The site MLB Trade Rumors is typically pretty good at coming up with arbitration estimates. Performance and service time are the two crucial factors as players enter their fourth, fifth, and ultimately their sixth year of arbitration eligible team control prior to free agency. Let’s take a look at what they’re estimating for the 12 Tigers who will be eligible this offseason.
Drew Hutchison (5.097 years): $1.8M
Joe Jiménez (5.061 years): $2.6M
Jeimer Candelario (5.038 years): $7.0M
Jose Cisnero (5.020 years): $2.2M
Victor Reyes (4.075 years): $2.2M
Austin Meadows (4.074 years): $4.0M
Harold Castro (3.141 years): $2.6M
Gregory Soto (3.102 years): $3.1M
Tyler Alexander (3.058 years): $1.6M
UT Willi Castro (3.017): $1.7M
RHP Rony Garcia (2.138 years): $1.0M
RHP Kyle Funkhouser (2.133 years): $800K
The total estimated 2023 salary for that group of players is $30.6M, after costing about $20.5M in 2022. As for service time, just a reminder that these aren’t normal decimals. 2.133 years refers to two full years, and 133 days of service time. A full year is defined as 172 days of service time.
Out of this group, only Joe Jiménez really appears to be completely safe, though we’ll also assume that as long as Austin Meadows can get right to play, that’s an easy call as well. Of course, anyone could be traded as well.
As far as starting pitching depth goes, Tyler Alexander has continued to perform decently as a swingman, while Rony Garcia’s curveball really took a leap forward this season, but he was injury plagued like much of the pitching staff. Both Garcia and Alexander had real home run problems and their fastballs remain very hittable. Probably Scott Harris would like to keep Alexander, as solid lefties don’t necessarily grow on trees and he’s still quite inexpensive, but he isn’t a priority item either. As for Garcia it depends on health and whether the new front office projects further improvements for him. Feels like there’s only room for one of these two.
Drew Hutchison is a pretty interesting case. The Tigers were able to DFA him twice this season and re-sign him to minor league deals. That says there’s little chance of him holding a spot this offseason. His results were decent enough, but Harris is definitely the type to emphasize strikeout and walk rate, and on those counts Hutchison is still just the type of veteran starter teams look to stash at Triple-A. I expect him to be non-tendered, though another minor league deal with an invite to camp is certainly in the cards.
In terms of the relievers, Gregory Soto presents the most interesting decision on the list. His skill set is so rare as a lefty that routinely hits triple digits that it’s difficult to imagine giving up on him after a down year. Still, the walk rates remain a big problem and at very least he seems bound to fill more of a bridge reliever role in the sixth or seventh inning, where it’s simpler to have a quick hook should he have one of those nights where he can’t find the zone. He posted a 3.59 FIP and 3.28 ERA, earning 0.6 fWAR over 60.1 high stress innings of work, so it wasn’t quite as bad as some of the memories. Still, this isn’t the profile of a guy you want pitching the ninth or tenth inning.
Jose Cisnero returned after missing the first two thirds of the season with shoulder trouble, and his velocity was intact. However, his command was lacking and while $2.2M isn’t a lot to pay for a quality setup man, we’ll have to see how optimistic they are that the 33-year-old can get back on track. Kyle Funkhouser never made it back from his own shoulder issues, but will be quite cheap as a result. He does have an option remaining, but I’d guess his status is more tenuous than Cisnero’s. Still, without the medicals there’s really no way to venture an accurate guess on him.
The utility players, meaning Victor Reyes, Willi Castro, and Harold Castro, all have a pretty good chance of getting non-tendered. A.J. Hinch likes having Harold around to handle the bat, but teams generally prefer utility types that either have a distinctly useful toolkit, say either good raw power or speed, particularly in younger players they still think they can develop further. None of the group really fits the bill, although Willi Castro is versatile defensively and can contribute some speed that Harris and Hinch might find appealing with the shortened distance between bases coming in 2023.
Expect Harris to cycle through at least two of the three. Each has been with the Tigers for at least three seasons without appreciable improvement. None controls the strike zone, and none of the three is a plus defensively. They don’t seem to fit the profile, and Harris has a reputation for aggressively mining the waiver wire for other teams’ castoffs, churning the back of the 40-man roster much more than we’re used to seeing, sifting players trying to strike gold somewhere.
The Giants, with a far more complete roster than the Tigers’ had, continued their usual activity on the waiver wire in claiming RHP Jharel Cotton from the Twins, 1B/DH Taylor Jones from the Astros, and utilityman José Rojas from the Angels, all in September alone. Cotton remains an interesting project in my opinion, but the others are just older minor leaguers picked up for a quick look and a little help. They also designated former top prospect Willie Calhoun, who they’d added on a minor league deal after getting designated and outrighted by the Rangers back in June. Point being, Harris now leads a Tigers team with a 40 man roster full of guys who don’t fit the types of profiles he seems to favor, and he has a history of being busy with the backend of the roster.
Heading into his first offseason running the show, and with only about six weeks to prepare for free agency to begin, under a brand new and fiercely fought new CBA, Harris is going to be thrown in the fire pretty quickly. There’s a lot to do in preparing for a crucial offseason, while spending much of October interviewing and hiring for key positions and running in depth evaluations of the 200+ players in the organization. There will be no time for running many exercises in decision making among leadership and various department heads, coaches, scouts, and analysts. The Rule 5 draft and the waiver wire are the perfect format for Harris and his team to build their decision-making process without major consequence, so expect them to be busy, and for quite a few of the Tigers arbitration eligible players to be released.
That brings us to the most consequential decision on the list, whether to non-tender Jeimer Candelario. Harris can likely trim quite a bit off the edges of the Tigers 2023 projected payroll right now, giving him significant flexibility to make some moves. But removing Candelario’s likely number would really open things up, perhaps giving Harris the flexibility to re-work the roster more aggressively. The problem of course, is that you then have to replace Jeimer Candelario.
That wouldn’t have been difficult in 2022. After finally breaking out in the abbreviated 2020 season and then carrying through with a strong 2021, the third baseman looked like he had finally established himself as a quality big league hitter. This season he crashed to Earth with an 80 wRC+ and the worst on-base percentage of his career. Worse, he showed no hint of a return to form late in the season, spending a fair amount of time on the bench as Ryan Kreidler, Kody Clemens, and even Harold Castro saw starts there down the stretch.
Still, just last season Candelario was a well above average player. Until 2022, he had a long-standing reputation as a disciplined hitter who just didn’t do enough damage. There are some elements that feel like a Harris type player present. Good Candy is easily worth the cost. Of all the decisions on players Harris and the new front office will make on the current roster, this may be the trickiest. The Tigers need upgraded performance in right field, second base, third base, and catcher all. They probably aren’t going to be able to address all those issues with big signings or trades this offseason, though we can dream. So whether Harris is willing to add another problem to solve in order to clear some payroll space will be an interesting decision.
In the end, it looks like Harris can probably trim quite a few players without much pain. The question is whether he can replace them with upgrades. What’s certain, is that with few exceptions the roster won’t be feeling very safe as a new era in Tigers’ baseball begins. We’ll be very interested to see how Harris tackles all these decisions as he constructs his first roster as Tigers’ President of Baseball Operations.