It was pretty tough to be upset with the Detroit Tigers’ 2021-22 offseason — up until approximately 2 a.m. Saturday morning,
Sure, there was that pesky 99-day lockout, when we all wondered if we’d actually get Major League Baseball — the uncut stuff, not the watered-down 19-year-olds wandering around TigerTown — at all this year. But the threat of the lockout in November gave us a frenetic trade and free agent market featuring the Tigers ponying up nearly $225 million in salary commitments and actual multiple-year contracts!
You wanted a frontline starter? Done!
A star shortstop? Done!
A catcher to split time with Eric Haase while leaving open the possibility of a Jake Rogers return? Weirdly specific, but … done!
The end of the lockout even brought a fresh wave of pitching deals (unexpectedly, we have to say) with the addition of a lefty relief ace and a veteran right-handed starter to finish the rotation. Tigers fans sent general manager Al Avila into the store with a five-item shopping list, and dang if he didn’t come out with five items. (After four offseasons in which their Rule 5 draft pick was virtually the Tigers’ biggest acquisition of the year, this alone was progress.)
And then, at 2 a.m. Saturday. shortstop Carlos Correa — the manic pixie Astro dream who was absolutely, positively ignoring any offer that didn’t give him security through the next 20 seasons of “The Bachelor” and bankroll a future purchase of an MLS franchise at the same time — signed a three-year, $105.3 million deal with the Minnesota Twins. THE. MINNE. SOTA. TWINS.
The Twins landed the Brand Name Shortstop. The Tigers? The Store Brand.
Hello and welcome to the Detroit Free Press’ Tigers Newsletter, Season 4 (in which we’re still not arbitration-eligible, somehow). Or, rather, the Store Brand Newsletter.
Don’t get us wrong: There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with passing on the Brand Name and going with the Store Brand. From personal experience, we stopped stocking the Newsletter-Cave’s pantry with boxes of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and cans of Dr. Pepper once we crunched the numbers on bags of “Cinnamon Toasters” and two-liter bottles of “Dr. M.”
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But after four seasons of stocking up on players from the tier BELOW the Store Brand, Tigers fans were hoping for some Name Brand splurges from Avila and Christopher Ilitch, y’know?
The list might have said, “Slugging Middle Infielder,” but we also spent the better part of last season extolling the virtues of “Correa!”-brand Shortstop in this town, only to get …
<Avila looks at shopping list> “OK, a World Series-winning shortstop from Puerto Rico with big power and a first-round pedigree who’s used to getting booed. <picks up a 10-pack of “Correa!” and a six-pack of “Javier Baez”> Yikes! Well, this bottle of “Baez” has way more strikeouts than the FDA recommends, but it’s fortified with Vitamin D(efense). That’ll work.”
<Continues down the list to “Verlander, or Greinke, we guess”> “OK, a veteran starter who maybe doesn’t have the fastball he used to, but maintains a low walk rate thanks to his command and focus on sequencing. <picks up a box of “Greinke> “Ooh, that’s a bit much, too. Look at this bag of “Pineda” … It’s the same stuff, but half the price! That’ll be OK, right?”
But here’s the thing: It was fun when the Tigers treated free agency like a visit to the party store; “Oh, our Silver Slugger DH is out for the year? Dave, run around the corner and grab a nine-year pack of ‘Prince Fielders,’ eh? And some ‘Rock and Rye’ if they have it.”
But it wasn’t necessarily an effective way to build a winner, especially after four seasons in the cellar (or close to it). The Store Brand is nearly as good as the Name Brand, even if it doesn’t set Twitter aflame in the wee hours of a weekend morning.
The Tigers in total committed $243 million in major-league contracts this offseason, with $53.5 million of that set for this year. That’s a major payroll hike. And yes, it could have been more: The Tigers are only committed to $123 million this season, 19th out of 30 teams, according to Cot’s Contracts. The Twins are No. 18, at $123.6 million; the White Sox at No. 7, at $189.3 million; and the Tigers are still about $107 million short of the Competitive Balance Tax the owners tried to hold the line on during the collective bargaining agreement talks. There should be money in the budget for the Name Brand, and some Store Brand. But if the Tigers wanted to keep their single-season spend around $50 million, well … no use paying for the boxed cereal.
But still … $53.5 million is a lot of Store Brand. For that much, the Tigers brought in C Tucker Barnhart (via trade with the Cincinnati Reds), SS Javier Baez, LHP Andrew Chafin, RHP Michael Pineda and LHP Eduardo Rodriguez. That quintet combined for 14.5 fWAR (Wins Above Replacement, according to Fangraphs) last season and is projected (again, by Fangraphs) for 10.9 fWAR in 2022. Add that to the impending promotions of Riley Greene (projected for 2 fWAR) and Spencer Torkelson (2.6 fWAR), and it’s possible to see the Tigers at least staying in playoff contention into September.
Of course, to do that, they’ll have to beat those big-money, Name Brand Twins a majority of the 19 times the teams meet this season. Look at them over there, mixing their Dr. Pepper and Cinnamon Toast Crunch like there’s no tomorrow…
The newest Tiger hasn’t thrown a pitch yet after passing his physical Saturday. But Michael Pineda is ready to go, as the Freep’s Evan Petzold reports here from a Sunday sit-down.
But why did the Tigers land on Pineda, rather than perhaps deal for a younger arm from Oakland, or sign a more accomplished arm such as Greinke (“Now with more barbecue sauce!”) or Johnny Cueto? Our Man Petzold has the scoop on that, too, in his talk here with Avila.
OK, it’s a little unfair to completely dismiss Javier Baez as “Store Brand.” He’s a two-time All-Star, an NLCS MVP, a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner and, finally, the 2018 NL MVP runner-up. And he seems to have the perfect combination of veteran swagger and youthful enthusiasm, as Our Man Petzold and the Freep’s Jeff Seidel noted here as part of a casual encounter with a youth baseball team from Puerto Rico.
And, of course, Baez is already improving the Tigers’ defense up the middle —remember, he was a Gold Glover at short, and a runner-up at second base before that — as Our Man Seidel notes here. But that doesn’t mean Baez can’t still improve his glove work. Seidel broke down how the $140-million man is working with coach Ramon Santiago in the mornings before spring training games.
E-Rod on O-Day
And then there’s Eduardo Rodriguez, the Tigers’ first free-agent signing of the offseason. He landed $77 million (over five years) in November, then got what he really wanted Friday, when manager AJ Hinch named him the Tigers’ Opening Day starter. Our Man Petzold has the story on why getting the Day 1 honor was so important to Rodriguez, as well as what Rodriguez is working on in the Tigers’ clubhouse with the young rotation.
We mustache you a question …
Andrew Chafin, the final piece of the Tigers’ free-agent quartet, made a good impression last week in his introduction to the media at TigerTown. As Our Man Seidel notes, Chafin is just a regular dude with a farm in Ohio and a messy garage and a sweet mustache and a sub-1 WHIP last season. Does any of that matter to Chafin? “I just want to show up and do my job and leave, to be honest.” Find out why here.
It wasn’t all Store Brands and free agents in TigerTown last week, with plenty of holdovers from last season working on improving their stuff. That includes 2021 AL All-Star Gregory Soto who, as Our Man Petzold reports, is close to adding a fourth pitch to his repertoire.
Casey Mize, meanwhile, just wants his old friend, the splitter, to return to normal, which means he’ll be throwing it with more frequency. Find out why here from Our Men Petzold and Seidel.
Hinch is a cinch
We’ll wrap up our spring training opening tour with manager AJ Hinch, whose job will be a bit tougher this season, thanks to higher expectations, veteran voices to work into the locker room, and a pair of high-profile prospects (you know the ones, names rhyme with spleen and fork) that the Tigers can’t afford to have fail. Lucky for the franchise, Our Man Seidel writes, Hinch is just the man for the job, something that was evident in the Tigers’ spring opener on Friday.
Three to watch
Did we say wrap up? Well, there’s at least three more Tigers in camp to keep an eye on his week:
TYLER ALEXANDER: The odd man out in the rotation with Pineda’s arrival is still confident he’ll get some starts.
BEAU BRIESKE: The righty has gone from the 27th round in 2019 to one of the Tigers’ top young arms.
ERIC HAASE: Dearborn Divine Child’s own — remember him? — is excited to have a job going into camp for the first time.
Happy birthday, Travis Fryman!
Speaking of Tigers infielders, former shortstop and third baseman Travis Fryman turns 52 on Friday. Fryman hit .274 with 149 homers and 345 doubles in 1,096 games from 1990-97 with the Tigers before being dealt to Cleveland (via the Arizona Diamondbacks). The Freep’s Bill Dow chatted with Fryman last summer; you can read here how he was affected by the 1997 trade.
Other Tigers birthdays this week: Jose Valverde (44 on Thursday), Hernan Perez (31 on Saturday).
Mark your calendar
The compressed spring training schedule really kicks in this week, with seven games: four in Lakeland (against the Blue Jays, Pirates, Yankees and Phillies) and three on the road (against the Phillies, Blue Jays and Orioles). Monday’s and Thursday’s games will be broadcast by Bally Sports Detroit at 1:05 p.m., and Dan Dickerson will have the radio call on WXYT-AM and -FM every day but Tuesday and Wednesday. Our Man Seidel chatted with Dickerson last week; you can read about the long offseason and the gift he received from Ernie Harwell here.
TL;DR (Too long; didn’t read)
While we’re talking payrolls, the Tigers’ $53.5 million going to Baez, Barnhart, Chafin, Pineda and Rodriguez this season is more than the entire payrolls of four franchises (per Cot’s Contracts): The A’s ($53.2 million, though they’ll probably find some salary to trade before you read this), the Guardians ($46.8 million, so we guess they spent all their spare change on the new name), the Orioles ($40.6 million, which means they might spend less than $1 million per win) and, of course, the Pirates ($35.9 million, with only one player — Daniel Vogelbach, of all people — under contract or non-minimum salary for 2023). Which is a reminder: There’s Store Brand, and then there’s Store Brand Left Sitting Next To The Dumpster Because It Expired Last Month.
Contact Ryan Ford at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @theford.