The Detroit Tigers didn’t waste time.
Once the World Series ended Tuesday night, eligible players became free agents at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Those players, though, aren’t allowed to sign with anyone other than their current team for five days, even though their agents can talk with prospective suitors.
Instead of waiting, the Tigers made a trade.
General manager Al Avila showed his aggressiveness Wednesday afternoon, acquiring catcher Tucker Barnhart — a two-time Gold Glove winner — from the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for infield prospect Nick Quintana. The Tigers will pick up Barnhart’s $7.5 million team option for the final year of his contract, which the Reds were prepared to decline because their young catcher, Tyler Stephenson, is ready to assume the starting gig.
“I think the best version of Tucker Barnhart on the baseball field is now and in the future,” Barnhart said Wednesday. “I’m really excited as hell to be part of this organization and really look forward to building on what they’ve built here so far.”
For many years, the Tigers haven’t been considered relevant in the offseason. It’s not that leadership wasn’t putting forth the effort, but the franchise — without a playoff appearance since 2014 — was stuck in rebuilding mode.
The tide began to turn last winter, when they inked veteran outfielder Robbie Grossman, known more for his on-base percentage than his batting average, to a two-year, $10 million contract. (He finished his first season with 23 home runs and 20 stolen bases.) Still, the Grossman deal wasn’t necessarily considered an assertive play. It was a smart choice but didn’t generate much attention.
This time around, the Tigers were the first team to make a significant move.
By doing so, Avila foreshadowed what could be a busy (and expensive) offseason.
“The biggest difference is that we’re not trying to trade veteran players and rebuilding anymore,” Avila said Wednesday. “We’re trying to build a winning team going into 2022, which is a big difference from the last few years.”
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Trading for Barnhart became a topic of front office conversations when Jake Rogers, a 26-year-old, defense-first catcher, had Tommy John surgery in September. Leading up to his season-ending injury in July, the Tigers tabbed the ex-prospect — acquired in the 2017 Justin Verlander trade — as the starting catcher of the future.
Of course, plans changed.
With Rogers expected to miss most, if not all, of 2022, the Tigers quickly made a move on the best-available defensive catcher to lead their young pitching triumvirate: Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning. Detroit’s catchers, by the way, haven’t produced positive defensive runs saved since 2008, when Ivan ‘Pudge’ Rodriguez served as the primary catcher in his final year with the Tigers.
“One of the biggest things, when I think about game-calling, is you have to be able to separate yourself from scouting report and feel of the game,” Barnhart said. “I think that’s important. My past coaches have helped me realize that: trust your eyes, you see what you see.
“I’m very excited to work with AJ (Hinch, Tigers manager). He’s been around so long and has been very successful in this game. I look forward to advancing my personal skills and helping advance our ballclub.”
Barnhart is currently only under contract for 2022, but the Tigers won’t rule out the possibility of a contract extension.
Avila declined to discuss this topic.
“I’m not going to get into that right now,” Avila said. “We just made the deal. As time goes along, we’ll talk about different options if they are any options out there to be had. But I’m not going to get into that at this point.”
Regardless, the Tigers got their guy for the upcoming season.
With Barnhart comes those flashy Gold Glove awards, which signifies the Tigers’ rebuilding approach to just about everything is long in the past. They could have settled for a cheaper catcher like they did last winter when they signed offense-first catcher Wilson Ramos to a one-year, $2 million deal. (The Tigers released him in late June.)
But fresh off an improved 2021, Avila needed something better — because he knows his team needs to perform better than a 77-85 third-place finish in the American League Central to earn a coveted spot in the postseason.
“It’s exciting to be able to get the guy that you actually wanted and went after, so that’s good,” Avila said. “Now we go out and try to accomplish the other needs that we have. It started today with a bunch of phone calls.”
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Some might consider a frontline starting pitcher or an elite shortstop a greater priority than a Gold Glove catcher, but the Tigers needed to address each situation at some point. In this case, Avila took advantage of his opportunity.
“It just happened to come about sooner than later because both teams were in a position to make this trade,” Avila said.
Looking ahead, the Tigers are interested in signing two starting pitchers and a shortstop in free agency. The pitching market runs deep and headlines Eduardo Rodriguez, Robbie Ray, Marcus Stroman, Kevin Gausman and Anthony DeSclafani, among many others. But the shortstop position has five marquee names: Carlos Correa, Marcus Semien, Corey Seager, Trevor Story and Javier Baez.
“If we have a deal to be made next week, great,” Avila said. “If it comes later, it comes later. Deals come together at different times for different reasons.”
For now, the Tigers can confidently say they’ve checked one of three boxes in search of filling voids and boosting the big-league roster. With a goal to build a winning team, Avila seems to be headed in the right direction.
That’s because Barnhart is Detroit’s starting catcher.
And he can’t wait to get started.
“I’m a Midwestern guy,” Barnhart, an Indianapolis native, said. “I’m a blue-collar type of player. I will always be that way. I think that’s what makes me tick. To be a part of a blue-collar city in a blue-collar part of the country is awesome and very, very special to me.”