Where Detroit Tigers can still capitalize on MLB free-agent market, according to AJ Hinch

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
| Detroit Free Press

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As the Detroit Tigers construct their roster for spring training, it’s easy to see where they can use upgrades: catcher, first baseman, second baseman and starting pitcher.

A left-handed-hitting first baseman or catcher makes sense, as does another starting pitcher to help with the expected inning limits, but general manager Al Avila wants to take his time spending.

“We’ve had more dialogue than what gets reported,” Hinch said Tuesday. “Good job by the Tigers keeping that mum, but we can only do so much. You got to have a partner on the other side that wants to be here for the opportunities we have.

“I do think there’s going to be deals at the end of this free agency or into spring training that can potentially make us better. Al and the group are working tirelessly to figure that out.”

So far, the Tigers have signed right-hander Jose Urena to a one-year, $3.25 million contract and outfielder Robbie Grossman to a two-year, $10 million deal.

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GROSSMAN: How new Tigers OF Robbie Grossman reinvented his swing and added power

The Tigers must find the balance between adding big-league free agents and allowing opportunities for prospects, such as third baseman Isaac Paredes, outfielder Daz Cameron and catcher Jake Rogers, to show they can stick.

“I’m not afraid of the young players,” Hinch said. “I’m not afraid of their growth. We saw some guys step forward last year. We’re going to see somebody else surprise us this year.”

Catcher: To add or not to add

The Tigers have pieces to survive the upcoming season without an additional first baseman and second baseman. For example, third baseman Jeimer Candelario could serve as the full-time first baseman, with designated hitter Miguel Cabrera filling in. At second base, Niko Goodrum and Paredes — if he proves his range — can handle the job, along with a helping hand from Harold Castro.

[ Detroit Tigers will test Isaac Paredes at second base in spring training ]

And left-handed reliever Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander are capable of starting games to alleviate the pressure on the team’s young arms. Plus, a few players on minor-league contracts — namely Derek Holland and Erasmo Ramirez — could fill in for spot starts.

Catcher is where Hinch continues to scratch his head. For now, the Tigers have Rogers, Grayson Greiner, Dustin Garneau and Eric Haase competing for two openings on the roster. All four of them have MLB experience but not much.

“I don’t have anybody penciled in to make our team on the catching side,” Hinch said. “I have numbers. We’re going to have seven or eight catchers (in spring training), and if we add another one, so be it. Those spots are open.”

[ How AJ Hinch plans to rewrite the story on prospect Jake Rogers ]

On Tuesday, J.T. Realmuto signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for five years, $115.5 million. Earlier this winter, former Tiger James McCann inked a four-year, $40.6 million contract with the New York Mets.

The Tigers weren’t willing to get into a bidding war for either of them. And the market for second- and third-tier catchers is running dry. These players have already signed: Curt Casali, Jason Castro, Kurt Suzuki, Mike Zunino and ex-Tiger Austin Romine.

That leaves Alex Avila, a left-handed hitter and the GM’s son, as one of the best remaining free-agent catchers. He hit .184 in 23 games for the Minnesota Twins last season and played for the Tigers from 2009-15, then returning for a short stint in 2017.

“Ideally, we would add to our mix and put some pressure on guys to make our team,” Hinch said. “In a perfect world, there’s still a guy out there that can help us. But whether the market produces that, whether that’s how we spend our dollars, obviously, that’s up to Al. I guess, at that position, the more the merrier.”

What else could happen?

At first base, second base and starting pitcher, the Tigers seem less likely to get aggressive, but short-term deals wouldn’t be surprising. They have expressed interest in first baseman Mitch Moreland. Another affordable choice is a reunion with C.J. Cron. He crushed four homers in 13 games for the Tigers last season before a season-ending knee injury

Marwin Gonzalez, who the Tigers have shown interest in, is a super-utility player with experience at first base and second base. He played for Hinch with the Houston Astros from 2015-18. Other options at second base: ex-Tiger Jonathan Schoop, Jonathan Villar and Joe Panik.

TOUGH DECISIONS: Tigers’ 2021 Opening Day roster prediction 2.0

“We’re fluctuating between having some options we can move around and having some competition,” Hinch said about his infield entering spring. “Where are we going to play Candelario? Where does Goodrum fit in? How many games can Willi Castro play? Is it all of them? The answers that we need are going to have to come on the field.

“We can dictate some of that if we sign an infielder. A little bit of help at first base changes Candelario’s usage. You sign a middle infielder, and that brings a lot of questions on where these guys can play. The infield is a specific area we’re toying with, but every decision we make is going to impact not just one or two or three players.”

The market for starting pitchers still includes Taijuan Walker, former Tiger Rick Porcello, Chris Archer, Matt Shoemaker, Brett Anderson, Carlos Rodon, Jake Arrieta and Cole Hamels. Although James Paxton is available, his value seems a bit higher than the Tigers are willing to offer.

With spring training just three weeks away and free-agent activity ramping up, the Tigers face tough decisions at four positions.

“Whether we add one or two, three, four (players), I don’t know how many players we have the ability to add,” Hinch said, “but it will be for a specific reason to make our team better, to give us a little bit more versatility around our team and ultimately to push some of those young guys.”

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

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