Tigers’ priorities heading into Winter Meetings

Detroit Tigers

Scott Harris spent his first league function as Tigers president of baseball operations at baseball’s General Managers Meetings laying the groundwork for a potentially busy offseason, talking with other executives as well as agents. Now comes the time when that groundwork could pay off.

“This is sort of like a feeling-out period of the offseason, where you’re getting a lot of inbound calls and registering interest on some players,” Harris said at the GM Meetings. “The early returns have been good. There has been quite a bit of interest in our players.”

Next week’s MLB Winter Meetings mark baseball’s first in-person industry-wide gatherings since 2019, and they couldn’t come at a better time for Harris, who is trying to make his mark on his new roster while setting the organization on a path back to winning seasons.

The last time the Tigers went into the Winter Meetings with a new head of baseball operations, Al Avila made a splash, signing free agents Mark Lowe, Mike Pelfrey and Jarrod Saltalamacchia and trading for reliever Justin Wilson in 2015. That team was trying to get back into playoff position after its run of four consecutive AL Central titles ended with a last-place finish. The current Tigers are in a far different position, but have similar urgency to improve.

Harris’ path might not be through traditional means. It could be through subtle trades, including prospect for prospect. It could be through the Rule 5 Draft, an avenue the Tigers have used well in recent years. It could be through the MLB Draft, where the Tigers have a chance (not a great one) at the No. 1 overall pick through the first-ever Draft lottery.

Sunday, Dec. 4: HOF Contemporary Era ballot results released (Albert Belle, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff, Dale Murphy, Rafael Palmeiro and Curt Schilling)

Monday, Dec. 5: All-MLB Team announced

Tuesday, Dec. 6: Inaugural Draft Lottery, AL/NL Relievers of Year announced

Wednesday, Dec. 7: Rule 5 Draft

Harris said a few weeks ago that the Tigers want to add a left-handed-hitting infielder, a right-handed-hitting outfielder and a catcher. Detroit also needs pitching help, and could use a third baseman after non-tendering Jeimer Candelario.

Potential trade candidates

The Tigers asked for big returns in trade talks for their relievers leading into last summer’s Trade Deadline and ended up dealing only Michael Fulmer, who was headed to free agency at season’s end. Detroit no longer has Andrew Chafin to deal now that he opted for free agency, but closer Gregory Soto should have appeal as a hard-throwing left-hander with three seasons of team control remaining before free agency, and Joe Jiménez has the chance to be a quality one-year rental in his contract year. Right-hander Alex Lange just completed his first full big league season, but his wipeout breaking ball and affordability — he isn’t eligible for arbitration yet, and he won’t hit free agency until after the 2027 season at the earliest — make him an intriguing trade piece if the return is right.

A tougher question is whether Harris wants to go further and trade from Detroit’s crop of young starters, at least the healthy ones. Matt Manning was one of Detroit’s top arms down the stretch, but if the Tigers see themselves as a ways off from contention, they could explore trading Manning and others as a way to bring in talent in thinner areas of the roster. Still, with Tarik Skubal out until maybe midseason and Casey Mize likely out for all of 2023, there’s only so far the Tigers can go in that regard.

The Tigers aren’t exactly in a position to be trading prospects away for veterans, but Harris sounds open to consider trading prospects for young talent. Pitching is one area of depth, though top prospect Jackson Jobe likely isn’t going anywhere. If Detroit finds a longer-term answer at catcher, top catching prospect Dillon Dingler could become a trade piece.

The Tigers shouldn’t be in position to need Rule 5 Draft picks anymore, but Harris’ desire to find young talent in nontraditional pieces makes this a viable route again, especially for a potential utility player or extra reliever. Remember, this is where the Tigers found outfielder Akil Baddoo in 2020.

How far away are the Tigers from contention? While this past season showed the distance is further than it seemed a year ago, is it far enough away that Detroit has to tear its roster down and try again? The reality is probably somewhere in between. Harris has said he doesn’t believe in five-year plans, but he also talked about building good moves upon each other from one period to the next.

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