DETROIT – This will be the first meaningful offseason for the Detroit Tigers in half a decade, as the team hopes to take another leap from surprisingly competitive to legitimate playoff contender.
Detroit emerged from a five-year stint in baseball’s cellar to win 77 games in 2021. If not for a miserable 9-24 start to the season, the Tigers likely would have finished with an above .500 record (they went 68-61 over the final five months, after all).
So while I wouldn’t say the Tigers are necessarily “close” to making the playoffs, they’re certainly within striking distance of doing what the Seattle Mariners did this season. The Tigers were one of only six American League teams to finish with a winning record against teams above .500 -- even the AL Central champion Chicago White Sox and current ALCS participant Boston Red Sox couldn’t pull that off.
This means the Tigers’ front office has the ability -- no, the obligation -- to make big moves and put the team over the top.
Current Tigers roster
Let’s take a look at what holes the team most desperately needs to fill.
First, in the starting lineup:
- Catcher: Eric Haase
- First base: ???
- Second base: Jonathan Schoop
- Third base: Jeimer Candelario
- Shortstop: ???
- Left field: Akil Baddoo
- Center field: ???
- Right field: Robbie Grossman
- Designated hitter: Miguel Cabrera
There are six players the Tigers can feel pretty good about as everyday starters heading into next year.
Haase had a miserable final 34 games, watching his OPS plummet from .830 on Aug. 7 to .745. He went just 24-for-120 (.200) during that stretch, with 11 walks, 40 strikeouts and four home runs.
But Haase still finished as a 1.9 WAR (wins above replacement) player in 98 games while playing adequate defense. If the Tigers pair him with a defensive-minded backup, Haase should remain one of the league’s top power threats at catcher. Remember, he’d only played 26 games at the MLB level before 2021.
Schoop could play first or second base, but for the purpose of this article, we’ll slot him in at second.
Candelario, Baddoo and Grossman should be the team’s three best returning players, especially if Baddoo can improve against left-handed pitching.
Cabrera isn’t going anywhere because of his history and his contract, but if the Tigers emerge as legitimate contenders, he should drop in the batting order. We’ll see if A.J. Hinch has the courage to do it.
- Outfield: Victor Reyes
- Outfield: Derek Hill
- Infield: Zack Short
- Utility: Harold Castro
- Catcher: Dustin Garneau
At times, Reyes and Hill looked deserving of everyday roles, but it’s a sign of the Tigers’ improvement that those types of players might get bumped to the bench. Castro is a versatile player who can provide insurance across the entire field, while Short is an elite defensive infielder who can also pinch run for Cabrera.
The Tigers might target a more established catcher to split time with Haase, but since Jake Rogers will be back in the mix in 2023, they might stick it out with Garneau for a year. He hit six home runs and posted an .831 OPS in 20 games this season.
- Casey Mize
- Tarik Skubal
- ??? (Matt Manning)
Personally, I view the Tigers’ starting rotation as their greatest weakness. While Mize and Skubal took encouraging steps forward in 2021, both need to improve further to become top-of-the-rotation arms.
Everyone knows Manning will likely be the third member of that trio. He has immense potential, but there wasn’t much to like about his rookie season. The Tigers hope an offseason working with Chris Fetter results in a Mize/Skubal-esque leap.
- Gregory Soto
- Jose Cisnero
- Michael Fulmer
- Kyle Funkhouser
- Alex Lange
- Tyler Alexander
- Joe Jimenez
Hinch should begin next season feeling very good about his bullpen. Soto, Cisnero and Fulmer turned into excellent high-leverage options in the late innings, while Funkhouser became an invaluable bridge between the starters and the back-end.
Lange allowed just 13 hits, six walks and three runs in 18.2 innings after returning in August, all but locking up his spot in next year’s bullpen.
Meanwhile, Alexander can give the Tigers length, a left-handed specialist and even a spot start. He’s one of the most underrated players on the team.
The only pitcher on this list coming off a poor 2021 is Jimenez. He had some strong stretches, but the final line shows a 5.96 ERA, 5.22 FIP (fielding-independent pitching), 1.522 WHIP and 35 walks in 45.1 innings. He has elite strikeout potential, but a lack of control and command makes him volatile.
Identifying needs and spending money
There’s room to upgrade at other positions, but the Tigers’ most pressing needs are obvious: a first baseman, an outfielder and two starting pitchers.
Al Avila doesn’t have to worry about the bullpen or most of the starting lineup, which means he can focus on identifying the right pieces to fit into those massive gaps.
Money shouldn’t be an issue, either. Cabrera is set to make $32 million in 2022, but after that, the largest returning numbers on the books will be Schoop’s $7.5 million and Grossman’s $5 million. Candelario and Fulmer earned arbitration raises, but their contracts will still be insignificant in the grand scheme of the payroll.
In 2021, the Tigers ranked 24th in total payroll. The first luxury tax threshold is currently $210 million, meaning teams that eclipse that number have to pay 20% on overages. The Tigers aren’t even in that stratosphere, so money is not an excuse.
Guess what helps the payroll even more? Filling two of your greatest needs with prospects.
Whether it’s at the start of the season or within a few weeks of Opening Day, Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson should be starting for the Tigers at some point in the spring.
Greene, the No. 5 prospect in baseball, has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues. He hit .298 with a .381 on-base percentage and .252 slugging percentage in 84 games with Double-A Erie this season before getting promoted to Triple-A. In 40 games with the Toledo Mud Hens, he slashed .308/.400/.553 while cutting his strikeout rate and racking up 20 extra-base hits.
In total, Greene hit 25 doubles, eight triples and 24 home runs in 124 minor-league games this season as a 20-year-old. He just turned 21, and it’s already clear Greene is ready for a chance at the major-league level.
Torkelson needed a little more seasoning, but it was his first year of professional ball. The No. 4 prospect in the game went from High-A West Michigan to Double-A Erie to Triple-A Toledo, racking up 29 doubles, 30 homers and a .935 OPS in 121 total games.
Torkelson drew 77 walks in 530 plate appearances (an excellent 14.5% walk rate) while striking out 114 times (a strong 21.5% strikeout rate). He only hit .238 in Triple-A, which might give the Tigers a reason to start him there for a month or so at the beginning of 2022, but barring any setbacks, he should be wearing the Old English D soon.
Free agent shortstop
If you haven’t already heard about this year’s free agent shortstop class, then you haven’t been closely following the Tigers.
Superstars Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Trevor Story are all hitting the open market this offseason, as is the talented Javier Baez.
Some people are on the fence about whether or not the Tigers should spend big on a shortstop. I don’t think there’s any other option.
Prospect Ryan Kreidler opened eyes with an excellent 41-game stint with the Mud Hens this season, but he also played 88 games at Double-A with a .754 OPS and a 30.7% strikeout rate. The Tigers would be crazy to risk missing out on this free agent shortstop class because of a 41-game stretch in Triple-A.
If Kreidler doesn’t work out, the other in-house options are disastrous. Castro isn’t an everyday shortstop. Short has too many holes in his swing to be an everyday player. Niko Goodrum is probably on his way out.
Putting all their chips in the Kreidler basket would be risky and irresponsible for the Tigers. They could end up way behind the curve at one of the most important positions in baseball.
The Tigers need to end up with one of those top five shortstops. Here’s a look at their stats from this season:
- Correa: 7.2 WAR, .850 OPS, 34 doubles, 26 home runs, 18.1% strikeout rate.
- Seager: 3.7 WAR, .915 OPS, 22 doubles, 16 home runs, 16.1% strikeout rate.
- Semien: 7.1 WAR, .873 OPS, 39 doubles, 45 home runs, 20.2% strikeout rate.
- Story: 4.2 WAR, .801 OPS, 34 doubles, 24 home runs, 23.4% strikeout rate.
- Baez: 4.5 WAR, .813 OPS, 18 doubles, 31 home runs, 33.6% strikeout rate.
Correa has ties to Hinch from their time in Houston and is likely to win the AL Gold Glove award at shortstop this season, so he’s the prize of this class.
Seager only played 95 games due to a hand injury, but he’s a close second to Correa in terms of who will garner the largest contract.
Semien played 147 of his 162 games at second base this season, but he could still play shortstop. He’s put up MVP numbers at the plate in two of his last three seasons.
The most interesting case is Story, as he’ll be leaving the friendly hitting confines of Coors Field for the first time. Luckily, his elite defense and speed will translate no matter where he plays, and there’s little doubt he’ll at least be an All-Star caliber hitter. If there’s any chance at a bargain here, the Tigers should pursue Story harder than anyone.
Baez would be my last choice because of his NL-leading 184 strikeouts. But his ability to post a 4.5 WAR despite those unproductive outs shows how much a difference-maker he is on defense, on the base paths and when he makes contact.
Detroit will have to overpay for any of these players because, well, that’s what it takes to land top-tier free agents. It’s time for Ilitch to open his $5-pizza-padded checkbook.
Free agent starting pitcher
The Tigers should target as many as three starting pitchers this offseason, in my opinion, but that’s probably not realistic, so I’ll settle for two.
At least one will have to be signed via free agency. Luckily, there are dozens of viable options.
If you want my take on why the Tigers absolutely cannot afford to settle for Wily Peralta, click the link below. If you want the short version: Giving up hard contact and rarely missing bats is a bad combination, so there’s a good chance Peralta’s luck runs out in 2022.
Mize and Skubal are both second-year pitchers who were solid but not dominant in 2021. Manning struggled all season. There are already so many question marks at those three spots in the rotation -- the Tigers can’t gamble on the other two spots.
This year’s free agent starting pitcher class includes Max Scherzer, Robbie Ray, Carlos Rodon, Kevin Gausman, Zack Grienke, Justin Verlander, Noah Syndergaard, Clayton Kershaw, Marcus Stroman, Yusei Kikuchi, Michael Pineda, Alex Cobb, Eduardo Rodriguez, Jon Gray, Anthony DeSclafani, Steven Matz, Alex Wood and others who offer upside.
Ray, Gausman, Scherzer and Kershaw might be pricier than the Tigers prefer, but there are a dozen other names to choose from on this list. Stroman is an established middle-of-the-rotation starter. Gray, Rodriguez and Kikuchi all have solid underlying numbers and could be savvy additions.
Avila needs to ditch the bargain bin and solidify his starting staff. With this free agent class, there’s no reason to settle for unproven pitchers and risk wasting what could be a strong offense and bullpen.
Trade for a starting pitcher
Assuming the Tigers don’t sign two free agent starters, they could hit the trade market to try to fill one rotation spot. Detroit has a logjam of infield and outfield prospects that could be of value to rebuilding teams.
Isaac Paredes is a player who could generate some legitimate trade interest. He’s 21 years old and already showing excellent plate discipline at the MLB level. I would like to see him get a chance with the Tigers, but since Candelario, Schoop and Torkelson will likely cement themselves at the non-shortstop infield spots, there’s not much room for Paredes.
Kreidler could also be a valuable trade chip. If 2021 turns out to be a hot streak, his value will never be higher that it is right now. His middle infield partner Kody Clemens could also be part of a deal.
Since the Tigers selected Jackson Jobe and Ty Madden at the top of the 2022 draft, some of their other top pitching prospects might become available in a trade. Joey Wentz made a promising return from Tommy John surgery, and Alex Faedo hopes to do the same. Maybe Beau Briske’s excellent 2021 will have teams calling.
If the Tigers package some of these prospects, and perhaps even MLB-ready players such as Daz Cameron and Hill, they could certainly pry a solid starting pitcher from the clutches of a rebuilding team.
John Means is the caliber of pitcher I have in mind. Baltimore has several elite prospects coming along soon, but the team won’t be competitive for at least a couple more seasons, especially in the AL East.
Means has a career 3.82 ERA, 4.65 FIP and 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings. He’s not overpowering, but an elite ground ball rate and top-notch command help him thrive in this environment.
At 28 years old, Means has three years of team control remaining, so acquiring him wouldn’t be cheap. But the Tigers have the prospects to get a conversation started.
Other pitchers the Tigers could target in similar situations include German Marquez and Kyle Freeland, of the Colorado Rockies, or Merrill Kelly, of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Kyle Hendricks, of the Chicago Cubs, with whom Avila has a strong trading history, could be an outside-the-box option. Maybe the offensively deprived New York Mets would part with Taijuan Walker for some hitting prospects.
There are always deals to be made. If Avila goes into this offseason determined to land a starting pitcher via trade, it wouldn’t be difficult to do so.
If we put this theoretical plan into action, the Tigers could end up with the following lineup:
- Akil Baddoo, LF
- Carlos Correa, SS
- Riley Greene, CF
- Jeimer Candelario, 3B
- Spencer Torkelson, 1B
- Robbie Grossman, RF
- Jonathan Schoop, 2B
- Miguel Cabrera, DH
- Eric Haase, C
The starting rotation would be:
- Casey Mize
- John Means (or a similar trade target)
- Tarik Skubal
- Marcus Stroman (or a similar free agent)
- Matt Manning
Correa alone would be a six- or seven-win upgrade at shortstop. Greene and Torkelson should be immediate improvements over the likes of Reyes, Hill and Castro.
Means and Stroman, even though they aren’t aces, should definitely be better than Peralta and the other fill-ins Detroit used to end the season. At worst, they’re bankable for 150-200 solid innings.
While this roster probably wouldn’t be enough to overtake the White Sox in the AL Central, it could certainly compete for a wildcard spot. That alone is enough to get Avila on the phone this offseason.