Here’s who the Detroit Tigers could target as MLB offseason officially begins

Detroit Free Press

The World Series is over, and the offseason is officially underway.

Before we know it, hot stove season will catch fire and spring training will be right around the corner.

The annual general manager meetings begin Monday in Las Vegas, a precursor to the usually transaction-heavy winter meetings December in San Diego. The World Series ended Saturday night, with the Houston Astros beating the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 6, and eligible players became free agents Sunday morning.

Detroit Tigers president of baseball operations Scott Harris, hired Sept. 19, took over day-to-day management of his new club Oct. 6 after examining the organization for nearly three weeks. He revamped his front office by cutting ties with longtime employees and adding assistant general manager Rob Metlzer and amateur scouting director Mark Conner.

He now embarks on his first offseason captaining a franchise that hasn’t reached the postseason since 2014.

“I think (roster evaluations) started the minute after the press conference,” Harris said Oct. 25. “I’m trying to work on a lot of parallel paths, so we’ve been hard at work at that. I haven’t been sleeping a whole lot since I took this job, but there’s a lot of work to be done here.”

What we know

The GM meetings, traditionally, serve as an opportunity for teams and agents to set the groundwork for future deals. After all, free agents can’t sign with new teams until Thursday evening, the final day of the GM meetings, but trades can happen as early as Sunday. Last offseason, former general manager Al Avila traded for catcher Tucker Barnhart less than 24 hours after the World Series ended.

For the most part, Harris’ plan for this offseason is unknown.

“I’m looking forward to talking to you guys and the fans at the GM meetings about some of our priorities for the offseason,” Harris said.

“But rest assured, we’ve been working on that, too.”

What we do know, however, is that the Harris era will be radically different than the Avila era. He is going to make moves — a lot of them — and could disperse resources to cover a variety of needs: starting pitchers, a catcher, a corner outfielder and possibly both corner infielders.

Harris likely wants to create depth, which could come through mid-level signings, to churn the roster throughout the season and exploit matchups. The San Francisco Giants, for whom Harris served as the general manager from 2019-22 (under president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi), used 66 players last season, while the Tigers played 53.

(In 2021, the Giants and Tigers rolled out 54 and 49 players, respectively.)

Harris also plans to take calculated risks in his efforts to build that roster. He came to Detroit with three primary goals for his vision: Acquire, develop and retain young players; create a culture of development; and dominate the strike zone on both sides of the ball.

Fixing the offense

Watching the Tigers hit has been like listening to a song on repeat: The words never change. Since 2018, the first full season of Avila’s rebuild, the Tigers rank 30th in walk rate (7.1%), 30th in strikeout rate (24.7%), and 30th in chase rate (35.3%). They also rank 29th in isolated power (.141).

That has made for a long five seasons.

Those numbers weren’t simply brought down by 2022’s putrid performances, either. In 2022, the Tigers’ numbers were mostly in line with the previous four seasons: They ranked 29th in walk rate (6.5%), 27th in strikeout rate (24.1%), 30th in chase rate (36.7%) and 30th in isolated power (.115).

Fixing the problem is easier said than done, but the Tigers can take steps in the right direction by acquiring players who control the strike zone en route to quality plate appearances. If that’s truly the plan, free-agent corner outfielders Andrew Benintendi and Jurickson Profar would make sense.

Over the past two seasons, Benintendi (who will be 28 on Opening Day 2023) has a .289 batting average with 22 homers, an 8.3% walk rate and a 16.4% strikeout rate in 260 games. During the same stretch, Profar (who will be be 30 on Opening Day) has a .237 average with 19 homers, an 11.4% walk rate and a 15.7% strikeout rate in 289 games. Of the two, Benintendi hits the ball significantly harder and could tap into more power over the long term.

Brandon Nimmo is another outfielder to monitor in free agency, but several big-market teams — including the New York Mets — will likely pursue a long-term agreement. The 29-year-old is the best center fielder available, despite durability concerns due to previous injuries, and is coming off the best season of his career. He hit .274 with 71 walks and 116 strikeouts in 151 games with the Mets.

A healthy Austin Meadows — an All-Star in 2019 — will help inject life into the offense, as well as a full season of Riley Greene and potential improvements from Spencer Torkelson, Javier Báez and Jonathan Schoop.

Starting on the mound

If the Tigers don’t touch their starting rotation, they’ll have a five-man crew of Eduardo Rodriguez, Spencer Turnbull, Joey Wentz, Alex Faedo and Beau Brieske in spring training, with prospects Wilmer Flores and Ty Madden knocking on the door.

That’s not the most stable rotation.

The Tigers’ three former top pitching prospects — Casey Mize (Tommy John surgery), Tarik Skubal (flexor tendon surgery) and Matt Manning (forearm strain) — ended the season on the injured list, leaving the Tigers with serious questions. The severity of Manning’s injury remains unclear, but Mize isn’t expected to pitch again until 2024 and Skubal will miss a significant chunk of 2023.

Surely, Harris needs to acquire at least a couple reliable starters. The Giants established a track record of buying low on pitchers and rejuvenating their careers. Those bounce-back candidates helped San Francisco to a 107-win season in 2021.

Some free agents that could fit with the Tigers: Chris Bassitt, Nathan Eovaldi, Tyler Anderson, Jameson Taillon, Sean Manaea, Andrew Heaney, Ross Stripling, Zach Eflin, Kyle Gibson, Michael Wacha, Drew Smyly and Matthew Boyd.

By the way, it’s about time for an update on Manning’s health.

Catcher

Harris has been praised for his creativity, and if there’s an area where that attribute will be tested, it’s the catcher position. With Barnhart now a free agent, the Tigers have three catchers on the 40-man roster: Eric Haase, Jake Rogers and Michael Papierski.

All signs point to a significant role for Haase, considering his 106 wRC+ in 208 games over the past two seasons, but it’s unclear if the 29-year-old will be the starting catcher because of his below-average defense. Although Haase, a right-handed hitter, had a better batting average against lefties (.281) than righties (.239) last season, he cranked 10 of his 14 home runs against righties.

If the Tigers opt for a platoon setup, they probably need a catcher with consistent offensive production against righties.

Trading relief pitchers for Toronto Blue Jays catcher Danny Jansen, batting .266 against righties over the past two seasons, would fill the void in a creative way. Another positive: Jansen recorded career bests in walk rate (10.1%) and strikeout rate (17.7%) in 2022, as the Blue Jays posted a 42-19 record in his 61 starts. The 27-year-old, known for his leadership, is under team control through 2024.

Rogers, also 27, hasn’t played since 2021 because of Tommy John surgery. He was supposed to return late in the 2022 season, but the throwing portion of his rehabilitation didn’t progress enough for the Tigers to activate him. Beyond his health, there are concerns about his offense despite above-average defense. Like Haase, he is better against left-handed pitchers.

The free-agent market for catchers is weak, per usual, aside from Willson Contreras. Signing Contreras, arguably the best offensive catcher in baseball, would fix the Tigers’ catching department for several years, but expect a competitive bidding war among contenders for his coveted services. After Contreras, the next-best catchers are Christian Vázquez, Gary Sánchez and Omar Narváez.

Corner infield

Mentions of Benintendi and Profar serve as a reminder of the Tigers’ need for a corner outfielder to supplement Meadows and Greene. But the Tigers also have questions at the corner infield spots, occupied in 2022 by Torkelson at first base and Jeimer Candelario at third base.

Torkelson, who turned 23 in August, has 404 plate appearances in the big leagues, so it’s too soon to label the former No. 1 overall pick as a bust. But he didn’t give the Tigers much to be excited about in his rookie season, besides his defense and walk rate.

Candelario was the Tigers’ most consistent player in 2020 and 2021 but completely collapsed last season. The 28-year-old could receive north of $6.5 million in his final year of arbitration eligibility. The Tigers probably won’t want to pay that salary, meaning he could be non-tendered and forced into free agency, but considering his track record, a reunion at a cheaper price tag seems possible.

Ultimately, the Tigers can’t feel good about their corner infield situation coming out of the 2022 season.

One potential solution to that problem is Brandon Drury, a versatile free agent expected to secure a multi-year contract. The 30-year-old started 58 games at third base, 24 games at first base and 23 games second base this season for the Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres. He hit .263 with 28 home runs and a .813 OPS in 138 games for the best season of his eight-year career. Regression is an obvious concern, but adding Drury to the corner-infield mix with Torkelson and Candelario would give the Tigers flexibility to navigate those positions in 2023 and beyond.

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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