Barnhart trade sets up busy Tigers offseason

Detroit Tigers

DETROIT — The Tigers got a jump on baseball’s offseason by acquiring catcher Tucker Barnhart from the Reds. It wasn’t the only thing on their to-do list Wednesday.

“Busy day,” general manager Al Avila said on a video conference from his office. “We finalized this deal, and obviously [it was] the first day you can go out and talk to agents about players that you’re interested in. So it’s been an entire day of finalizing this deal and making a lot of phone calls. So, yeah, it’s started already.”

In fairness, the trade work, completed Wednesday morning, was the end of the process, finalizing a framework Avila and Reds general manager Nick Krall had been putting together since Avila reached out last week. By contrast, the phone calls Avila and his staff made to agents were the start of the free-agency process, reaching out to express interest before free agents can begin exchanging contract ideas with teams next week. Even doing that, however, is a big step.

For the last few years, Detroit has been more active in the latter half of the offseason, snapping up free agents on short-term contracts or non-roster invites closer to Spring Training. It was a way for a rebuilding team to fill a roster on a budget, waiting for when players would have to look for a landing spot.

Robbie Grossman signed his two-year contract on Jan. 5. Jonathan Schoop returned in February. Wilson Ramos, Nomar Mazara, Derek Holland, Julio Teheran, Erasmo Ramírez and Renato Núñez all signed just before Spring Training or just after camp began. The only major signing the Tigers made before the holidays last year was José Ureña on Dec. 23. The COVID pandemic and the uncertainty of how the ensuing season would unfold had an impact, but it wasn’t the first such offseason for Detroit.

Is the Barnhart trade a sign that the Tigers, now trying to add pieces towards contending, might try to move quickly on their other needs, notably a shortstop and staring pitching, and set the market? Not so fast, Avila cautioned.

“The way that we prioritize our needs hasn’t changed. 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. The time frame really is no different. Because we made this trade doesn’t mean that [we’re] being really aggressive this year. It just happened to come about sooner than later. I wouldn’t say there’s anything different.”

The Barnhart trade had an early window. The Reds had until Sunday to exercise his $7.5 million contract option or decline it and make him a free agent. Cincinnati could’ve picked up the option in hopes of a trade later, but Wednesday’s deal allows the Tigers to pick up the option or try to work out a new contract.

Still, the last time the Tigers went into offseason looking to add — Avila’s first offseason as GM in 2015-16 — they were aggressive early. Detroit traded for Francisco Rodríguez and Cameron Maybin early, then signed Jordan Zimmermann over Thanksgiving weekend. Mike Pelfrey, Mark Lowe and Jarrod Saltalamacchia all signed with Detroit in December around the Winter Meetings, which closed with another trade for Justin Wilson. The Tigers appeared done by Christmas until Justin Upton lingered on the free-agent market; Detroit snagged him in late January. The Tigers didn’t get into bidding wars; they identified players they liked and felt like they could sign.

Two dynamics make this year’s offseason potentially different from any other. First is the deep shortstop market that includes not only Tigers target Carlos Correa but also Corey Seager, Trevor Story, Marcus Semien and Javier Báez. With so many coveted players, it’s difficult to see the Tigers playing at the top end without either dealing with competing teams or waiting to see if anybody lingers on the market the way Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez and Prince Fielder did before they signed with Detroit in 2004, 2005 and 2012, respectively.

The second factor is the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which is set to expire on the evening of Dec. 1. Teams could be operating under the current set of rules for the first month of the offseason, then working under a new CBA later.

On Wednesday, Avila sounded flexible.

“If we have a deal to be made next week, great. And if it comes later, then it comes later,” he said. “Deals come together at different times for different reasons. We’re approaching it pretty much the same way: We’re trying to put the best team on the field.”

No matter what happens from here, though, the Barnhart trade means they’ve filled a void with their top target and head into free agency focused on their other needs.

“That, to me, is more exciting, to be able to get the guy you actually wanted and you went after,” Avila said. “Now we can go out and try to accomplish the other needs that we have, and it started [Wednesday] with a bunch of phone calls.”

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