Detroit Tigers will ‘keep in touch,’ but can they really bring back Andrew Chafin?

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Tigers have several needs this offseason highlighted by offensive upgrades, as outlined by president of baseball operations Scott Harris at the general manager meetings last week in Las Vegas.

Harris plans to acquire a left-handed hitting infielder, a right-handed hitting outfielder and at least a couple pitchers, as well as perusing the markets for a first baseman and catcher. There’s a lot of work to do in rebuilding the roster before the Tigers convince the industry they’re back on track.

The process of cleaning up the mess could force the Tigers to miss out on re-signing left-handed reliever Andrew Chafin.

“He had a fantastic year, and he earned the right to opt out,” Harris said last Tuesday at the GM meetings. “That’s really impressive to me. I have spoken with his agents. I will continue to speak with his agents. I know he likes playing here, and we’re going to keep in touch with him and see if we can bring him back.”

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So far this offseason, three relief pitchers have landed lucrative contracts: Edwin Díaz to the New York Mets (five years, $102 million), Robert Suarez to the San Diego Padres (four years, $46 million) and Rafael Montero to the Houston Astros (three years, $34.5 million).

The Díaz deal, which keeps him under contract through 2027, set records for guaranteed value ($102 million) and average annual value ($20.4 million) among relievers in MLB history. Díaz, a two-time All-Star, earned $10.2 million last season and posted a 1.31 ERA with 18 walks, 118 strikeouts and 32 saves in 62 innings over 61 appearances.

The way teams value elite relievers is shifting as starters are throwing fewer innings than ever before. Paying relievers at a higher rate for their services, and locking them into long-term contracts, is a product of informed decision-making from clubs based on overall production, analytics, biomechanics and injury prevention plans.

Since 2017, Díaz owns a 2.95 ERA, 3.3 walks per nine innings and 14.7 strikeouts per nine innings. He has been worth 10.3 fWAR during those six seasons. Once, in 2018, he pitched more than 70 games in a single campaign.

Chafin, spanning the same six seasons, has a 3.05 ERA, 3.3 walks per nine and 10.2 strikeouts per nine, worth 4.9 fWAR and appearing in at least 70 games in four separate seasons. Teams are willing to pay big for relievers with swing-and-miss arsenals, so it’s worth noting Chafin’s slider generated a 60.4% swing-and-miss rate in 2022.

“In that regard, it’s been a great experience,” Chafin said of his season with the Tigers, the fourth team of his nine-year career. “I don’t really have any complaints about that. The record wasn’t what we wanted it to be, but that’s baseball. Not everybody can win every time.”

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A new contract for Chafin won’t shatter reliever records because of his age and role. He is 32 and has never served as a closer, despite consistent success against right-handed and left-handed hitters.

Still, Chafin will seek a contract similar to Los Angeles Angels left-handed reliever Aaron Loup. Last offseason, Loup inked a two-year, $17 million contract. He earned $7.5 million in 2022 and is set for another $7.5 million in 2023, plus a $7.5 million team option (or $2 million buyout) for the 2024 season.

In this year’s reliever market, though, Chafin could command an even higher average annual value, possibly up to $10 million like Montero’s deal with the Astros. The other notable left-handed relievers: Aroldis Chapman, Brad Hand, Matt Moore, David Price, Joely Rodriguez, Taylor Rogers and Matt Strahm.

Chafin is easily the No. 1 option for any contender needing a lefty out of the bullpen.

“It’s important that he had a really good experience here as a Tiger and that he wants to come back,” Harris said. “That’s sort of a commentary on the organization, and it’s a commentary on the direction that we’re moving. We want players to play here and then want to stay, so I’m pleased to hear that he had a great experience here.”

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Re-signing Chafin won’t be easy, but the Tigers have one significant advantage: distance from home. In the offseason, Chafin lives on a farm near Massillon, Ohio, about an hour south of Cleveland. The Tigers are closer in distance than all but two MLB teams: the Cleveland Guardians and Pittsburgh Pirates.

But Chafin previously pitched for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago Cubs and Oakland Athletics. He signed free-agent contracts with the Cubs in February 2021 and the Tigers in March 2022.

For the right price, distance from home probably won’t matter.

There’s also this point: The Tigers and Chafin never came close to an agreement during the five-day quiet period after the conclusion of the World Series, when a free agent’s former club has exclusive rights to negotiate terms of a new contract. Instead, Chafin officially opted out and became a free agent.

He is testing the open market for the third consecutive offseason.

And the Tigers are clearly in wait-and-see mode as the reliever market unfolds.

“I plan to keep in touch with his agents,” Harris said, “and see if we can bring him back.”

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

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