This team’s blueprint hints at Tigers’ new approach

Detroit Tigers

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Kevin Gausman signed a one-year, $9 million contract with the Giants in December 2019 after a miserable ’19 season split between Atlanta and Cincinnati. After the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he then signed a qualifying offer. After reaching career highs with 14 wins, 227 strikeouts, 192 innings and 5.1 bWAR last year, Gausman signed a five-year, $110 million deal with the Blue Jays. 

Anthony DeSclafani signed a one-year, $6 million contract with the Giants in December 2020 after a rough season with the Reds leading into free agency. After setting career bests with 13 wins, 7.6 hits per nine innings and a 3.62 FIP, he signed a three-year, $36 million deal that kept him with San Francisco. 

Drew Smyly signed a one-year, $4 million deal with the Giants in January 2020 looking to reignite his career after bouncing around four organizations over the previous two years. After striking out 42 batters over 26 1/3 innings for San Francisco in 2020, he signed a one-year, $11 million contract with the Braves and helped Atlanta win a World Series title. 

Carlos Rodón signed a two-year, $44 million contract with the Giants last offseason, looking to prove his health after left shoulder issues derailed his stellar 2021 season with the White Sox. He’ll reach 30 starts this season for the first time in his career, has career highs with 167 2/3 innings and 220 strikeouts, leads MLB pitchers with a 2.27 FIP and is expected to exercise an opt-out clause in his contract, becoming one of the top free-agent pitchers on the offseason market. 

Sensing a pattern? The Giants have become a team free-agent pitchers look to when they want to improve their game. They don’t always stay, but many have left as better pitchers than when they arrived. San Francisco, under general manager Scott Harris and team president Farhan Zaidi, used this strength to its advantage and built rotations without committing to long-term contracts. The Giants’ 2021 pitching staff had the second-best ERA in the Majors without anyone under a long-term deal or even necessarily considered a true ace.

“When I think of Detroit, I think of trying to create an environment that inspires players to want to get better and to put in all the work that they can to get better,” Harris said at his introductory press conference Tuesday at Comerica Park. “It also means creating an environment around those players — support staff, technology, coaching, development — environments that inspire these players to get better. So when I think of the Tigers of the next few years, I think of free agents who may look to go to various places across our great game. When they think of Detroit, I want them to think of an environment where they are confident they can come and get better, they can perform at a higher level, they can lengthen their careers, they know they are going to be surrounded by people in this organization that are going to get the absolute most out of them.”

This is a big deal in Detroit, which even in the Tigers’ heyday has never been a top destination for free agents. Any advantage they can find in attracting talent, young and old, is vital. The chance to build on talent and increase a player’s potential market value is one such edge.

It doesn’t mean the Tigers will follow the Giants’ blueprint, but it means Detroit will look for such advantages and try to innovate rather than play catch-up.

“I’ve been very lucky to work with Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Farhan Zaidi and many others,” Harris said. “One of the things they taught me very clearly is, if you’re going to do the same thing as every other organization, you’re probably not going to do it as well as they are, and you’re probably going to be chasing them the whole time. They taught me that it’s important to differentiate yourself and your operation. 

“It’s probably not that strategic to share what I think we can and should do here to differentiate ourselves. But if you look back at our track records in San Francisco and Chicago, that spirit of innovation and finding ways to differentiate yourself in creating that culture of development is something that carried us, and it’s something that is one of the reasons why we had so much success in those places.” 

It will be interesting to see what that differentiation is in Detroit, which is gifted in pitch instruction and design with Fetter and pitching director Gabe Ribas, while also having a big home ballpark with pitcher-friendly dimensions and a massive outfield friendly to gap hitters. 

“Ultimately, our vision here for this organization is also going to blend some of the things that they do here very well,” Harris said. “In every organization, they do some things better than the rest. I need to get into this organization, figure out what they’re doing exceptionally well right now and figure out how to come up with a blend of team-building and roster construction that highlights the best of this destination and everywhere I’ve been in the past.”

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