Henning: Tigers have glaring problem at shortstop; throwing money at it might not be wise

Detroit News

As someone who watched Ray Oyler start for a Tigers world championship team (Oyler’s 1968 batting average: .135 in 111 games), there is empathy as the Tigers sort through immediate and long-term answers at shortstop.

There is Zack Short: .145 batting average, and who because of his previously handy glove, ranked somewhere near the top of manager AJ Hinch’s present everyday options. A bad Sunday, with two ugly errors that pretty much cost the Tigers a game against the Indians, helped undo Short and earned him a ticket back to Toledo.

There is Niko Goodrum: .220 batting average on the season as he reunites with Hinch and the Tigers after a calf strain knocked him for a couple of weeks.

There is Willi Castro: .211 batting average, minus defense you can trust on the level of Goodrum’s or even Short’s. Among the world’s other endangered species are Castro’s chances at being any kind of eventual answer at short.

This isn’t a happy situation for a rebuilding team that has gotten a lift from 2021 as the Tigers win more games and cross the “respectable” threshold.

Without a shortstop, a rebuild is incomplete. And the jarring reality for Detroit’s baseball faithful is that no shortstop, within the team’s big-league and minor-league galaxies, is likely to be an answer in 2022, if not beyond.

Problem here — a biggie for general manager Al Avila.

Help wanted

Fans, of course, have a near-unanimous solution: Carlos Correa, the Astros star who appears headed for offseason treasure as a free agent. Or, if the Tigers insist on the four-star versus five-star answer, Marcus Semien of the Blue Jays, who likewise is about to enjoy the wealth that free agency bestows on excellent two-way shortstops.

Trevor Story? He’s another free-agent-to-be who remains hot in most fans’ minds. Not so much in the view and reports of MLB front offices that don’t like what’s going on with his arm and defense, to say nothing of his bat, which also has cooled a bit in 2021 (.256, still-solid .789 OPS).

Here’s the cold truth for Tigers followers waiting for a blank check to be waved at Correa, who no doubt wouldn’t mind rejoining his old Astros skipper, Hinch, if the money were right:

He probably has out-priced any mid-market team, and like it or not, the Tigers are a mid-market club that got into trouble when they spent like a big-market team and set the current rebuild back several costly years.

Correa is going to cost at least $300 million with something in the range of eight or more years.

Considering that he turns 27 in September, this sounds defensible. And, at the outset, it probably will be. It’s the back end that can kill a club, just as the latter (or ongoing) years of the Miguel Cabrera, the Victor Martinez, the Justin Upton, the Jordan Zimmermann, etc., free-agent deals and extensions left the Tigers’ and their reconstruction in the soup and helped bring on a miserable baseball ordeal in Detroit.

Semien, too, is likely to be prohibitively expensive, given that he turns 31 in September and also will want heavy money probably for longer than the Tigers should commit to a shortstop of his vintage.

To which the crowd will say: Take a flying leap off the DAC. The Tigers paid Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez to fuel the last heyday. They invested in Cabrera. They anted up for Justin Verlander and others. They authorized $214 million to sign Prince Fielder.

True. But the situations are neither analogous, nor are they without blemish, as the Fielder signing, alone, should confirm.

Pudge and Ordonez bit on Detroit in 2004 and 2005 when they were being ignored because of big MLB front-office worries about a bad back and bad knee. Those signings were anomalies.

Yes indeed, the Tigers under late owner Mike Ilitch did splurge on Verlander and Cabrera and on contracts that became long, expensive extensions. They had a good first venture with Victor Martinez but then, unwisely and at Ilitch’s behest, signed him to a bad second deal the front office always opposed.

Zimmermann was an Ilitch-ordered grab and was a painful drag on payroll and a rebuild that should have begun at the very point he was signed. Upton nearly became another red-ink repository before the Tigers were able to unload him.

Free agency is a bit like the boat owner’s tale of the two happiest days of ownership: the day you buy it, and the day you sell it.

The other problem with throwing Fort Knox money at roster holes is that, at some point, it suffocates budgets and maneuverability.

Think back to the playoff run of a decade ago.

Notice something about the bullpen during those years. It generally was soft. And part of the reason there, beside the fact then-GM Dave Dombrowski viewed (credibly) relievers as being mercurial and as likely to shine as to slip up, was money.

The Tigers often were out of budget when it came time to add relievers who, for example, might have locked down that ALCS game at Boston in 2013.

The Tigers also were gushing plenty of red ink even during those years, and oceans of it afterward, right down to paying luxury tax in 2017 when they had the worst record in baseball.

Free agency can work. But especially for mid-market teams it doesn’t often work at stratospheric levels, which is where Correa is headed this autumn.

Should the Tigers back away from Correa? No. See what it will take. If the man currently in charge, Chris Ilitch, can make an exception to fiscal sanity and has the means to out-bid his rivals, then go for it.

Same with Semien. Or, even for Story, if scouts detect during these final two months that he, in fact, can be trusted in 2022 and beyond.

But the more practical, more gainful approach long-term will be to do exactly what the Tigers did Saturday in signing Jonathan Schoop to a deal that worked for both parties.

Spread the money around. Use it to widely and appreciably upgrade your bullpen, rotation, and lineup — and then count on an answer at shortstop to evolve during this next year, right down to next summer’s trade deadline.

The Tigers might have been on the verge of that brand of deal had their two best trade chips in July not been lost earlier: pitchers Spencer Turnbull and Michael Fulmer.

Once they were gone, the chance to potentially deal for a solid, high-minors shortstop essentially vanished.

That deal could be there a year from now, when the Tigers should be in much better stead — because of depth and minor-league bright lights — to make that flavor of trade.

In-house help?

There is one other possibility.

That a team, which is now getting its share of surprises on the plus side (Akil Baddoo, Eric Haase, Derek Hill, etc.), finds next spring a legitimate in-house shortstop in Ryan Kreidler.

More: Around the Tigers’ farm: Kreidler showing signs of becoming factor in shortstop hunt

He is doing fine at Double A, defensively anyway, with power and a bat that could be a weapon if he somehow can chop down on strikeouts.

Given his age (23) and relative inexperience (Double A two years after college, with no minor-league season in 2020), the Tigers want badly to see what might yet bloom with Kreidler, who wouldn’t need to hit .270 with 25 homers to give the Tigers a franchise boost at short.

He could hit beneath those levels and end up as a boon to a team that’s steadily taking shape around short.

People forget, again, that Oyler batted .135 for a bigtime winner, even if he was benched during the World Series.

Recall, too, that when Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker were giving the Tigers the ultimate in two-way glitter at shortstop and second base as they racked up a world title in 1984, the Tigers were shuffling along with Tom Brookens at third and Larry Herndon in left field.

There are places across a diamond and a roster where you can pick up slack from weaker bats — if you get up-the-middle defense that’s critical, and a kid like Kreidler is a safe bet there. It’s all about the bat gaining at least a half-gear, which is, just maybe, achievable.

What isn’t debatable is the need for a shortstop — a shortstop you can take into October and expect to be a plus player.

That choice is about more than one player. Which isn’t Correa, exclusively. It’s up to the Tigers to find their option, sometime during the coming year.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

On deck: Orioles

►Series: Three games at Camden Yards

►First pitch: Tuesday-Wednesday —  7:05 p.m.; Thursday —  4:05 p.m.

►TV/radio: Tuesday-Thursday —  BSD, 97.1

►Probables: Tuesday —  RHP Casey Mize (6-6, 3.57) vs. LHP Keegan Akin (0-5, 7.66); Wednesday —  LHP Tarik Skubal (7-10, 4.32) vs. RHP Matt Harvey (6-10, 6.13); Thursday —  RHP Matt Manning (2-5, 6.33) vs. LHP John Means (5-3, 2.79).

►Mize, Tigers: He threw one of his best games of the season against the Orioles in Detroit on July 29, allowing only an unearned run and four hits in seven innings. But he gave up three home runs in five innings against the Red Sox in his last start.

►Akin, Tigers: The Midland and Western Michigan University product, who pitched in relief against the Tigers at Comerica Park two weeks ago, is getting a spot start and will likely only get one turn through the order. He’s not had many clean innings, allowing 70 hits with 20 walks in 51.2 innings.

—  Chris McCosky

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