too, and he worked tirelessly with both Greiner and Rogers last season.  

The organizational consensus could be that what’s in place now can work, at least into spring training and early in the season, and there is no urgency or much to gain by adding any of the available catchers presently on the market.

The Tigers still believe Rogers can be a solid, everyday catcher. They are hopeful that 22-year-old Dillon Dingler, their 2020 second-round pick, will be big-league ready in a couple of years.

Of course, there is another option, a more proactive one, one that would take the wishing and waiting out of the equation. They could trade for a young, two-time all-star catcher who is arbitration-eligible and still two years away from free agency.

There is chatter around the league that the Cubs might listen to offers for Willson Contreras. At some point on the road to contention, the Tigers will be positioned to trade a high-end prospect or two for experienced, proven talent.

Is the time now? Maybe, maybe not.

It doesn’t help, timing-wise, that two top pitching prospects — Alex Faedo and Joey Wentz — are shelved after Tommy John surgeries. Still, there hasn’t been this much talent in the Tigers’ system in more than a decade.

So, would it be absurd or insane to offer No. 3 prospect Matt Manning in a package for Contreras? Substitute Casey Mize or Tarik Skubal for Manning if you want, though it’s doubtful the Tigers would put Skubal in any deal. Would it even make the Cubs sit up and listen? Who knows? But in the absence of any real hot stove action, it’s an intriguing topic to kick around.


Twitter: @cmccosky   

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