DETROIT – This year’s MLB free agent period is still in its infancy, but the Detroit Tigers have already been linked to four starting pitchers and six shortstops through various reports.
After a surprising surge in 2021, the Tigers find themselves in the exciting transition between rebuild and contention. A promising crop of prospects have started to transition to the MLB level, and now it’s time for the front office to upgrade the roster and make the team a playoff contender.
READ: Tigers could become playoff contenders this offseason with 2 free agents, 1 trade, 2 prospects
Once mega prospects Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson join the roster, Detroit will be solid across the outfield and corner infield spots. The catching position was solidified with the acquisition of Tucker Barnhart, and A.J. Hinch has plenty of reliable bullpen arms at his disposal.
The most glaring needs are obvious: shortstop and starting pitcher.
Tigers fans have to be ecstatic to see their team mentioned in the bidding for nearly every available starting pitcher on the market.
Various MLB insiders have linked the Tigers to four names in particular: Anthony DeSclafani, Jon Gray, Steven Matz and Eduardo Rodriguez.
Here’s how I’d prioritize those four pitchers:
1. Eduardo Rodriguez
As one of the unluckiest pitchers in baseball last season, Rodriguez posted some ugly surface numbers: A 4.74 ERA, 1.389 WHIP and only 1.8 WAR (wins above replacement) in 32 appearances.
But dive a little deeper and you’ll realize someone might get a major bargain with the 28-year-old lefty. Rodriguez owns a stellar 3.32 FIP (fielding-independent pitching) and 3.50 xERA (expected ERA).
He struck out 10.6 batters per nine innings, walked only 2.7 per nine and ranked in the 87th percentile in hard-hit rate. All the numbers suggest Rodriguez could have a breakout 2022.
Getting out of Fenway Park would be a boost for Rodriguez, who fell victim to the right-handed friendly conditions in Boston. He finished No. 6 in Cy Young voting in 2019 and is still in his prime years, so this is a low-risk, high-reward option.
2. Jon Gray
Again, Gray didn’t have numbers that matched the two pitchers below him on this list, but that can be explained in two words: Coors Field.
Pitching in the worst conditions in baseball, Gray managed to remain among the top half of the league in hard-hit rate while missing bats at an above-average clip.
He’s 30 years old and can get a bit wild, but there’s a chance Gray breaks out and becomes a top-of-the-rotation pitcher once he’s finally out of Colorado. At worst, he’ll be the solid, 2-4 WAR pitcher he’s been for most of his seven years with the Rockies.
3. Anthony DeSclafani
The San Francisco Giants have a way of getting the most out of their players, and that was especially true for the starting rotation this year. DeSclafani, Alex Wood and Kevin Gausman all had breakout seasons and led the Giants to the best record in baseball.
But can those players be trusted to repeat once they leave perhaps the best pitcher’s park in baseball?
DeSclafani is 31 years old and carries a long track record of inconsistency. He was excellent in 2016, 2019 and 2021, but injury-prone and ineffective during the years in between.
The veteran would absolutely be a welcome addition to the Tigers’ rotation, but he might not be the 3.17 ERA, 1.091 WHIP guy the Giants showcased in 2021. While his control is excellent, the batted ball and whiff numbers leave a lot to be desired.
4. Steven Matz
Matz flew under the radar in Toronto this season because fellow first-year Blue Jay Robbie Ray made a stunning bid for the Cy Young award (and he might win it).
But the 30-year-old Matz was solid at the back-end of the Toronto rotation, posting a 3.82 ERA, 1.334 WHIP and 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings.
Those numbers don’t jump off the page, but that’s more or less what Matz has done in 730 career MLB innings. He would give the Tigers a chance to win more times than not, but he shouldn’t be expected to pitch near the top of the rotation, either.
Shortstop is where the majority of the Tigers fan base has directed its attention -- and for good reason. The team absolutely needs to upgrade at the most important infield position, both defensively and in the heart of the lineup.
Luckily, Avila seems to be listening. The Tigers are reportedly considering all five of the primary free agent shortstops -- Javier Baez, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Trevor Story -- as well as versatile infielder Chris Taylor.
Here’s how I’d rank those six potential shortstop options:
1. Carlos Correa
This pretty much goes without saying. Correa not only hit 26 home runs and 34 doubles with an .850 OPS, he also won the American League Gold Glove award at shortstop.
Correa gets on base at a high clip, hits for power and puts the ball in play. He’s the complete offensive package, especially when comparing his 18% strikeout rate to what’s happening around the league.
It helps that Correa only turned 27 years old in September, meaning most of the long-term contract he’s sure to demand will yield top production. Though injuries have been a concern for Correa through the years, there’s no doubt he’s a top-tier player when on the field.
2. Trevor Story
I’m going to surprise a lot of people putting Story second, but he checks so many critical boxes.
First and foremost, Story is an elite defensive shortstop. He ranked fifth in MLB in defensive runs saved this season behind Correa and three offensive non-factors: Andrelton Simmons, Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Kevin Newman.
Story is also a top-notch base runner, which is critical for a Tigers team that wants to be extremely aggressive under Hinch’s tutelage. The 28-year-old has 85 stolen bases in his last four seasons (which includes the shortened 2020 campaign), but that doesn’t even tell the full, ahem, story. He ranks in the 89th percentile in MLB sprint speed and rarely makes outs on the base paths.
The main concern with Story is the same as with every free agent coming out of the Colorado: How will his offense translate while leaving Coors Field?
It’s never a question of “if,” but “how much” drop-off an offensive player will experience when he leaves the Rockies. For example, perennial slugger Nolan Arenado saw his OPS drop to .807 with the Cardinals this year after posting a .937 OPS during his five full seasons in Colorado from 2015-2019.
Story hit 24 home runs and 34 doubles in what was considered a down year for the Rockies this season, but his offense should be just fine. His career .752 OPS away from Coors Field might be enough to scare off some suitors, but players generally have better numbers at their home ballparks, and I’d bet on Story finishing well above that OPS every season for the foreseeable future.
3. Corey Seager
Unlike the two players above, Seager comes with some defensive concerns, especially a few years down the line.
If the Tigers believe in prospect Ryan Kreidler as a potential shortstop of the future, Seager could be a great fit. Many see him as a player who might transition to third base in a few years, and that could make room for Kreidler if the Tigers don’t extend Jeimer Candelario after 2023.
But Seager is as steady as they come offensively, as long as he’s on the field. He hits the ball hard. He draws walks. He doesn’t strike out often. For old school fans, he’s one of the few players left in MLB who could regularly hit for a .300 average.
Seager’s swing projects for a seamless transition to Comerica Park because he’s not as home run reliant as the other free agent shortstops. He certainly has the power to hit 20 home runs, but Seager is more of a line drive hitter, and the spacious Comerica Park outfield could turn him into a doubles machine (a la Candelario).
He won’t solve any defensive issues or be a threat on the base paths, but adding Seager would instantly upgrade the heart of the Tigers’ order in a way we haven’t seen since prime Miguel Cabrera.
4. Marcus Semien
Locking down second base at a Gold Glove level this season for the Blue Jays raises questions about where Semien will play in going forward, but he actually graded out well at shortstop in previous seasons (with the exception of 2020).
The offensive numbers are eye-popping: 45 home runs, 39 doubles, 15 stolen bases in 2021. Considering Semien hit 33 homers and 43 doubles in 2019 with the Oakland Athletics (a terrible offensive ballpark), there’s little reason to doubt him as a late-blooming star.
Since he’s 31 years old, Semien likely won’t warrant as long of a commitment as the three players above, but his annual salary won’t be far behind.
5. Chris Taylor
He’s not a full-fledged shortstop, but Taylor spent plenty of time there (258 games -- more than any other infield position) during his Los Angeles Dodgers tenure and handles himself well enough.
Taylor flew under the radar on a star-studded Dodgers roster, but he’s been an integral part of their recent run of success. He owns an .804 OPS across nearly 2,400 plate appearances the last five seasons, with 78 home runs, 133 doubles and solid on-base skills.
His age (31 years old), positional questions and lack of a standout offensive skill bumped Taylor down this list a bit, but he’s just a winner. There’s no other way to put it. Hinch loves to tinker with lineups, and Taylor definitely gives him the flexibility to do so.
6. Javier Baez
Baez is one of the most exciting players in baseball, but when he’s playing for your team, I imagine he can also be one of the most frustrating.
As a 4.5-WAR player in 2021 -- and about a 6.5-WAR player in both 2018 and 2019 -- Baez grades out as a top-tier shortstop. His defense and base running can be electrifying, even game-changing.
Really, my reluctance with Baez stems from one issue: strikeouts.
Eight years into his MLB career, Baez owns a career strikeout rate of 29.3%. This year, it ballooned to 33.6%. The Tigers need a player who can anchor the lineup now and into the future. Baez, with a career .307 OBP, makes too many unproductive outs.
Players with a profile as volatile as Baez make me nervous because they often don’t age as gracefully. If Baez loses some of his speed and quickness, the contact issues could bring his offense crashing down to earth.
Would Baez make the Tigers better? Absolutely. But he wouldn’t be my choice from this group.