Detroit Tigers head to winter meetings in search of revamping offense, establishing depth

Detroit Free Press

SAN DIEGO — Aaron Judge? Carlos Correa? Justin Verlander?

Not happening.

Don’t expect lengthy contract commitments from the Detroit Tigers this offseason, but that doesn’t mean the organization won’t be active in free agency and trades. President of baseball operations Scott Harris has spent more than a month gauging the market on every player — internally and externally — and is expected to make moves at baseball’s winter meetings in San Diego.

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Sustainability is the Tigers’ goal for the future. Fixing the offense and building big-league depth are the pressing needs. Since 2018, the Tigers rank last in walk rate (7.1%), last in strikeout rate (24.7%) and last in chase rate (35.3%).

The talk of the winter meetings, from Sunday through Wednesday, will be dominated by elite free agents, namely Judge, Correa, Trea Turner, Brandon Nimmo, Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson. Those position players are likely to command average annual values in the $20-40 million range.

The Tigers have a projected 2023 payroll of about $122 million entering the winter meetings, including left-hander Matthew Boyd’s one-year, $10 million contract. They have room to make additions without sacrificing the long-term goals, but with that in mind, they aren’t in the mix for players at the top of the market. Last year, the Tigers’ Opening Day payroll ranked 17th at roughly $135 million.

Three players are responsible for $68 million this season: designated hitter Miguel Cabrera ($32 million), shortstop Javier Báez ($22 million) and left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez ($14 million).

Cabrera’s contract expires after the 2023 season.

“We talked about resources,” Harris said Sept. 20 at his introductory news conference. “This ownership group has a long history of supporting baseball operations. It’s on me to come up with compelling opportunities and pitch those opportunities to Chris. I know that if I do, I’ll have his full support.”

THE HARRIS PLAN: Biggest priority for Tigers this offseason? ‘Reshaping our position playing group’

AN EARLY LOOK: Here’s who the Tigers could target as MLB offseason officially begins

Early signs point to Harris targeting short-term contracts for once-successful players currently undervalued by the industry on the free-agent market. If Harris can uncover excess value, those players would immediately become trade chips or extension candidates while helping reshape the identity of the offense.

Controlling the strike zone and putting balls in play are requirements to join the organization. Harris is seeking a left-handed hitting infielder and a right-handed hitting outfielder.

The Tigers have expressed interest in second baseman Adam Frazier and outfielder Wil Myers, among others. They have also kicked the tires on catcher Willson Contreras and multi-positional infielder Brandon Drury. For now, Contreras and Drury seem unlikely to sign with the Tigers.

WHAT WE KNOW: Why catcher Willson Contreras makes sense, and doesn’t make sense, for Tigers

Frazier, who turns 31 in December, is a left-handed hitting infielder who puts the ball in play and avoids strikeouts. He hit .238 with three home runs, 46 walks and 73 strikeouts in 156 games last season for the Seattle Mariners.

An All-Star in 2021 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Frazier has a 7.6% walk rate and 12.7% strikeout rate over his seven-year career. He doesn’t hit the ball hard, so his power is limited, but he undoubtedly fits Harris’ vision for the offense.

Myers, who turns 32 in December, is a right-handed hitting outfielder (with nearly 400 games at first base, as well) who crushes four-seam fastballs, draws walks at a high clip and is known for consistent production when healthy. The Tigers, by the way, were the worst team in baseball against fastballs last season.

In 2022, Myers hit .261 with seven homers, 21 walks and 86 strikeouts in 77 games for the San Diego Padres. He suffered a right thumb contusion in April and a right knee inflammation in June.

Myers, an All-Star in 2016, has a 9.8% walk rate and 27.0% strikeout rate across his 10-year career.

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The Tigers will continue listening to offers for their three coveted relievers — right-handers Joe Jiménez and Alex Lange and left-hander Gregory Soto — at the winter meetings. The St. Louis Cardinals need power arms in their bullpen and might be willing to trade outfielder Tyler O’Neill.

Entering his sixth season, the arbitration-eligible O’Neill is coming off an age-27 year in which he slashed .228/.308/.392 in 96 games, though he put together a .286/.352/.560 campaign in 138 games to finish eighth in National League MVP voting in 2021.

Harris could try to acquire inflated contracts through trades, netting prospects in the process. Cincinnati Reds corner infielder Mike Moustakas, New York Yankees third baseman Josh Donaldson, New York Mets catcher James McCann (a former Tiger) and Atlanta Braves outfielder Marcell Ozuna fall into the category of negative-value contracts, as mentioned by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal.

All four of those veterans had an OPS+ below 100 (league average) last season — though Donaldson’s OPS+ of 94 would have ranked fourth among Tigers with at least 80 games played — and all would come with at least $22 million in contract commitments, though only McCann and Ozuna are signed beyond the 2023 season. (Donaldson and Moustakas have team options with buyouts for 2024.)

“When we go into the winter, we are not going to be risk-averse,” Harris said in September. “We can’t be risk-averse. Taking calculated risks as part of a broader strategy of roster building and organization building, it will pay off in the end. That’s how we’re looking at it.”

The Tigers have evaluated how to move forward from a disappointing 2022 season that resulted in leadership changes across the organization. Over the past month, Harris has purged the old roster, gauged the markets and inspected information about the path ahead.

Be prepared for some answers this week in San Diego.

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

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