DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers are finally looking to build toward contending this offseason, and there are three players they should consider extending, even though the deals would be controversial.
For the first time in five years, the offseason will be worth watching in Detroit. Not only have the Tigers seemingly turned the corner of their rebuild -- why else would they call up Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Isaac Paredes and others? -- but they have more money to play with.
Of the $78.8 million the Tigers owed in post-arbitration deals for 2020, $48.8 million has been wiped from the payroll due to free agency and the end of Prince Fielder’s deal.
It’s unrealistic to think the Tigers are going to take that salary cap space and spend like crazy this offseason. For one, we don’t even know if this front office is willing to spend big on the market. Secondly, the Tigers are still a couple of seasons away from true World Series contention, and the 2022 free agent class is worth the wait.
But there are a couple of deals the Tigers could make this offseason that would either keep a free agent around for a little longer or lock someone up long-term in a way that saves money down the road.
All three of these extensions would trigger mixed reactions from the fan base, because there are strong arguments for and against signing these players. But again, it could really pay off.
1B C.J. Cron
- 2020 stats: .190/.346/.548 with 4 home runs, 3 doubles, 9 walks and 16 strikeouts in 13 games.
- Current status: Free agent
- Suggested contract: 2 years, $15 million
- Reason for controversy: His low batting average in 2020, Jeimer Candelario’s breakout season at first base and a possible lack of playing time up for grabs on the infield.
It’s hard to quantify how much C.J. Cron’s injury derailed the Tigers this season.
Through 13 games, he owned an .894 OPS despite a BABIP (batting average on balls in play) more than 100 points below his career mark. Cron was hitting for power and drawing walks at the highest rate of his career. When he went down, it not only removed the team’s top power threat, it threw the infield defense into disarray.
Jeimer Candelario was having a strong defensive season at third base, but he moved over to first base, where he wasn’t as comfortable. The Tigers also had defensive issues at third base after the swap.
Cron was signed to a one-year, $6.1 million deal last offseason and played only 13 games. Getting him for a slight increase of $7.5 million per year for the next two seasons would give the Tigers a reliable power bat who could hold down first base until Spencer Torkelson or another prospect arrives.
His contract wouldn’t sink the Tigers if they had to make him a bench bat for 2022, either.
Candelario could move back to third base, leaving the middle infield positions for Willi Castro and Isaac Paredes. Unless Niko Goodrum and Sergio Alcantara hit much better in 2021, they don’t necessarily need to be guaranteed everyday infield roles.
The Tigers' lineup is showing promise with Candelario, Castro and Victor Reyes, but none of them are major power threats. Cron could be a cheap, short-term home run source for the next couple of seasons.
RP Daniel Norris
- 2020 stats: 3.25 ERA, 2.87 FIP, 1.157 WHIP, 28 strikeouts, 7 walks in 27.2 innings.
- Current status: Under team control through 2021 (one more season).
- Suggested contract: 4 years, $24 million
- Reason for controversy: The “bust” label will follow him forever because he was a top prospect who didn’t pan out as a starter. He also has a history of injuries and inconsistency.
When the Tigers traded David Price to the Toronto Blue Jays, Daniel Norris was the prized prospect they got in return. He hit a shocking home run at Wrigley Field during his fourth start with Detroit and put together a solid first year and a half after the trade. The hype train was fully in motion.
The next two seasons were disasters, both because of performance and injuries. But the Tigers need to move on from the hope that Norris will be an ace starting pitcher and realize he still has enormous value.
After dominating in nine three-inning appearances as an opener to finish 2019, Norris' 2020 was delayed by a positive coronavirus (COVID-19) test during summer camp. He wasn’t able to build up to a starter’s workload, and he spent the season in the bullpen.
That could end up being a blessing in disguise. Norris was excellent in his versatile, multi-inning role, striking out a batter per inning with a low WHIP and walk rate. The underlying numbers support his breakout, too: a 2.87 FIP and 12% swinging strike rate.
Al Avila doesn’t have to wait until Norris hits free agency after 2021. He can lock him up now, avoid an arbitration hearing this offseason and keep a swing-and-miss lefty in the bullpen for his prime (ages 28-31) seasons.
It’s a win for Norris, too. He gets the security of a guaranteed deal despite his lack of a proven track record and still can hit free agency at age 31, when relievers are very much in demand. A $6 million annual value would put him in the range of some of the top relievers in baseball, including Brad Hand, Liam Hendricks, Edwin Diaz, Chris Martin and Kirby Yates.
SP Matt Boyd
- 2020 stats: 6.71 ERA, 5.78 FIP, 1.475 WHIP, 60 strikeouts, 22 walks in 60.1 innings.
- Current status: Under team control through 2022 (two more seasons)
- Suggested contract: 4 years, $36 million
- Reason for controversy: He was a disaster the second half of 2019 and all of 2020.
OK, deep breath. This is going to be a hard sell.
Matt Boyd deserved all the frustration Tigers fans threw his way in 2020. Not only were they hoping to see the first half version of 2019 Boyd, they probably never imagined that they would actually see a version worse than the second half of 2019.
But there’s a chance the Tigers could turn a few bad months into a bargain.
First of all, if 2020 showed the Tigers anything, it’s that they can never have too much pitching. Mize and Skubal looked like safe prospects before their call-ups, and they both struggled mightily at the MLB level.
That doesn’t mean Mize, Skubal, Matt Manning and the other pitching prospects won’t pan out, but it does mean the Tigers should keep as many options open as possible if they want to build a strong rotation.
Boyd was really terrible in 2020, allowing more homers and earned runs than any other pitcher in the league. His bad starts were just so dreadful -- three outings of seven earned runs -- that they completely sunk his entire stat line.
But then again, five of his final seven starts were pretty strong. Boyd’s best days could still be ahead of him.
It’s very difficult to draw concrete conclusions from the 2020 season. Not only was the sample size even smaller for starting pitchers -- 12 games, in Boyd’s case -- but the preparation was nothing like what they’re used to.
Boyd pitched well in spring training, then was shut down for months due to the pandemic. Then, he pitched only against teammates at summer camp before starting the regular season.
The swinging strike rate was still elite at 13%. The walk rate is still low. Giving Boyd a four-year deal would only add two more years to his time with the Tigers, but they would avoid two arbitration battles and lock him up for a very reasonable cost.
Kyle Gibson, Mike Minor, Anibal Sanchez, Michael Pineda, Garrett Richards, Rick Porcello, Julio Teheran, Robbie Ray and Kevin Gausman are some of the starting pitchers who make about $8-10 million per season. Boyd is likely to be better than many of them, and definitely has a higher ceiling than all off them.
Again, this is a deal that could really pay off if Boyd makes one adjustment: keeping the ball in the yard. If the worst-case scenario plays out and he’s bad, paying him $9 million for an extra two seasons won’t kill the payroll.