Spending in free agency is a crucial step for the Detroit Tigers in their quest to return to the postseason for the first time since 2014.
What happens this winter isn’t on manager AJ Hinch’s day-to-day radar, at least not with 29 games remaining in the 2021 season. He needs his team to finish strong. The Tigers (62-71) put together three consecutive winnings months in May, June and July but lost four games in a row to conclude August with a 12-14 mark.
But the Tigers are planning ahead.
A handful of examples: Rookie starting pitchers Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning have been monitored closely in hopes of getting them through September. That way, they’ll be prepared to pitch into October in 2022.
Veteran infielder Jonathan Schoop signed a two-year contract extension. Willi Castro shifted to the outfield and could be in a super-utility role next season. Jeimer Candelario proved himself as an everyday third baseman by raking gap-to-gap doubles (he leads the majors with 36 two-baggers this year).
Gregory Soto developed into an unofficial closer, and the remaining high-leverage roles in the bullpen seem locked in with Jose Cisnero, Michael Fulmer and Kyle Funkhouser. The top hitting prospects — Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene — were recently promoted to Triple-A Toledo.
And now, free agency is on the horizon.
“If the Tigers’ organization does a really good job, we’re going to re-establish ourselves as a winning franchise and develop a winning culture,” Hinch said Saturday. “If you want to be a part of it, then you’ll come. If you don’t, then we’ll beat you.”
With a 53-47 record since May 8 and 22-20 record since the All-Star break, the Tigers seem close to contending for the postseason. Hinch has established his winning culture, which helped his team find new life after a miserable 8-19 mark in April.
His nonchalant statement — “If you want to be a part of it, then you’ll come. If you don’t, then we’ll beat you” — went viral on social media. The quote was even plastered on a T-shirt. Mize was one of many players to share the quote on his Instagram story.
These players are hungry for a trip to the playoffs.
But the first part of Hinch’s statement — “If the Tigers’ organization does a really good job” — revolves around owner Christopher Ilitch, general manager Al Avila and others in the front office.
In early August, Ilitch suggested the Tigers might spend for a “high-impact” free agent, such as Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa. While the biggest need is a shortstop, the Tigers might also look for a veteran starting pitcher and a powerful bat to insert into the heart of the batting order.
“Undoubtedly, that could happen this winter,” Ilitch said.
When Avila spoke Tuesday about changes in his front office, he sat in the Comerica Park dugout and received a question that resembled what Hinch was asked a few days earlier: How important will this offseason’s free agency be to completing the rebuild?
Well, Avila’s answer isn’t going to be on T-shirts.
“Is that a part of it? That’s a part of it,” Avila said Tuesday. “But that’s not going to be the main part.”
There are a few things to acknowledge, starting with the fact that Avila doesn’t want to show his hand to the rest of the league. But the Tigers rank 23rd of 30 teams in payroll this year, with $30 million of the $85.3 million dedicated to Miguel Cabrera. Ilitch should be in a position to open the checkbook, so if spending is really on the agenda, Avila could have been more enthusiastic.
In a perfect world, the Tigers will only need a couple of fresh faces — combined with prospects and developed mainstays — to contend for the American League Central.
“Free agency is just one part,” Avila said. “Really, you need to focus on the team on the field right here. The key here was to get our pitching right. What are we building around? We’re building around Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning and Matt Boyd. The pitching. If you get that starting rotation in the right direction, to get them to pitch six-plus innings, that increases our chances of winning. We’re trying to win as many games as we can to get into the playoffs in the near future. That pitching has got to be right. We got to that point.
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“We got to address some issues with our offense, there’s no doubt about it. But we feel that our team is much more athletic. There’s much more speed. Our defense is improving. We feel that we have the makings of a pretty good bullpen and we’ve got some young guys coming up. You see all those parts. If you break down the team, you see that these players all came via trade or were homegrown Tigers. What you see very little is free-agent signings. You got Robbie Grossman and Jonathan Schoop. The rest of them came via trade or were homegrown, original Tigers. Soto, our closer, came from an international signing. You got to focus on that.”
Avila was then asked about the impact of Hinch, who has spearheaded the evolution of the team’s winning culture alongside bench coach George Lombard, pitching coach Chris Fetter and hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh. He focuses on winning each day in order to win each series and each month.
In theory, this philosophy — when executed — will have the Tigers playing well into October at some point during Hinch’s tenure as the manager. The players have bought in, making the next step in the rebuild less about Hinch and more about Avila’s opportunity to add top-tier talents.
This time, Avila suggested a “championship” is coming.
“He’s a big part of the equation,” Avila said. “AJ is obviously very well-known around baseball. Players respect him. Opposing managers respect him. The winning culture that he is creating here for us and this organization is going to be an attractive place to play. There’s no doubt about that. That’s one of the biggest reasons why we brought him in. Not only is he, in my opinion, the best manager in baseball, he’s also well-known. The players know him. The players trust him.
“That winning culture he’s creating here, this is going to be a place where I feel players are going to want to come play and win a championship.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.