Harris’ strategy taking shape as Tigers enter 2023

Detroit Tigers

Tigers president of baseball operations Scott Harris looked — at least on Zoom — like a happy boss as he discussed the signing of right-hander Michael Lorenzen. It’s the type of signing Harris thrived on as Giants general manager, bringing in an undervalued starter with rebound potential on a short-term contract and then helping the pitcher build a bounceback season.

By now, you’ve probably seen the list: Kevin Gausman, Anthony DeSclafani, Drew Smyly, Alex Wood, Carlos Rodón. Four of those five eventually cashed in with multi-year deals, two of them re-signing with the Giants. Smyly signed a one-year deal with the Cubs last season that included a mutual option for a second year, which he declined before agreeing with Chicago on a two-year contract with a mutual option for 2025 on Saturday.

With the Tigers’ signings of Lorenzen and Matthew Boyd, you can see Harris following a similar formula this offseason in Detroit, where Robin Lund’s hire from the University of Iowa to work as an assistant pitching coach under Chris Fetter reflected the team’s investment in instruction and development at the big league level. Considering the Tigers should have Tarik Skubal back by midseason and Casey Mize on the mound again in late 2023 or 2024, the short-term deals make sense from a roster construction standpoint.

Despite the short terms, the strategy also follows a formula of how Harris hopes to begin reshaping the Tigers’ direction, a plan he detailed on the Zoom call discussing the Lorenzen deal.

“Part of the broader strategy here is to strengthen our pitching and defense while we address our offense,” Harris said. “Reshaping our offensive identity will take time. It has to take time to achieve that goal. But we believe that the quickest way to stabilize a team is to build a collection of starters who give you a chance to win every night, and build a defense behind those starters who catch the ball every night. I think this is a step in that direction.”

Lorenzen apparently bought into the vision, saying on the call that he feels like the Tigers are going in the right direction. Boyd, too, has praised Harris, even before his deal came together.

We’ll see how that vision morphs once Skubal and Mize return. Both are under team control until after the 2026 season. Matt Manning is under team control for a year beyond that. Depending on how Joey Wentz, Beau Brieske and Alex Faedo develop, Detroit could still end up with a rotation of pitchers under long-term control.

A couple other Tigers thoughts heading into the New Year:

The defense will not rest
If you read the above quote from Harris closely, you noticed the last sentence about building a defense behind Detroit’s pitchers. As the Tigers turn their attention to adding position players in the latter half of the Hot Stove season, that’s worth noting. While plate discipline and contact have been expected to be priorities for Detroit on the hitting side, the team is placing equal importance on glovework.

What does that mean at third base? The Tigers have been linked to interest in former Marlin Brian Anderson as a potential bounceback candidate, but after positive defensive metrics at third from 2019 to 2021, his numbers fell off this past season. Former Dodgers prospect Edwin Ríos has generally been seen as an offense-first corner infielder and committed 12 errors in 33 Triple-A games at third base coming off shoulder surgery. Fellow free agent César Hernández won a Gold Glove at second base in 2020, but his defensive ratings have fallen over the last couple years. Moving Jonathan Schoop could open a different field of candidates at second, including former Tiger Josh Harrison, who has rated well at second base.

Then again, at what point does Ryan Kreidler become as good of an option at third (or second) base as the free agents remaining on the market?

What about Wentz?
The flip side of the Tigers signing Boyd and Lorenzen for their rotation is that it likely costs Wentz a chance at a rotation spot to open the season. It’s a tough break, not just because of his 12 scoreless innings in the Arizona Fall League, but because of the 1.73 ERA and .161 opposing batting average he posted down the stretch in the Tigers’ rotation. That said, given Detroit’s injury history with starters over the past season and a half, his chance could arrive soon enough.

If Wentz indeed opens the season at Triple-A Toledo and Detroit’s rotation plays out as expected, the Mud Hens could have a talented rotation with Wentz, Brieske, Faedo, Garrett Hill, Reese Olson and Wilmer Flores.

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