Biggest priority for Detroit Tigers this offseason? ‘Reshaping our position playing group’

Detroit Free Press

LAS VEGAS — Scott Harris, new president of baseball operations, promised to reveal the Detroit Tigers‘ priorities for the offseason at the general manager meetings this week at the Conrad at Resorts World.

He kept his promise.

Harris, in his second month leading the Tigers, didn’t plunge into too many specifics, but he shared the primary areas of emphasis: a left-handed hitting infielder, a right-handed hitting outfielder and pitchers. The biggest goal, of course, is to improve the offense — easily the worst offense in baseball over the past five seasons.

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“Our offseason priority is to take steps towards improving the overall health of the organization,” Harris said Tuesday. “In the big leagues, that starts with reshaping our position playing group, taking a hard look at every position and trying to find ways to build a more stable and productive offense.”

One position, at least, is set in stone.

Javier Báez will be the Tigers’ starting shortstop when the 2023 season begins March 30 against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, though the soon-to-be 30-year-old doesn’t seem to fit Harris’ plan for the offense moving forward. After all, Harris wants to build a team-wide offensive approach where his players get ahead in counts, wear down pitchers with quality plate appearances and pass the baton by getting on base.

For now, Báez (and his frustrating chase rate) is here to stay. After earning $20 million last season, he is owed $120 million over the next five seasons unless he exercises the opt-out clause in his contract after the upcoming season.

Expect the Tigers to add position players with high walk rates and low strikeouts rates.

“That allows our offense to grab count leverage every time we can and put ourselves in positions to score runs in bunches,” Harris said, “rather than relying on solo homers or some of the less stable approaches to run scoring.”

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Jonathan Schoop, who opted into the final year of his contract (worth $7.5 million), will return to the Tigers in 2023, but it’s unclear if he will operate as the everyday second baseman. Like Báez, Schoop doesn’t mesh with the team approach Harris hopes the Tigers can obtain in the future. His strikeout rate hovers around league average, but he rarely draws walks. For a streaky hitter, that style isn’t comforting.

Still, Schoop hammered more than 20 home runs in five consecutive full seasons before posting just 11 homers in 2022. The 10-year veteran’s track record suggests a boost in offensive production.

Harris thinks so, too.

“He won’t be the first player that struggles and bounces back,” Harris said. “We had a really good exit interview with him. Everyone has seen how talented of a defender he is, and it’s all about getting him right at the plate.”

Third baseman Jeimer Candelario, unlike Báez and Schoop, isn’t guaranteed to return. He is entering his final year of arbitration eligibility, and the Tigers must soon decide whether or not to tender him a contract for the 2023 season. If they tender him a contract, Candelario could earn more than $6.5 million next year.

The deadline to make that decision is Nov. 18.

“He’s still a very talented player,” Harris said. “As we look to create a collection of position players that really fit together, one advantage is he’s a switch-hitter, so that helps give him more opportunities to find his way into the lineup.”

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Rounding out the infield is first baseman Spencer Torkelson, the No. 1 overall pick from the 2020 draft. The 23-year-old competed his rookie campaign and is under team control for six more seasons. The Tigers have no immediate plans to move on from their former top prospect, but they need to see an uptick in production.

He hit .203 in 110 games, needed a demotion to Triple-A Toledo and particularly struggled against middle-middle fastballs.

The Tigers remain optimistic about Torkelson’s future — despite the regime change — and don’t view first base as a position of long-term need, but they will look into acquiring a first baseman on a short-term contract to create depth.

“He does a lot of things that we really value,” Harris said, possibly alluding to Torkelson’s plate discipline. “He has had an exceptional career in college and the minor leagues. He struggled a little bit in the big leagues, but there are a lot of talented players that have struggled, especially in this era of pitching.”

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Catcher is another position where the Tigers will likely add a player to their mix of options. Willson Contreras, who could command a four-year contract worth more than $70 million total, is the top catcher on the open market, but Harris declined to comment when asked about him directly.

Right now, the Tigers have three catchers on the 40-man roster: Eric Haase, Michael Papierski and Jake Rogers. Haase should have a solidified role, but the Tigers can’t trust Rogers at this point in his career. He turns 28 in April, hasn’t recovered from Tommy John surgery and isn’t a proven big leaguer.

Prospects Dillon Dingler and Josh Crouch, both ending last season in Double-A Erie, won’t compete for jobs on the 2023 Opening Day roster.

“The catching position across the game is really difficult to evaluate,” Harris said. “It seems like catching additions are scarce, especially in free agency year over year. Catching is an area that we can improve upon.”

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In the outfield, the Tigers can count on Riley Greene and Austin Meadows in starting roles. Meadows, like Candelario, must be tendered a contract Nov. 18 or he will become a free agent, but he is under team control through 2024. Meadows, a former All-Star, played just 36 games for the Tigers in 2022 due to injury and health issues.

He sat out the final month of the season for mental health reasons.

“We haven’t made any tender decisions on any of these players,” Harris said. “I will say I’ve talked to Austin a couple times and had really good meetings with him. I think there’s some things we can do to help Austin. … When he’s right, he rakes. It’s important for us to provide him the support to help him get back to the version that we’ve all seen.”

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As for filling the holes, Harris has been busy — and will stay busy — at the general manager meetings. He plans to meet with “every agent” and entertain “every opportunity” to improve the roster while protecting the long-term health of the organization.

Will the Tigers sign an elite player to a mega contract?

Probably not.

As the market unfolds, though, Harris will keep tabs on all players available to him, both on the free-agent market and trade block, while setting the groundwork in Las Vegas for future moves this offseason.

“I wouldn’t rule out anything for us,” Harris said. “I think you can ask me this question every offseason, and I’m going to say we’re not going to rule out anything. We’re going to shop in all aisles. Whether we actually purchase in all aisles is another question. But we’re certainly going to be shopping everywhere.”

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

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