Here’s who the Detroit Tigers could still target in MLB free agency

Detroit Free Press

Ryan Ford
| Detroit Free Press

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The sports calendar has seemingly been out of whack for nearly a year — The Stanley Cup in September! The Masters in November! No Pro Bowl at all in 2021! — but we’re coming up on a near-constant: Spring training in mid-February.

Yes, despite the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, MLB teams (yes, including the Detroit Tigers) appear set to report to Arizona and Florida next month, with the Tigers’ spring schedule starting on Feb. 26 ahead of Opening Day at Comerica Park on April 1.

Even with camps opening in about three weeks, there’s still a lot of uncertainty around the majors. (DH for all? A 16-team postseason? The Blue Jays playing in Buffalo, Dunedin or TBD?) That extends all the way down to the free agent market, which finally started heating up this month with big-money deals for stars such as center fielder George Springer and infielder DJ LeMahieu.

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That doesn’t mean the free-agent cupboard is bare, however. Far from it. And even though the Tigers aren’t likely to be big spenders even if prices drop further, we thought we’d take a look at who’s left on the shelves, as it were, with the best free agent out there at every position, including some who aren’t related to their GM. We’ll also take a look at an alternative for the Tigers, should they be inclined to spend (Y’know, like they did in 2019, when they signed Josh Harrison to a late one-year deal. On second thought, let’s not bring him up.)

Here’s the top of the market:

Catcher: J.T. Realmuto

In two seasons in Philly, Realmuto was consistently effective, putting up 4.5 WAR in 145 games in 2019, then 1.4 WAR in 47 games — about a 4.3 WAR pace over 145 games — in 2020 (good for third in the majors among catchers). So why the wait for a big payday? Realmuto turns 30 in March; over the past decade, there have been only eight catchers with at least 4 WAR in a single season at age 30 or older, and only one at 32 or older.

Tigers target? Alex Avila: Once, twice, three times a Tiger? Last season, ASOGMA (Alex, Son Of GM Al) drew 11 walks in 62 plate appearances, for a .359 OBP with the Twins. That’s about what he had (.350) in his two previous stints (2009-15, ’17) In Detroit.

First base: Mitch Moreland

This market dropped off quick after the Royals signed Carlos Santana last month. He’s no Santana, but Moreland would seem to fit smoothly in the Tigers’ hunt for a lefty source of power, especially if Miguel Cabrera is going to see some time at first again. But Moreland is hardly young — he turns 36 in September — and his slash lines before and after his trade from Boston to San Diego are worrisome: .328/.430/.746 in 22 games with the Red Sox, .203/.247/.362 in 20 games with the Padres.

Tigers target? C.J. Cron: A righty bat, but he produced a small-sample-size line of .190/.346/.548  with the Tigers. Speaking of small sample sizes, they went 8-4 with 5.7 runs a game in the 12 games he played before injuring his knee.

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Second base: Kolten Wong

The six-year, $90 million deal for 32-year-old LeMahieu (Birmingham Brother Rice) with the Yankees presumably sets the high bar in the market, especially for Wong, whose WAR of 5.2 for 2019-20 combined is surprisingly close to LeMahieu’s 5.9, thanks to a big edge on defense for Wong. Then again, based on their 2020 performances alone, maybe you like Jonathan Villar (16 steals), Cesar Hernandez (20 doubles) or Jonathan Schoop (eight homers) as your No. 2 2B on the market. We wouldn’t argue any of them.

Tigers target? Schoop: As noted, he posted an impressive .324/.475/.799 line in 44 games with the Tigers, and, more importantly, seemed to play well with youngsters. That could be important for a franchise trying to see where Willi Castro and Isaac Paredes (and, of course, Niko Goodrum) fit in the infield.  

Third base: Justin Turner

Turner’s COVID controversy in Game 6 of the World Series may leave a sour smell under your mask, but the 36-year-old turned in a solid season (.307/.400/.460) once again in Los Angeles. Then again, that line was a slight decline from his heights of the past few years, which — combined with his advancing age — is likely why he’ll return to the Dodgers for another season, at least.

Tigers target? Marwin Gonzalez: Perhaps you’ve heard new manager AJ Hinch likes positional versatility? Gonzalez played 14 games at 1B, 21 games at 2B, 23 games at 3B, eight games in RF and, of course, one game at SS. His .606 OPS wasn’t great with the Twins in 2020, but he does have an in with Hinch: The two were together in Houston from 2015-18.

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Shortstop: Marcus Semien

Forget the brutal defender who had 66 errors in his first 311 games (2015-16) with a full-time job in Oakland, or a rate of an error every 4.7 games; Semien cut that to an error every 11.3 games in 2019-20. That’s not great, but if he brings his 2019 production at the plate — 33 homers, 43 doubles and a third-place finish in AL MVP voting — he’ll be a steal under almost any terms. (His 2020 numbers — including a .679 OPS and 50 strikeouts in 53 games — add a healthy element of risk as he turns 31 in September.)

Tigers target? Andrelton Simmons: The bat is what it is — 2020’s .702 OPS wasn’t far off his career .696 — but the four-time Gold Glove winner still has value in the field, as a down year last season still left him as an average fielder at age 31. The Tigers could do worse than an experienced glove to steady a defense that could struggle at times.

Left field: Joc Pederson

2020 was not Pederson’s year (join the club, right?) — the lefty was nearly dealt to the Angels in February before a separate deal fell through for the Dodgers, then managed only 11 extra-base hits in 121 at-bats with L.A. once the season started in July. Still, he’ll only be 28 when the 2021 season starts, had 61 homers and 43 doubles over the 2018-19 seasons and has experience playing first base, too. (Also, if Matthew Stafford’s impending departure has you worried about potential MLB/NFL connections, Pederson was a star wide receiver in high school — and teammates with current Green Bay Packers wideout Davante Adams.)

Tigers target? Adam Duvall: This is unlikely, considering the Tigers already spent big (relatively, at least) on Robbie Grossman in the outfield. But if they’re still looking for help … Age and a less-than-judicious batting eye — with a career .293 OBP — landed Duvall in the bargain bin, but the righty could provide some discount pop at the plate. The two-time 30-homer man (2016-17 with the Reds) had more homers (16) than walks (15) in 57 games with the Braves in 2020. That’s a 30-homer pace even with only 400 at-bats.

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Center field: Jackie Bradley Jr.

Bradley had a career year at the plate in 2020 — .283/.364/.450 in 55 games — and provided outstanding defense in center. But it was a level below his peak of 2016-17, and Bradley will turn 31 in mid-April, raising questions about how long he can patrol center as a high level.

Tigers target? Jake Marisnick: Look, the CF market falls off fast after Springer, and faster after Bradley. But if the Tigers are looking for another member of Hinch’s squad in Houston… well, Marisnick was there from 2015-19 (albeit with a .683 OPS in nearly 1,400 at-bats), can still handle center and won’t turn 31 until 2022.

Right field: Yasiel Puig

The “Manic Pixie Dream Righty” bat for many a Tigers fan last offseason missed all of 2020 after testing positive for COVID-19 right after signing a one-year deal with the Braves. Puig still brings a world of talent — his 24 homers and 19 steals in 2019 would fit in any lineup — but his admitted lack of effort as a Dodger means he’ll carry some baggage wherever he lands. (The Royals, Marlins and Yankees are the leaders right now, if that says anything about his risk/reward factors.)

Tigers target: Nomar Mazara: Again, the Tigers are looking for a lefty bat more than an outfielder, but there could be value in a deal with this 25-year-old lefty who had 20, 20, 20 and 19 homers in his first four big-league seasons before hitting just one in 2020 (an not against the Tigers, surprisingly).

Designated hitter: Nelson Cruz/Marcell Ozuna

The Twins appear to finally be getting serious about bringing back the 40-year-old who hit 16 homers in 185 at-bats for them last season (after six straight seasons with at least 37 homers). If/when he comes off the market, Ozuna (who turned 30 in November) would be the top DH candidate. He led the NL in homers, RBIs and total bases last season in Atlanta, and is reportedly looking for a four-year deal.

Tigers target? Edwin Encarnacion: A mostly disappointing 2020 (.157/.250/.377) kept the White Sox lineup from being a complete juggernaut, but there could be power left in the 38-year-old’s bat. Then again, the Tigers already have a soon-to-be-38-year-old penciled in at DH (mostly); Encarnacion is only 3½ months older than Miguel Cabrera.

Starting pitcher: Trevor Bauer

Bauer brings a blazing fastball, an unfair assortment of breaking pitches, the knowledge to put it all together as he did in his NL Cy Young season of 2020 — and a … well … equally aggressive approach on social media, including multiple accusations of bullying on Twitter. The former should have every team ponying up for the righty who turned 30 on Jan. 17; the latter should have every team thinking twice about it.

Tigers target? James Paxton: You can never have enough pitching, especially considering the Tigers’ likely inning limits on their young prospects. The Tigers already scouted Paxton in December as he attempted to show his recovery from a left flexor strain that limited him to five starts in 2020 with the Yankees. When healthy, the 6-foot-4 Canadian — they called him “The Big Maple” during his years in Seattle — can be dominant, with a no-hitter and a career 3.58 ERA. But with seven seasons as a front-line starter, he has yet to make even 30 starts in a season.

Relief pitcher: Mark Melancon

The reliever market has heated up this month, with Liam Hendriks, Kirby Yates, Archie Bradley and, on Sunday, Brad Hand all signing. That leaves some former closers with injury issues (Roberto Osuna, Ken Giles), effectiveness issues (Brandon Workman) and age issues (Melancon, Tyler Clippard). Still, Melancon is a relatively safe bet at closer; his stuff isn’t on par with his 2015 Pirates days, when he led the majors with 51 saves. But his 14 strikeouts and seven walks were effective enough to get 11 saves in 13 tries (and 22⅔ innings) with the Braves.Still Regardless, the Tigers hardly need to be spending on a closer, unless they’d look to move him at the deadline. Speaking of …

Tigers target? Shane Greene: The former Tiger was mostly awful in Atlanta in 2019 after a deal that landed lefty Joey Wentz and OF Travis Demeritte in Detroit — no harm, no foul, we guess. But Greene was quietly effective in a non-closing role with the Braves in 2020, with a 2.60 ERA, 21 strikeouts and nine walks in 27⅔ regular-season innings, plus a 1.50 ERA and six whiffs in six postseason appearances. A return to Atlanta seems likely for Greene, but there’s always the chance the Tigers could get a deal — and a chip to cash in again at the trade deadline.

Contact Ryan Ford at Follow him on Twitter @theford. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter

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