DETROIT – Free agency is always the talk of the MLB offseason, but this year, it's been for all the wrong reasons.
Players are angry that many of the game's top available free agents remain unsigned as teams report to spring training. The headliners are Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, but there are dozens of others still searching for jobs, too.
The Detroit Tigers aren't in the mix for Harper or Machado, opting to save money in the heart of a total rebuild. Even though the biggest names seem to be off the table, the Tigers shouldn't automatically rule out the rest of the free agent pool.
One of the players who could offer a cheap, short-term option is former Pittsburgh Pirates utility man Josh Harrison. The 31-year-old won't trigger the bidding war of Harper or Machado, but as the start of spring training games draws near, it's about time for him to land with a team.
In the last three years, the Tigers have stockpiled the farm system with plenty of young pitching talent, but the position players have lagged behind.
The result is a current roster that not only lacks stars at most of the lineup spots, but also doesn't have highly regarded players for the future.
Harrison would be a good stopgap defensively for one or two seasons. He plays primarily at second and third base, two spots where the Tigers have young, unproven players who've been hot and cold defensively.
Since the Tigers don't have an established designated hitter, Harrison could give Jeimer Candelario and Niko Goodrum the occasional day off in the field while they slide to designated hitter for a game.
Harrison is also capable of playing the corner outfield spots, which are huge question marks defensively for Detroit. Nicholas Castellanos and Christin Stewart figure to be the worst defensive corner outfield duo in baseball this year, but Ron Gardenhire can't afford to take their bats out of the lineup.
There's also a chance that the Tigers trade Castellanos this season, which would leave a gaping hold in right field. One of the team's other outfield prospects could benefit from the available playing time, but it would benefit the Tigers to have Harrison as a backup plan and a stabilizing force for a rookie who comes up.
Harrison's versatility is the perfect fit for a Tigers roster that has so many questions across the diamond because he could be a potential backup plan in several different spots.
There are plenty of examples of players having breakout seasons and getting overpaid the following year in free agency, but for Harrison, the opposite is the case.
Despite being a model of consistency the prior four seasons, Harrison took a step back in 2018, posting a terrible .656 OPS, an on-base percentage under .300 and a 0.3 WAR.
Harrison is only 31 years old, however, so the drastic decline from a 3.3 WAR player to essentially a replacement-level player is more likely an outlier than an actual indication that he's done.
From 2014 to 2017, Harrison posted a combined 12.5 WAR, played in two All-Star games, hit 118 doubles and 37 home runs and posted a .759 OPS. That's a very useful player, especially for what he's expected to be paid.
Why would the Tigers care to sign a short-term player who would seemingly take reps away from young players at a time when they don't really mind losing? Other than how valuable a veteran can be around a group of inexperienced players, Harrison is also the type of player who could turn into a coveted trade chip at the deadline.
Teams contending for playoff spots usually don't need to make massive moves in July. Instead, the good general managers make smart, small moves to give their teams a push in the right direction, such as the Tigers adding Doug Fister in July 2011 or Delmon Young in August 2011.
Harrison is a player who could be traded to almost any contender because he'll be on a manageable contract. He'll also be an option to fill holes at multiple positions.
If a contender has a hole at third base, Harrison could be an easy fill-in. Injury at second base? Harrison is an option. Even teams that simply need to strengthen their depth down the stretch could use a proven veteran such as Harrison.
Think about what the Tigers did with Leonys Martin. They took a chance on him in the offseason and turned him into Willi Castro, their top shortstop prospect and No. 10 prospect overall.
These are the types of savvy moves that can speed up a rebuild, and since the market for Harrison seems silent, the Tigers might have a chance to land his services.
Bridge the gap
The Tigers don't have much offensive talent in the farm system, but there are a handful of exciting young outfielders.
Stewart, Parker Meadows and Daz Cameron are the top position players in the organization, and all three are outfielders. The Tigers also have Dustin Peterson, Jake Robson and Jose Azocar trying to get into the mix.
Other than Stewart, those players aren't quite ready to be full-timers at the MLB level, so Harrison would be a good way to bridge the gap. The Tigers certainly haven't been in a rush to call up their top prospects, and Harrison would further delay the pressure to do so before they're ready.
Harrison is the type of player who can play every day and be productive while the guys who are part of the long-term plan get seasoning in the minor leagues. Then, if someone is ready to be called up, Harrison won't be a road block because he can move around the field.
There's really no reason for the Tigers not to give Harrison a call, especially this late in the offseason. He's not likely to receive a huge yearly salary, and it certainly wouldn't be a long-term deal.
Harrison would never be a break-the-bank player. While some of the other top free agents -- including Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel and Marwin Gonzalez -- could cost top dollar for production that will soon be on the decline, Harrison would be very affordable for an organization that has more contracts coming off the books in the near future than ones adding to the payroll.
If Harrison struggled, it's not like it would hurt the Tigers in a few years, when they actually expect to contend. By then, both sides will have moved on.