The Tigers had bounced back from an AL-record 119 losses in 2003 to 72 wins in 2004 — just four months removed from their eye-opening signing of free-agent catcher Iván Rodríguez — when they made a move that proved just as important in their rise to an American League pennant. They reached a three-year contract extension that June with shortstop Carlos Guillén, whom they had acquired in a trade before the season.
It was a relative rarity for then-general manager Dave Dombrowski to negotiate an extension during the season. But he had seen enough from Guillén to know that they wanted him around long term, and they saw little need to wait for the offseason. They also knew the statement it would make to sign him through 2007.
“I think we’re on the right track,” then-manager Alan Trammell said. “We all know we still have work to do, but to have him on board is going to make that process a little easier.”
The mindset was similar the next summer, when the Tigers saw enough from second baseman Plácido Polanco in two months following his trade from Philadelphia to sign him to a four-year extension in August, rather than let him test free agency that winter. Polanco turned 30 that fall, but the Tigers felt confident he could remain productive on the field and a valuable presence off it.
The Tigers wanted to take the next step, and they felt Guillén and Polanco were two players who could get them there. That pairing became the double-play combination for the Tigers’ AL championship team in 2006. Both were All-Stars in 2007, part of a stretch of three All-Star selections in a five-year stretch for Guillén.
The weekend announcement that the Tigers signed Jonathan Schoop to a two-year extension felt like a similar statement. No, it doesn’t mean the Tigers are thinking World Series or bust in 2022. Nor does it mean Schoop is necessarily part of the core of the next Tigers window. Like Polanco when he signed his extension, Schoop turns 30 in October. Even so, the signing is at least a statement that the expectations have changed and continuity is valued again.
“We’re building off of this,” manager A.J. Hinch said, “and Jonathan being here not only now but in the future helps us identify how to continually make this team better.
Detroit hadn’t signed a player to an extension ahead of free agency since owner Christopher Ilitch’s father, Mike, authorized an eight-year deal for Miguel Cabrera in 2014 to ensure he would retire as a Tiger. It’s also the second time in eight months the Tigers have signed a player to a multi-year contract after going four years without such a signing.
The Tigers could have waited for the offseason or taken what they could get on the trade market, perhaps let Schoop test free agency and maybe bring him back like they did last offseason. Likewise, Schoop could have waited to see if he could get more on the open market, as was the initial expectation when he hired agent Scott Boras earlier this year. Boras historically prefers free agency as a way to create competition and maximize contract values, but he also listens to his clients. Schoop’s opt-out clause after next year, a trend on Boras contracts in recent years, is a useful tool to allow Schoop to leverage market value if he wants.
Both sides saw value in doing a deal now.
“I gotta say that Jonathan has really put forth his own efforts to make sure he stays here,” general manager Al Avila said. “And it was important for us. We feel he’s a pretty important reason why we’re turning this around.”
A few ripple effects and questions:
What does this mean for the youngsters?
What makes Schoop’s extension workable is his versatility to play around the infield. Thus, he’s less likely to block a prospect’s path. If the Tigers decide next season that Spencer Torkelson is ready, they can play him and Jeimer Candelario at the corners and Schoop can shift to second. If Willi Castro makes his case for more playing time, or Kody Clemens earns a promotion from Triple-A Toledo, Schoop can play more at first, or even some at third. If everything goes right, the Tigers could eventually have a logjam. But rarely, if ever, does everything go right in a rebuild.
What does this mean for other veteran infielders?
Schoop was the only looming free agent in Detroit’s infield, but the Tigers face arbitration this coming winter with Candelario and Niko Goodrum, both eligible for the second time. Harold Castro could be eligible as a “Super-Two” player — someone with less than three full years of service time but close enough to rank among the top 22 percent of players in between two and three years. Candelario is an everyday player and key contributor, but the Tigers could face some decisions on how much they want to spend to keep that group together with Willi Castro, Zack Short, Clemens and others looming.
Could anyone else be extended?
No major contributor is a free agent at season’s end, but others are nearing the point when teams often decide whether to offer an extension. Matthew Boyd is on track for free agency after next season, and while the Tigers have plenty of young starting pitching, they also value Boyd’s leadership and openness to new ideas. Michael Fulmer, too, would be a free agent after next season, though his long-term role as reliever or starter is unclear. Candelario is on schedule for free agency after two more seasons and was already forecast as a potential extension candidate, though he has been more of a doubles hitter than a home run source this season compared to last. That’s not necessarily a bad development; Cabrera led AL hitters in doubles in 2011 and 2014, as Candelario was this season entering Monday.