DETROIT – Baseball’s Winter Meetings have come and gone, and the last-place Detroit Tigers came away with nothing but a backup catcher and a few Rule 5 draft picks.
There’s not much Al Avila could have done in his short trip to San Diego. The Tigers were never going to be players for the big free agents or trade targets. Even the second-tier free agents will have multiple suitors that aren’t coming off 114-loss seasons.
Detroit isn’t an attractive destination right now. Losing pretty much every night from the beginning of April to the end of September isn’t fun for anyone, even if they make millions of dollars. That means the Tigers have to make savvy, calculated signings that could pay off as building blocks toward contention or trade chips.
Here are 13 available players the Tigers should target as the off-season continues.
1B Greg Bird
2019 stats: .171 average/.293 on-base percentage/.257 slugging, 1 home run, six walks, 16 strikeouts in 10 games.
The Tigers got some of the worst production in the league out of the first base position -- a .710 OPS with just 19 home runs and a .308 OBP.
First base is a position of offensive strength around the league. Most contenders have a power bat who can also get on base at a high rate playing first base, so the Tigers’ struggles there contributed heavily to their league-worst run total.
Greg Bird hasn’t been much better in his MLB career than what the Tigers got last season. He’s battled injuries and slow starts in parts of four years with the Yankees. But the power and the ability to draw a walk are still clear.
Bird has long been a stud hitter in the minor leagues, posting a .281/.396/.485 slash line across seven seasons with a high walk rate and home run power. But he’s never really gotten a full opportunity in New York.
The Tigers can offer him an everyday job without any concerns about playing time. Miguel Cabrera has moved primarily to designated hitter and nobody else on the roster has the upside to push Bird out of the lineup.
Bird is still only 27 years old, and the expectations of his prospect pedigree have all but disappeared. That, combined with playing in a low-pressure situation like the one the Tigers can offer, makes Bird a perfect fit in Detroit.
OF Kole Calhoun
2019 stats: .232/.325/.467, 33 home runs, 70 walks, 162 strikeouts in 152 games.
Brandon Dixon led the Tigers with 15 home runs last season. Kole Calhoun more than doubled that last season with the Los Angeles Angels.
Calhoun also smacked 29 doubles and a triple, giving him 63 extra-base hits. His 258 total bases is 62 more than Cabrera, who led the Tigers with 196. And Calhoun did that all while batting 17 points lower than his career average.
At 31 years old, Calhoun wouldn’t be a long-term solution for the Tigers. But he would give some much-needed pop to the heart of the order and provide a possible trade piece at upcoming deadlines.
Other than an uncharacteristically poor 2018 season, Calhoun has posted WARs of 4.1, 3.0, 3.3, 2.0 and 2.3 since becoming a full-time player in 2014. With the ability to hit for power and get on base, he would be the Tigers’ best hitter.
SP Trevor Cahill
2019 stats: 5.98 ERA/6.13 FIP, 1.466 WHIP, 81 strikeouts, 39 walks, 25 home runs in 102.1 innings.
It’s hard to undersell just how bad Trevor Cahill was last season. He posted a 5.98 ERA in over 100 innings with the Angels and the underlying numbers suggest he was lucky it wasn’t worse. His strikeout rate plummeted to near seven batters per nine innings. His home run rate more than tripled from a year ago.
But this season looks like an outlier for Cahill, who posted a 3.76 ERA, 3.54 FIP and 1.191 WHIP with the Oakland Athletics in 2018. He struck out 10.6 batters per nine innings in 11 starts with the San Diego Padres in 2017. As a relief pitcher with the Chicago Cubs in 2016, Cahill struck out a batter per inning and posted a (very fortunate) 2.74 ERA.
Though he’s been in the league for 11 years, Cahill is still just 31 years old. He’s made 219 starts with decent numbers. His strikeout rate was trending in the right direction before last season, and the Tigers could give him a shot if some of the other options on this list sign elsewhere.
Of the 13 suggests here, Cahill is probably the least desirable, but there have been some recent flashes of upside, and that’s more than the Tigers can say about much of their current roster.
OF Corey Dickerson
2019 stats: .304/.341/.565, 12 home runs, 16 walks, 56 strikeouts in 78 games.
Injuries hampered Corey Dickerson in 2019 and kept him from having a chance to back up his first solid season with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Dickerson won a Gold Glove in 2018 and has posted an OPS over .800 five of the last six years, including a .906 mark in 78 games with the Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies in 2019. He’s a well-rounded player who posted a combined 6.3 WAR across 2017 and 2018.
There’s probably a contender out there who could use a powerful left-handed bat, but the Tigers should at least kick the tires on Dickerson’s free agency. He’s a serviceable defensive outfielder with a career .328 OBP and 334 extra-base hits.
The Tigers’ outfield is a mess of unproven and struggling players, so a reliable veteran would be good for the unit and the offense as a whole.
2B Scooter Gennett
2019 stats: .226/.245/.323, two home runs, two walks, 41 strikeouts in 42 games.
Many around baseball appear to have forgotten about Scooter Gennett this off-season, and that could result in a nice bargain for one team.
Gennett missed the first three-quarters of the year and never got comfortable in 2019, playing 21 games in Cincinnati before being shipped off to a terrible hitter’s park in San Francisco.
But just a year ago, Gennett was a National League All-Star, hitting .310 with a .357 OBP, 23 home runs and 30 doubles. That performance came after he posted an .847 OPS as a full-time player in 2017.
Gennett won’t turn 30 until May 1 and figures to have a bounce-back season barring another injury.
The Tigers don’t want to get caught up in any massive contracts, but a multi-year deal with Gennett would shore up second base for a few years and give the team a consistent bat at the middle of the order.
SP Jimmy Nelson
2019 stats: 6.95 ERA/5.80 FIP, 1.909 WHIP, 17 walks, 26 strikeouts, four home runs in 22 innings.
Jimmy Nelson is another player who’s been derailed by injury. He missed all of 2018 with a shoulder issue and made just 10 appearances last season for the Milwaukee Brewers.
In his last full season, Nelson struck out 199 batters in 175.1 innings for the 2017 Brewers team that won 86 games. He posted a 3.05 FIP and a 1.249 WHIP to go with his elite strikeout, walk and home run rates.
Nelson is now 30 years old and hoping for a healthy 2020. He was granted free agency by the Brewers despite being eligible for arbitration and will likely be a cheap option for which team takes a chance on him.
The Tigers should be that team, considering he struck out 10.2 batters per nine innings while preventing runs at a high level the last time he was fully healthy. He might never be that guy again, but he’s likely much better than he showed last season.
OF Kevin Pillar
2019 stats: .259/.287/.432, 21 home runs, 18 walks, 89 strikeouts in 161 games.
The Tigers wouldn’t be getting a great offensive player if they signed Kevin Pillar, but he’s a player who was moved five games into 2019 because of his speed, defensive and contact skills.
Pillar struck out only 89 times in 161 games last season, a valuable tool in today’s whiff-heavy environment. He also stole 14 bases and played a solid center field for the San Francisco Giants.
Pillar is a veteran who has played more than 140 games for five straight seasons. He’s the type of player who could bring some stability to a Tigers outfield that has none. A little defense wouldn’t hurt, either.
OF Yasiel Puig
2019 stats: .267/.327/.458, 24 home runs, 44 walks, 133 strikeouts in 149 games.
Tigers brass has been shouting from the rooftops that the franchise is ready to start building the roster up toward contending again. That’s because interest in the team has waned with each losing season, and fans aren’t coming to Comerica Park anymore.
Signing a player like Yasiel Puig would go a long way toward bucking that trend. Not only is Puig a solid overall player, he’s also extremely entertaining.
After two-thirds of a season with the Cincinnati Reds, Puig was shipped to Cleveland for the final 49 games. He finished the season with 24 home runs, 30 doubles, 19 stolen bases and a solid .785 OPS. He’s 29 years old there’s plenty left in the tank.
Detroit has some of the weakest outfield arms in the league, so adding Puig in right field would provide a big boost there, as well.
SP Aaron Sanchez
2019 stats: 5.89 ERA/5.25 FIP, 1.622 WHIP, 68 walks, 115 strikeouts, 20 home runs in 131.1 innings.
Aaron Sanchez reminds me a lot of Michael Fulmer, except worse. OK, that might not be a ringing endorsement of someone the Tigers should sign, but it would be much more preferable than someone along the lines of Tyson Ross, Matt Moore or Mike Pelfrey, to name a few recent stopgaps.
Sanchez is similar to Fulmer in that he has good velocity on his fastball and nasty pure stuff, but he doesn’t miss many bats. He finished 2019 striking out fewer than eight batters per nine innings, yet it was still his career high K/9.
The Houston Astros liked Sanchez enough to trade for him at the deadline, and he had one good start but ultimately didn’t work out.
This was the second straight season of bad baseball for Sanchez, who battled injuries and blisters in 2017 and 2018. He was last effective in 2016, when he posted a 3.00 ERA with a 1.167 WHIP and 161 strikeouts in 192 innings. He made the AL All-Star team that season but hasn’t found his footing since.
Two bad years will make Sanchez very affordable this off-season, so the Tigers should take a stab at him. Who knows? Maybe his age-27 season will be a breakout.
OF Domingo Santana
2019 stats: .253/.329/.441, 21 home runs, 50 walks, 164 strikeouts in 121 games.
The one-year pit stop in Seattle was a success for Domingo Santana, who posted a .770 OPS while hitting 21 home runs. His strikeout problem continued to rear its ugly head, though.
Santana whiffed 164 times in just 121 games. In his last full season, 2017, he struck out 178 times in 151 games. The inability to make consistent contact has left Santana with a sub-.260 batting average, but that would have been one of the top marks on the Tigers last season.
Santana has the ability to draw a walk, and as a result, owns a career .343 OBP. That, combined with his home run power, should make him a target for the Tigers.
If Santana continues to hit the ball over the fence and get on base, he could be a useful long-term player for the Tigers. He’s only 27 years old, so a cheap three- or four-year deal wouldn’t be a bad move to consider.
2B Jonathan Schoop
2019 stats: .256/.304/.473, 23 home runs, 20 walks, 116 strikeouts in 121 games.
The Minnesota Twins did nothing but mash home runs the entire 2019 season, and Jonathan Schoop was a big part of that, hitting 23 bombs in his only season with the club.
Schoop also added 23 doubles and a .777 OPS from the second base position. It was his best year since an All-Star 2017 that saw him hit 32 homers and 35 doubles.
The problem with Schoop is his inability to draw a walk or get on base with any consistency. He has a lifetime OBP under .300 and has never eclipsed 35 walks in a season. Even during his standout 2017 season, his .338 OBP wasn’t special.
But the Tigers aren’t going to be in the mix for any elite players, so they have to pick and choose which flaws they’re willing to accept. Pairing Schoop with someone like Calhoun in the order would give the Tigers two power threats and at least one player who can get on base regularly.
SP Taijuan Walker
2017 stats: 3.49 ERA/4.04 FIP, 1.328 WHIP, 146 strikeouts, 61 walks, 17 home runs in 157.1 innings.
Once an elite pitching prospect in the Seattle Mariners organization, Taijuan Walker was sent to the Arizona Diamondbacks in a deal that involved Ketel Marte, Mitch Haniger and Jean Segura.
After logging more than 150 innings his first year in Arizona, Walker has made just four appearances the last two seasons due to injury.
Somebody is going to take a chance on Walker, and that team probably won’t be a World Series contender. Even when he was healthy from 2015 to 2017, Walker never lived up to his elite prospect pedigree. He posted a 4.33 FIP, 1.253 WHIP and 8.2 K/9 during that span.
Once again, this signing would be more about the Tigers having nothing to lose than actually expecting Walker to suddenly emerge as the pitcher everyone hope seven years ago. He has good raw stuff and struck out 9.5 batters per nine innings in the minors.
At 27 years old, the chance for a breakout hasn’t completely passed Walker by. Plenty of pitchers enjoy post-hype breakouts. For example, former No. 1 prospect Lucas Giolito was dreadful during his first full season with the Chicago White Sox, allowing more runs than any other pitcher in baseball with a low strikeout rate and an extraordinarily high walk rate.
Giolito bounced back to finish sixth in AL Cy Young voting this year, striking out 11.6 batters per nine innings, slicing his walk rate by 38% and posting an excellent 3.43 FIP.
Sure, Giolito was only bad for one season, and he wasn’t coming off two years of injuries. But the Tigers wouldn’t need Walker to develop into a top 15 pitcher, either.
In Detroit, Walker would have a chance to work through his struggles. If it worked out, the Tigers could reap huge rewards. If not, can he really be that much worse than Jordan Zimmermann?
SP Alex Wood
2018 stats: 3.68 ERA/3.53 FIP, 1.207 WHIP, 135 strikeouts, 40 walks, 14 home runs in 151.2 innings.
Alex Wood has been a solid major league pitcher for his entire career, but last year didn’t go as planned in Cincinnati. The Reds sent two prospects and Homer Bailey to the Dodgers for Wood, Puig, Kyle Farmer and Matt Kemp.
The left-hander made just seven starts for the Reds due to injury, and he never found his footing. Wood allowed 23 earned runs in 35.2 innings, striking out just 30 batters and allowing 11 home runs.
But from 2013 through 2018, when Wood made 129 starts and 172 total appearances for the Atlanta Braves and Dodgers, he posted a 3.29 ERA, 3.36 FIP and 1.215 WHIP. His strikeout rate was solid, especially compared to his low walk and home run rates.
Wood is a proven left-handed starting pitcher at the MLB level and he won’t turn 30 until January 2021. He’s a much different pitcher than Matthew Boyd, but he has a longer track record of being effective.
Even though the Tigers have six high-level pitching prospects -- Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal, Joey Wentz, Alex Faedo and Franklin Perez -- Wood is still in his prime and could provide some stability in a future pitching staff that’s currently built on hype.
What should Tigers do?
Obviously the Tigers can’t sign 13 free agents, but there’s plenty of money available to spend on multiple players if Avila truly wants to start improving on the field.
This season, the Tigers only have two players on contracts outside arbitration: Cabrera and Zimmermann. The latter’s $25 million contract -- as well as the $6 million owed to Prince Fielder -- will come off the books next season, leaving the Tigers committed only to Cabrera’s $30 for 2021 and $32 million for both 2022 and 2023.
In other words, a team that was handcuffed with bad contracts as recently as two years ago will soon have as much cap flexibility as any franchise in baseball. Only five teams have committed less money to the 2021 roster than the Tigers.
There are certainly advantages to maintaining that flexibility for another year. Say Travis Demeritte and Christin Stewart emerge as solid outfielders in 2020 while Daz Cameron and Riley Greene are knocking on the door in the minor leagues. Avila wouldn’t want to have committed four years to Calhoun in that situation.
Similarly, if the Tigers elect to keep Boyd, Fulmer returns to form, Norris has another solid season and the top pitching prospects start to break into the major leagues, spending $50 million to lock up Wood might not be the best use of the team’s money.
For that reason, the best way to approach this off-season would be with short-term deals for players with high upside. If the Tigers have to overpay to bring someone like Santana to Detroit for two years, so what? That contract will be off the books before the team is ready to compete for a playoff spot, and in the meantime, he would make the team better and offer a possible trade piece.
Here’s a hypothetical dream scenario:
- Sign Bird to a three-year, $15 million deal
- Sign Santana to a two-year, $20 million deal
- Sign Walker to a two-year, $14 million deal
- Sign Wood to a three-year, $39 million deal
That would amount to a $35 million investment for 2020 and 2021 and an $18 million investment for 2022. The Tigers would still be below the league average salary cap for 2020, even with the bloated Zimmermann contract.