Detroit — Wednesday, Nov. 3, the day after the Braves won the 2021 World Series, Tigers general manager Al Avila fired the first official shot of the off-season, acquiring catcher Tucker Barnhart from the Reds. He spent the rest of that fruitful day calling the agents of all the free agents at the top of his winter wish list.
“It’s started already,” Avila said.
But it might be a false start.
It seems more likely than not that baseball is headed for its first work stoppage since 1994-1995. If the players and owners don’t agree on a new collective bargaining agreement by 11:59 p.m. Dec. 1, the owners are expected to impose a lockout — effectively shutting down the entire industry.
And by all accounts, with the two sides stalemated on key economic issues, even after the players’ association’s second counter proposal last week, it seems unlikely an accord can be reached in the next three-plus weeks.
That could change, of course. The two sides are expected to meet face to face for the first time this week during the annual general managers meetings in Carlsbad, Calif. Some momentum toward a deal could be generated.
In the meantime, Avila and the Tigers aren’t sitting around waiting.
“We’re just going to proceed as we normally would,” Avila said. “If something changes on Dec. 1, then we will adjust. If there are deals to be made before that, we are in a position to make them.”
Teams can begin signing free agents on Monday and the Tigers, unlike the last few years, have the need, desire and financial strength to shop at the top end of the market. With a veteran starting catcher already in the fold, they are expected to train their free agent focus on a shortstop and starting pitching.
Shortstop: Correa or bust?
By now, the names of this golden free agent shortstop class are familiar: Carlos Correa, Marcus Semien, Corey Seager, Javy Baez and Trevor Story.
Because of his relationship with Tigers’ manager AJ Hinch, and because he is 27, Correa seems like the logical top target. But, also because he is 27 and arguably the best player in the group, he is likely to command the biggest contract — very likely over $30 million annually and $300 million over seven or eight years.
Whether that is too rich for the Tigers’ blood right now remains to be seen. There are ways to structure these lucrative long-term deals to ease some of the financial sting, either by back-loading the deal or providing opt-out clauses for the player.
With just four salary commitments presently on the books for 2022 — Miguel Cabrera ($32 million), Jonathan Scoop ($7.5 million), Barnhart ($7.5 million) and Robbie Grossman ($5 million) — the Tigers can certainly afford to make a serious run at any of the top shortstops.
Avila, though, said in his season-ending press conference that he didn’t expect to put all his off-season eggs in one basket. In fact, he said acquiring one or two veteran starting pitchers was as big a priority as landing an elite shortstop.
“The resources will be there,” Avila said. “But I will caution you, this is not going to be spending like a drunken sailor. This is going to be a very measured process. We’re going to make sure whatever decisions we make free agent-wise doesn’t sink the organization for years to come.
“We want it to help the organization for years to come.”
Understand, landing any of the top five shortstops — heck, even if they could sign Chris Taylor or Andrelton Simmons — would be a massive upgrade for the Tigers. They had the second-lowest production at that position last season (minus-0.6 WAR).
So, yes, getting Correa would certainly win the off-season for the Tigers. But not getting him won’t necessarily break it. There are other avenues the Tigers can take to vault themselves back into contention next season.
Pitching: No reunions coming
Spencer Turnbull isn’t expected to pitch in 2022 after Tommy John surgery. Matthew Boyd, who underwent flexor tendon surgery, isn’t expected to be back until June, at the earliest.
Wily Peralta, Jose Urena, Julio Teheran and Drew Hutchison all filed for free agency.
Thus, the Tigers are in the market for a couple of veteran starting pitchers to augment the young core of Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning. But before we go any further — as storybook as it may have been, Justin Verlander isn’t likely to be walking back through that door. Nor is Max Scherzer.
Unless the market completely caves in, the Tigers aren’t likely to pony up $20 million for Verlander, coming off Tommy John surgery at age 39. Scherzer will likely command close to $30 million.
The type of free agent starters the Tigers are more apt to pursue are Alex Wood (31), Jon Gray (30), Eduardo Rodriguez (29), Carlos Rodon (29), Anthony DeSclafani (32) or Marcus Stroman (31).
Or, they could go the trade route, as they did to fill the catcher vacancy. A team like the Oakland Athletics, now in full rebuild mode after losing manager Bob Melvin to the Padres, has three arbitration-eligible starters who they are likely to be shopping ahead of the Dec. 2 deadline to tender contracts.
If the Tigers could land Barnhart for an unranked prospect like Nick Quintana, what would it take to land a pitcher like Chris Bassitt (32, entering his third arbitration year after making $4.9 million last year), Sean Manaea (29, $5.95 million last year, also in his third arbitration year) or Frankie Montas (28, $1.8 million in his second arbitration year).
It is also entirely possible the Tigers circle back on Peralta. After being out of baseball since 2019 and not starting since 2017, Peralta was a savior of sorts for the Tigers’ rotation last season. Featuring one of the most productive change-ups in the game, he posted a 3.12 ERA in 18 starts.
Sidebar: What about Boyd?
This is a tough one. It’s more complex than, “Do the Tigers want to take a chance on bringing Boyd back, at age 31, in his third arbitration year after he made $6.5 million last year and after a surgery that will cost him at least a couple of months next season.”
If that was all there was to it, then the Tigers’ answer would be, yes. They’d tender him a contract before Dec. 2 and try to negotiate a deal that would maybe give them access to him through at least 2023. That would involve a team option, of course, and Boyd, who enters free agency after next season, might not be motivated to accept that.
As Avila intimated, this is going to be as much about what Boyd and his agent Scott Boras want, as it is about what the Tigers’ want.
Boyd is expected to start his throwing program in December, which like the timing of his injury is sub-optimal given the likelihood of a lockout. The Tigers could be proactive and roll the dice, banking on Boyd’s diligence and track record to validate the promise he made to be the best version of himself upon his return.
But, if the club can land a couple of proven, workhorse starting pitchers this month, the odds of tendering Boyd would worsen.
Arbitration: Time to say goodbye
Besides Boyd, there are 10 other players eligible for arbitration. That includes utility man Harold Castro, who is expected to qualify in the Super Two category though he has less than three full years of service time (two years, 141 days).
Of those, it seems likely that shortstop Niko Goodrum and veteran back-up catcher Dustin Garneau will be non-tendered and thus thrust into free agency.
The Tigers will face tough decisions, too, on Boyd (estimated by MLB Trade Rumors to be worth $7.3 million in arbitration) and relievers Joe Jimenez (estimated $1.8 million) and Jose Cisnero ($1.9 million).
The Tigers could non-tender catcher Grayson Greiner, too, and then try to re-sign him to a minor-league deal. But he has a minor-league option left, so it might be more prudent to tender him. Even if he takes it to arbitration, the most he would make, according to MLB Trade Rumors, is $800,000.
The rest of the list are players you’d expect the Tigers to work to sign this month or ahead of arbitration:
• Michael Fulmer (estimated $5.1 million)
• Jeimer Candelario (estimated $5.9 million)
• Victor Reyes (estimated $1.3 million)
• Spencer Turnbull (estimated $1.8 million)
• Castro (estimated $1.5 million)
Plan B: Sign a slugger
It is entirely possible other teams in richer markets could price the Tigers out of the shortstop race. They could be left trying to sign Simmons or Taylor as a two-year stop-gap at the position while praying prospect Ryan Kreidler continues to develop and ascend at the pace he did in 2021.
So what then?
The mantra has been, “Get the pitching right.” If the Tigers aren’t going to spend $30 million on a shortstop, they will certainly funnel more resources into acquiring pitching. But they need not ignore the offense.
• Kyle Schwarber. He’s 29, bats left-handed and crushes right-handed pitching (.532 slugging, .888 OPS career) — things the Tigers sorely lacked the last few years. He would give Hinch a fastball-feasting power bat and lineup flexibility since he could move Schwarber around — first base, left field and designated hitter.
• Michael Conforto. He’s also 29, also hits left-handed and rakes against right-handed pitching (.502 slug, .873 OPS). That he’s coming off the worst offensive year of his career could be a boon for the Tigers. He posted a 133 wRC-plus (weighted runs created) from 2017 through 2020, and if the analytics team deemed 2021 to be an outlier, they could likely get Conforto on a one-year deal, giving him a chance to rebuild his value toward a longer-term deal in a much less crowded free agent class of 2023.
His presence in the outfield, preferably in a corner spot (his defensive effectiveness declines dramatically in center), would give the Tigers some stability as youngsters Akil Baddoo and Derek Hill continue to find their footing in the big leagues.
It would also mean they didn’t have to throw prospect Riley Greene to the wolves next season. They could ease him in, much like Hinch did with Baddoo last season.
• Starling Marte. He’s 33, so no multi-year deal here. But he would perform the same type of service that Conforto would — a veteran, productive bridge to the Riley Greene era. Plus, he’s exactly the type of player that fits with Hinch’s culture of pressure.
Although his defensive metrics have slipped, he still gets on base (career-best 132 OPS-plus last year), still has gap power (.458 slug last year) and can still run and create havoc on the base paths.
This is a deep and talent-rich free agent market. And with some different teams going the rebuild route, like the Athletics, the trade market could also be vibrant. And here are the Tigers, finally able and willing to spend to win.
Wouldn’t it just be buzzard’s luck to have it all shut down in a month?