Wojo: To take next step, Tigers should sign shortstop Carlos Correa — if price is right

Detroit News

Detroit — OK, they have our attention. The Tigers went from a non-entity to a curiosity to a priority, all in one season. And now, it gets interesting.

Based on the enthusiastic mood of the players, the manager, the front office and many fans, the Tigers just completed the most-invigorating 77-85 season in recent history. And in a way, it was. Not just for what we saw — Miguel Cabrera’s 500th home run, multiple winning months — but for the opportunity it created.

Owner Chris Ilitch was waiting to see signs of ascending before spending, and he saw them. AJ Hinch showed he’s a difference-making manager. Al Avila revamped staffs on the major- and minor-league levels, uncovered hidden gems and now sits in an entirely different place than a year ago. Young pitchers developed. Hot seats cooled, as the Tigers played competitive, oft-inspired baseball after a brutal start.

The franchise has emerged from the hard part, just in time for the really hard part. The Tigers found some transitional players but now must find transcendent players. Ilitch said he would spend when it was time, and it’s time, after five losing seasons.

You know the marquee name: Carlos Correa, star shortstop for the Astros, certain to be coveted by the Tigers and others. You might think you know the price, although Correa turned down a six-year, $120-million extension from Houston that he called “really low.” You might even think you know the Tigers’ resulting destination — 2022 playoffs.

More: The Detroit News’ 2021 Tigers final grades

You might not realize how far that is from certain, even if Correa came aboard.

“It’s fun, it’s exciting, I want to give you guys some bulletin board material that I’m declaring we’re gonna be a playoff team,” Hinch said Tuesday. “But I’d like to meet my team again before we talk about where we’re gonna be next October.”

The next leap is a huge one, and if only it was as easy as signing one star free-agent. If it was, the Tigers absolutely would choose Correa, one of the game’s best all-around players. He hit a career-high 26 home runs and his 7.2 WAR was tops for a position player. He played for Hinch in Houston, and that connection surely gives them a shot at least to compete for Correa, along with super-spenders such as the Yankees.

But there’s a reason Avila and Hinch spent a good portion of their wrapup press conference splashing back at all the “big splash” talk. Correa, 27, already rebuffed a $20-million annual salary and has missed time in previous seasons with back ailments. Last year’s free-agent shortstop gem, Francisco Lindor, signed a 10-year, $341-million deal with the Mets and had a rocky season.

That should not scare the Tigers away from Correa. It should — and it will — make them consider other options. Are three medium-to-large splashes — including a possible return of Justin Verlander — better than one gigantic splash and a ripple? After unburdening themselves from Cabrera’s $32-million salary in two years, do the Tigers want to invest so heavily in one player?

Me? I’d sign him if the salary stays beIow $30 million, but with baseball’s CBA expiring Dec. 1, much is unknown.

“We have to understand what it takes to win,” said Hinch, who won the 2017 World Series and made four playoff appearances in five seasons with the Astros. “A big splash would help, but it’s not an end-all, be-all. Is it possible? Sure. The hidden thing in the room is, are we gonna sign this big dude? Maybe. But are our big prospects going to be big splashes? Yeah, maybe.”

On one hand, Ilitch would gain instant acclaim and credibility from the fan base. On the other hand, the Tigers have many more needs than the feel-good mood suggests. Avila rightly noted a veteran starting pitcher is a must, with a young rotation including Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal. Matthew Boyd underwent elbow surgery and might not be brought back. Spencer Turnbull will be out a year following Tommy John surgery.

After a 9-24 start, the Tigers put some pieces together, and Avila gets full credit for finding guys such as Akil Baddoo, Eric Haase and Wily Peralta. Keeping veterans Robbie Grossman and Jonathan Schoop was productive. Sticking with third baseman Jeimer Candelario was key, and he emerged with an MLB-leading 42 doubles.

But asking Avila to dig up more discount deals, and Hinch to again duct-tape together a rotation and everyday lineup, isn’t entirely fair. Or wise. Ilitch said in August he was “fully supportive” of bringing in high-impact players and added, “Undoubtedly that could happen this winter.”

I believe his intent is real. After all, why would an owner hire one of the game’s best managers, spend heavily on off-field personnel, chart the franchise’s future by hiring young executive Ryan Garko, and then not upgrade the on-field talent?

It will be upgraded naturally when prized prospects Riley Greene, 21, and Spencer Torkelson, 22, arrive. For Greene, that could be as early as Opening Day, although the Tigers aren’t committing to it. After such a massive tear-down and rebuild, it’s time for outside help.

“I can very simply tell you we’re gonna look at everything,” Avila said. “We’re not gonna target one player, we have to look at the whole list of free agents. … Sometimes a big splash turns out wrong for you. There’s no fear factor in signing a big contract, but it’s about making the right decisions.”

The Tigers have the eighth-lowest payroll in the majors, a logical dip after years of free-wheeling under Mike Ilitch, but no longer acceptable in a great baseball town. Avila said he won’t be “spending like a drunken sailor” but he doesn’t want fans swearing like drunken sailors either.

Correa is the prize, but there’s a bounty of free-agent shortstops — Dodgers’ Corey Seager, Rockies’ Trevor Story, Mets’ Javier Baez, Jays’ Marcus Semien. The top free-agent pitcher might be the Dodgers’ Max Scherzer, but it’s highly unlikely he’d come back here. Another possibility is another former Tiger, Jays lefty Robbie Ray, who led the A.L. in ERA and strikeouts.

The Tigers also need a catcher, with Jake Rogers out for the year, and more dependable bats. Avila believes they’re mostly set in the outfield, partly because he thinks — but doesn’t want to say too loudly — Greene is just about ready. Torkelson, the slugging No. 1 overall pick in 2020, isn’t far behind.

“Tork and Greene, I’ll get hundreds of questions on that,” Hinch said with a laugh. “Pressure is a word I love, and we’re gonna apply as much pressure on everybody, including ourselves, on when to make this decision, when to open the door for everybody. I’m kinda curious how they’re gonna respond next February in camp, now that all eyes are on them. That step to the big leagues is the biggest step you’re ever gonna make.”

It’s a step the young players and the franchise need to take, now that appetites are whetted. Hinch has made a tremendous impact, and so has pitching coach Chris Fetter. They extracted maximum performance out of a minimal roster and earned the chance to work with more.

Lots of moves are yet to be made, but there’s a reason Avila and Hinch were mostly beaming. Although the Tigers aren’t near legitimate championship contention, they’re also not near where they were a year ago, when Avila and Ilitch were under heavy scrutiny.

“Going what we went through, going through what I personally went through, I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” Avila said. “But I signed up for it and knew what it was. So yeah, at this point it’s somewhat satisfying to get here, but there’s a long way to go. As a matter of fact, I’m more motivated now because you can see that light at the end of the tunnel.”

They’re coming out the other side with plans intact and promises pending. An expectation to win is how you define a culture, and the expectation is real. Actual playoff contention is the hard part, and it will take all sorts of splashes, external and internal, large and small.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: bobwojnowski

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