GM Avila on Tigers’ 5 biggest recent moves

Detroit Tigers

The Tigers went into the offseason expecting they would be busier late than early. Still, as they gathered in Lakeland, Fla., for the start of Spring Training this week to survey the roster, the scope of their recent influx came into focus.

General manager Al Avila and his front office wanted to start turning a corner from back-to-back last-place finishes in the American League Central and four consecutive top-5 Draft picks. They wanted to leave room for their young talent to jump to the big leagues over the next year or so but also wanted to push them to compete. The result wasn’t flashy, but it was notable.

Since New Year’s Day, the Tigers have signed more than a half-dozen players who have a chance to make their Opening Day roster, including five potential starters in their projected lineup. All of them, except for outfielder Robbie Grossman, were on short-term contracts.

“At this point, we’re looking to win more games,” Avila said. “We’re looking for players to make the club through good performance and competition. That was part of it.”

Even as pitchers and catchers arrive for their first workout Wednesday, Detroit still might not be done dealing.

“We’re definitely looking for more pitching as we speak,” Avila said. “Whether it be a Major League contract or a Minor League [deal] with a [non-roster invite], I’m not really sure, but we’re definitely looking for more pitching … pitching in general, but I think one more starter would be ideal.”

The process began last October, when Avila, his assistants and the analytics department ranked every free agent and potential trade target. They knew they wouldn’t play at the top of the market, but they cast a wide net beyond that, looking at players who could fit their needs as well as their budget. They reached out, and then played the long game.

The Tigers signed former Marlins starter José Ureña in December, but every other major deal took place after the holidays. Here’s a look at how some of them came together:

Jan. 5: Signed outfielder Robbie Grossman to a two-year, $10 million contract
Detroit reached out to Grossman at the start of the offseason, Avila said, but it took them a while to reach a deal. It was also the Tigers’ first multi-year contract with a free agent since Justin Upton five years ago.

“We feel that we got really good value on Robbie Grossman,” Avila said.

Grossman has improved his hard-hit rate and exit velocity in each of the last three seasons. Neither ranks in the top percentiles according to Statcast, but the Tigers believe in the trend line.

“There’s a lot of adjustments that he made to increase the power,” Avila said, “and we do feel that will continue as we move along. We feel good that he can bring some power, although that has not been his full history.”

Jan. 29: Signed catcher Wilson Ramos to a one-year, $2 million contract
The Tigers weren’t in the running for J.T. Realmuto or James McCann, but they had a wide selection from the next free-agent tier. Their needs, Avila said, proved stronger than even family ties.

“It really came down to Alex [Avila] or Wilson, defense or more offense,” Avila said. “We were trying to make sure we were covered in other areas and trying to stretch the budget as best we could. … We needed to move forward because we knew Alex was moving on, and Ramos also. So we needed to take action, and at that point, through conversations with our staff, A.J. [Hinch] and my front office, we felt to go more with the offensive side, just because we’ve just been so bad offensively behind the plate.

“But in saying that, nobody ever said [of Ramos], ‘Hey, this guy is a butcher behind the plate.’ Most of our guys felt that he’ll be fine behind the plate, he’s a good leader, and he’s a guy that really gets involved with his pitchers.”

Feb. 5: Re-signed 2B Jonathan Schoop to a one-year, $4.5 million contract
The Tigers had interest in bringing back Schoop, having seen his impact last year, but they needed the market to play out.

“Obviously he’s a guy that can help us kind of settle in a little bit better, where you feel you get a little bit of veteran leadership there,” Avila said.

Feb. 10: Signed 2B Greg Garcia and 1B Renato Núñez to Minor League contracts with invites to Spring Training
While Garcia provides veteran insurance to the infield mix, the bigger signing was Núñez, who hit 43 home runs the last two seasons before the Orioles released him. The Tigers wanted help at first base but had limitations. Avila credited assistant GM David Chadd for making it work.

“David was on that one for a long time,” Avila said. “He kept on pounding like, ‘We’ve got to sign this guy.’ But obviously it’s hard when a guy’s expecting a Major League contract and you’re not offering one, so [Chadd] worked on it all winter. I’ve got to give him the credit. He really worked on it, and that’s how we got him.”

Feb. 12: Signed OF Nomar Mazara to a one-year, $1.75 million contract
The Tigers had interest in trading for Mazara last offseason but couldn’t work out a deal with the Rangers. He seemed like a natural target again once the White Sox released him coming off a down season, but it took some work.

“We were talking to him the whole time, as well as some other guys,” Avila said, “and we were fortunate enough to pick him up here at the end. At his age, he still has upside. We feel we can make some adjustments to his hitting. I think there’s some potential there for a comeback and more upside to reach his full potential, so we were happy about that.”

More moves could be on the way. For now, at least, Avila’s acquisitions in Lakeland have been limited to carryout.

“I’ve been picking up food here every night,” he joked.

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