DETROIT – Going into 2021, the Detroit Tigers have exciting prospects, money to spend and a handful of solid players on their roster. Here are three free agents they could add to three prospects and three familiar faces to create a starting lineup capable of competing next season.
State of the Tigers
Anyone who follows baseball knows the Tigers have been terrible for the last five years. They’ve posted the worst record in the league two of the last four years, and finished in the bottom five each season.
It’s been an ugly rebuild, but 2020 was the first sign of progress.
There’s a lot of uncertainty about what stage of the rebuild the Tigers are in. Was playing meaningful games in September enough to vault the Tigers into contention in 2021? Why would the team call up so many top prospects if it wasn’t time to start winning?
How about this: Will MLB continue to have 16 playoff teams going forward? That would certainly have an affect on the Tigers' mindset. If they only need to finish in the top eight to get into the postseason, the rebuild can be sped up significantly.
But the most important question remains: Are the Tigers willing to spend money in free agency? If so, they can fill a lot of holes this offseason.
As of this week, the Tigers no longer owe Jordan Zimmermann $25 million per year. They don’t have to pay Prince Fielder $6 million a year. C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop, Ivan Nova and Austin Romine are all off the books after one-year deals.
Chris Ilitch is left with one guaranteed contract on his entire payroll: Miguel Cabrera’s $30 million per year.
Sure, they’ll have to dish out a few million to the likes of Matt Boyd, JaCoby Jones, Buck Farmer and others who are eligible for arbitration, but at the end of the day, the Tigers will have a ton of money to spend on improving the team.
Everyone is eyeing the loaded 2022 free agent class, and for good reason. That class is absolutely loaded with stars -- both pitchers and everyday players.
But the Tigers can’t forget about this offseason, especially if the market is soft as teams look ahead to 2022.
There are some valuable players the Tigers have to pursue, because as much as they like their young pitching talent, the lineup needs a lot of help.
C J.T. Realmuto
2020 stats: .266/.349/.491, 11 homers, 6 doubles, 48 strikeouts and 16 walks in 47 games.
Suggested contract: 5 years, $115 million
If the Tigers could only pursue one free agent this offseason, it should be J.T. Realmuto.
This isn’t to say they’ve completely given up on their in-house options, but the fact that they stuck with Grayson Greiner so long -- and then when they pulled the plug it was Eric Haase who got the call -- says something about their view of Jake Rogers.
Realmuto is the best catcher in baseball, and it’s not even close. He’s posted WARs of 4.4, 4.5 and 4.5 each of the last three full seasons. This year, he hit 11 home runs with an .840 OPS in 47 games.
In addition to being a standout at his position offensively, Realmuto is an elite defender, a good athlete and extremely durable. He played in 145 games in 2019 and has never played in fewer than 125 across a full season.
The Tigers would have to pay up for Realmuto, and he will be 30 years old by Opening Day, so the deal wouldn’t come without risk. But there’s no better time for the Tigers to invest in a great catcher. Realmuto would be the perfect battery mate to Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and the young rotation.
1B Jeimer Candelario
2020 stats: .297/.369/.503, 7 homers, 11 doubles, 3 triples, 49 strikeouts and 20 walks in 52 games.
Status: Under team control until 2024
Jeimer Candelario bounced back to become the Tigers' best player in 2020, showing the extra base power and on-base ability that drew the Tigers to him in 2017.
Since the trade that brought Candelario over from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for Alex Avila and Justin Wilson, strikeouts had completely derailed his career. That is, until 2020.
With 21 extra-base hits, 20 walks and less than a strikeout per game, Candelario showed the top 100 prospect pedigree everyone’s been waiting for. Now he’s cemented himself as a starter for the foreseeable future.
Candelario could end up at either corner infield spot, but in this particular lineup, he stays right where he ended the season.
2B D.J. LeMahieu
2020 stats: .364/.421/.590, 10 homers, 10 doubles, 2 triples, 21 strikeouts and 18 walks in 50 games.
Suggested contract: 4 years, $90 million
Many of us wanted the Tigers to sign D.J. MeLahieu -- a former Brother Rice High School star -- when he left Colorado in 2018, but instead he signed with the New York Yankees.
After the two seasons he just had in New York, the price is going to be much steeper this time around. But LeMahieu is still worth it.
It didn’t seem possible LeMahieu could leave Colorado and be a better hitter, but he went to New York and hit 26 home runs with a .327 average and .893 OPS in 2019. It didn’t seem possible he could top that, but then he posted a 1.011 OPS with 10 homers, 10 doubles and nearly as many walks as strikeouts in 50 games this year.
Since he’s 32 years old, LeMahieu probably isn’t going to surpass Jose Altuve’s $29 million annual salary for the top spot at the position, but he’s going to make at least $20 million per year -- a steep price for a second baseman.
But he’s arguably been the best hitter in baseball the last two seasons, and he should at least answer the phone for the Tigers since he’s a hometown guy.
3B Isaac Paredes
2020 stats: .220/.278/.290, 1 home run, 4 doubles, 24 strikeouts and 8 walks in 34 games.
Status: Under team control until 2027
Don’t give up on Isaac Paredes just because he struggled in 2020.
The 21-year-old was one of the youngest players in Major League Baseball this season, and he still showed some of the signs that make him one of the team’s top 10 prospects.
Throughout his minor league career, Paredes has had elite plate discipline. Even through his struggles, that was evident at the MLB level.
Paredes has a better grasp of the strike zone than most of the Tigers' veterans, and he showed an ability to work counts, draw walks and lay off close pitches to get into hitters' counts.
Give Paredes a full, normal offseason of work and an opportunity to play every day in 2021, and he’ll be a valuable hitter at the hot corner.
SS Willi Castro
2020 stats: .349/.381/.550, 6 homers, 4 doubles, 2 triples, 38 strikeouts and 7 walks in 36 games.
Status: Under team control until 2026
OK, so I’m cheating a little bit and counting Willi Castro as one of the three prospects on this list. He came into the season as the team’s No. 7 prospect and graduated from that status late in the year.
Castro took his first true MLB opportunity and ran with it this season, sliding into the all-important No. 2 hole of the lineup and delivering a .932 OPS.
He hit for power. He hit for average. He even tore up the base paths. In a lineup that was deprived of playmakers in 2019, Castro made things happen for the Tigers this year.
Given Castro’s minor league track record, it’s no surprise he’s a good hitter. Now he has to prove he can stick at shortstop. His defense was well below average in 2020, and he only stayed at shortstop everyday because Niko Goodrum couldn’t get into a rhythm at the plate.
Shortstop is too important of a position to ignore defensively, so Castro needs to improve. But there’s no doubt he can hit.
LF Joc Pederson
2020 stats: .190/.285/.397, 7 homers, 4 doubles, 34 strikeouts and 11 walks in 43 games.
Suggested contract: 3 years, $50 million
This was a bit of a rough season for Joc Pederson, but that’s understandable considering the Los Angeles Dodgers traded him to the cross-town rivals before that deal was negated by a separate trade falling through. Then, he only played in two-thirds of his team’s games because of a logjam in the outfield.
Pederson has been very steady throughout his MLB career, posting a WAR between 2.3 and 3.2 in each of his four full seasons. In 2019, he clubbed 36 home runs with a .339 on-base percentage and a low strikeout rate in 149 games.
Pederson made a lot of sense for the Tigers last offseason, when it was clear the Dodgers wanted to move him. Now that he’s a free agent, they should try to lock him up for the next several years.
Other than Riley Greene, the Tigers don’t have many outfielders who can hit in the minor leagues. Pederson would not only fill a corner spot, he would inject power into a lineup that’s been lacking it for years.
Pederson can play all three outfield positions, but he’s been most recently accustomed to left field. He has 130 homers, 304 walks and 609 strikeouts in 748 career games. That’s a valuable bat.
He’ll turn 29 years old in April, so Pederson is in the prime of his career. Look for him to sign a contract similar to that of Nick Castellanos and Michael Brantley, who both make $16 million annually.
CF Victor Reyes
2020 stats: .277/.315/.391, 4 homers, 7 doubles, 2 triples, 45 strikeouts and 9 walks in 57 games.
Status: Under team control until 2025
Not every player in the lineup is going to have star potential, and Victor Reyes certainly does not. But he’s a solid, reliable hitter who held his own at the leadoff spot and would be even better by comparison in the lower third of the order.
Reyes slashed .315/.346/.473 with seven doubles, two triples, four home runs, six stolen bases and only 32 strikeouts in 153 plate appearances to start the 2020 season before a miserable slump deflated his final numbers.
There’s value in what Reyes can offer. He puts the ball in play more times than not. He has some extra-base power and above-average speed. Even his defense in center field is improving.
Ideally, someone like Daz Cameron or Parker Meadows would blossom into a star and take over in center field, but don’t count on that. If the free agent money goes toward filling more pressing holes, Reyes is a good enough option to start in center, especially since he’s cheap.
RF Riley Greene
2020 stats: Nobody knows (alternate training site)
Status: Yet to make MLB debut
If Paredes was ready to make his MLB debut in 2020, Riley Greene will certainly be able to do so in 2021.
Tigers fans saw a mature, polished player when Greene played against the regulars in summer intrasquad games. He dazzled with diving catches in both corner outfield spots and showed off a home run stroke.
Since the Tigers took him with the No. 5 overall pick in 2019, Greene has remained among baseball’s top 50 prospects, and he just turned 20 years old. He has home run power and a good eye at the plate, so Greene won’t be in the minor leagues for long.
DH Miguel Cabrera
2020 stats: .250/.329/.417, 10 homers, 4 doubles, 51 strikeouts and 24 walks in 57 games.
Status: Signed through 2023
Miguel Cabrera has three more seasons on his contract, so he’ll be the Tigers' designated hitter until 2024.
He was almost exactly average as an MLB hitter this season, but his base running dropped him below replacement level overall. If the Tigers field this type of lineup, he shouldn’t be guaranteed his old spot in the No. 3 hole.
Cabrera showed some of his old power with 10 home runs, and he can still draw a walk. But the extra-base pop is still down overall, and the strikeouts are up. Those are obvious signs of aging.
If the Tigers made these three signings and called up Greene, here’s what the theoretical lineup could look like on Opening Day:
- D.J. LeMahieu, 2B
- J.T. Realmuto, C
- Jeimer Candelario, 1B
- Joc Pederson, LF
- Riley Greene, RF
- Willi Castro, SS
- Miguel Cabrera, DH
- Isaac Paredes, 3B
- Victor Reyes, CF
The power potential alone of LeMahieu, Realmuto, Candelario, Pederson and Greene would be a gauntlet for opposing pitchers, and Castro and Paredes would really give the lineup some length.
This might not be quite as potent as what the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins are fielding, but if the pitching prospects pan out, it would be enough to win some games.