Detroit Tigers are likely done in free agency. Here’s how their signings impact the rebuild

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold | Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Tigers are content with their haul this winter, spending a mere $14.5 million to acquire four free agents for the 2021 season.

The payouts for those players: outfielder Robbie Grossman (two years, $10 million), second baseman Jonathan Schoop (one year, $4.5 million), right-hander Jose Urena (one year, $3.25 million) and catcher Wilson Ramos (one year, $2 million).

General manager Al Avila may be done shopping this offseason, at least when it comes to major-league contracts. Expect a couple more minor-league deals to trickle in, per usual, before spring training.

Yes, that may be frustrating for fans, but the Tigers are sticking to their strategy.

DEVELOPING RAMOS: Inside former Tigers catcher Pudge Rodriguez’s mentorship

ADDING POWER: How new Tigers outfielder Robbie Grossman reinvented his swing

SHORT-TERM STRUGGLES: Tigers sign Jose Urena, but their pitching plan hasn’t worked recently

The team’s payroll for 2021 is currently $70.6 million, seventh-lowest in the majors. Excluding Miguel Cabrera’s annual $30 million, payroll would be $40.6 million — only higher than three teams: the Baltimore Orioles ($38.9 million), Pittsburgh Pirates ($37.7 million) and Cleveland Indians ($36.5 million).

Tacking on another big-league starting pitcher makes sense, but the Tigers won’t budge from their initial asking prices in negotiations.

[ Why Tigers GM Al Avila won’t seek winning baseball in 2021 ]

On the minor-league front, starting pitchers, outfielders and first basemen should be the priority for the organization’s depth. Four players have inked minors deals with camp invites: left-hander Ian Krol, catcher Dustin Garneau, right-hander Erasmo Ramirez and lefty Derek Holland.

At first base, the Tigers have a glaring hole and seem to prefer taking a flyer on a minor-league deal rather than spending big in free agency. Schoop could be helpful here, as well.

“One of the other major factors in coming back to Detroit is the manager and the coaching staff,” Schoop said Friday in a released statement. “I’m excited to play for (manager) A.J. (Hinch) — he and I have already had great conversations about allowing me to showcase my defensive versatility a bit more this year.”

Although Schoop has never played first base in the majors or minors, the Tigers believe he can take over at that position if needed. He has played second base (805 games), shortstop (22) and third base (14) in his eight-year MLB career.

This is one of many infield combinations that wouldn’t be surprising to see on Opening Day: Schoop (first base), Isaac Paredes (second base), Willi Castro (shortstop) and Jeimer Candelario (third base).

Finding the best fit for them will be ironed out in spring training.

Here’s more on the four significant signings by the Tigers this offseason, along with expectations for them in 2021 and how they impact the long-term rebuild.

RHP Jose Urena

Age: 29.

Signed: Dec. 23, 2020.

2020 stats: 5 G (5 GS), 23⅓ IP, 5.40 ERA, 1.500 WHIP, 15 K, 13 BB for Miami Marlins.

Expectations in 2021: Urena is a bounce-back candidate and gives the Tigers stability for a five- and six-man rotation amid the expected innings limits. After posting a combined 3.90 ERA across 343⅔ innings in 2017-18, Urena was derailed by injuries. He had a herniated disc in his lower back in 2019 and contracted COVID-19 in 2020. His arm, however, isn’t a concern, so he is considered low risk for a significant injury.

Urena is versatile and could shift to the bullpen. Of his 142 MLB games, he was a reliever for 44 of them. If the Tigers don’t have injury problems with their starters, or if lefty Daniel Norris gets back into the rotation, the bullpen could be Urena’s calling.

How Urena impacts the rebuild: There isn’t much to this signing unless the Tigers make a move at the trade deadline. At best, Urena allows the Tigers to closely monitor the usage of their young arms — Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning — in 2021 to prepare them for a greater workload in the future.

OF Robbie Grossman

Age: 31.

Signed: Jan. 5, 2021.

2020 stats: 51 G, 166 AB, .241 avg., 8 HR, 23 RBIs, 21 BB, 38 K for Oakland Athletics.

Expectations in 2021: Grossman fills a need in left field and does what the Tigers want their players to accomplish — keep the strikeouts low, increase walks and get on base. In his eight-year career, Grossman has a 12.6% walk rate (last year’s league average was 9.2%) and a 20.9% strikeout rate. He can help change the team’s mindset at the plate, which might be the biggest plus about this signing. Recently, the veteran has added more power to his swing, so the Tigers are eager to see how he produces across 162 games.

How Grossman impacts the rebuild: To get Grossman, the Tigers had to give him two years. But they wouldn’t have given offered a multi-year contract if they didn’t think he would be helpful in 2022 — the year the organization is targeting for the postseason. And he is a potential trade candidate.

C Wilson Ramos

Age: 33.

Signed: Jan. 29, 2021.

2020 stats: 45 G, 142 AB, .239 avg., 5 HR, 15 RBIs, 10 BB, 31 K for New York Mets.

Expectations in 2021: Ramos is resilient, battling through numerous injuries during his 11-year career and finding his way back into the lineup as an offense-first catcher. With a career .274 batting average, he should help the Tigers’ recent struggles at the plate. Yet Ramos is a liability on defense, in part because of his past ACL injuries.

The Tigers strongly considered signing Alex Avila, the GM’s son, for defensive purposes, but they wanted to boost their offense. Also, Ramos is close friends with Cabrera, which benefit the former two-time AL MVP.

How Ramos impacts the rebuild: The Tigers want Ramos to serve dutifully and pass the torch to 25-year-old Jake Rogers. The Tigers are cautiously optimistic that Ramos, Hinch and new hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh will aid his mental approach and unleash his power potential. The Tigers are going to give him an opportunity to make the big-league roster out of spring training, but that won’t happen unless he displays growth.

2B Jonathan Schoop

Age: 29.

Signed: Feb. 5, 2021.

2020 stats: 44 G, 162 AB, .278 avg., 8 HR, 23 RBIs, 8 BB, 39 K for Tigers.

Expectations in 2021: Going back to the versatility aspect, the Tigers don’t want Schoop as an everyday shortstop. That is Castro’s spot to lose. But they know he can play second and third base, and they’re confident in his ability to transition to first base. A strong defensive first baseman is beneficial, especially with a young crop of infielders. Schoop — a Gold Glove finalist at second base last year — will be tested at first this spring while everything else shakes out.

From an offensive standpoint, the Tigers like Schoop’s power. He is pumped to rejoin Coolbaugh, who was his hitting coach with the Orioles from 2015-18.

How Schoop impacts the rebuild:  Schoop adds leadership in the clubhouse and this one-year deal gives the Tigers more time. They want to try Paredes at second base, but if it doesn’t work out, Schoop provides a guaranteed fix. He gives the organization enough insurance to find long-term infield answers while tracking Zack Short and Kody Clemens in the minors.

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

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