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History suggests Tigers not likely to make another big purchase this winter

The Tigers have made big deals in January and February before, but under much different circumstances.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

With less than a month to go until pitchers and catchers report to spring training for the 2016 baseball season, more than a third of the top 50 free agents ranked by MLB Trade Rumors remain unsigned. Several of those still available are outfielders who would fit nicely into the Tigers' lineup, or relief pitchers who could finish off Detroit's bullpen makeover.

We have learned to never say never when it comes to Tigers owner Mike Ilitch spending his money on players, even this late in the offseason. Detroit has made major purchases in January and February in the not-too-distant past, and the fanbase is clamoring for help. But if history is our guide, we probably shouldn’t be expecting the Tigers to make another major acquisition before the season begins.

Prince Fielder was signed to a nine-year, $217 million contract in January 2012 after Victor Martinez was ruled out for the season, blowing a large hole in the heart of the lineup. Victor’s ACL injury was unexpected, and desperate circumstances called for desperate measures. Although Fielder helped to save the Tigers regular season and helped them to reach the World Series that year, the club is still paying for the decision. They owe the Texas Rangers $30 million over the next five seasons, and it could be much worse.

Fielder is the last major free agent signing or trade that the Tigers have made this late since 2012. The last major trade by the Tigers this late in the offseason was in 2004. They have made minor league signings that have helped, such as Bobby Seay and Marcus Thames. Those deals are a part of every team’s transactions at this time of year.

Jose Valverde was signed to a three year contract in January of 2010, breaking a three-year period where the club did not sign any free agent players to multi-year contracts. Instead, the club focused on locking up the cast that won the AL pennant in 2006, and on trading prospects to fill out the major league roster.

That year also presented a different set of circumstances. Contract extensions weighed heavily on an escalating payroll and the club first unloaded Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson for a group of young players, led by Max Scherzer, who would carry the team into the next decade. Having cleared salary space, the club signed Valverde and Johnny Damon later in the offseason.

Ivan Rodriguez and Magglio Ordoñez are two blockbuster free agent signings that rocked the Tigers’ world just prior to the 2004 and 2005 seasons, respectively. Both players were signed in early February and both were paid above market rate, as the Tigers were having difficulty attracting players to come to Detroit following their AL record 119-loss season in 2003. Both players were also represented by super agent Scott Boras, who makes a habit of waiting out the market.

If the Tigers are waiting out the free agent market, they would be expecting contract rates to decline. Any blockbuster signing would have be for a player willing to settle either a lower salary or fewer years than he had originally hoped. Desperation is not part of the equation.

Detroit Tigers late season big deals, 12 seasons

Date Transaction Notes
Jan, 2004 Traded Ramon Santiago to Seattle for Carlos Guillen

Guillen was Tigers All-Star SS for seven years. Santiago was reacquired as a free agent

Feb, 2004 Signed Ivan Rodriguez to 4 yr / $40 million contract, plus 1 option year
Paid above market rate, with opt out in case of back issues. Option was exercised for 2008
Feb, 2005 Signed Magglio Ordonez to 5 yr / $75 million plus 2 options Paid above market rate, opt out for knee issues. Option vested for $15M in 2010
Feb, 2005 Traded Scott Moore and Bo Flowers to Cubs for Kyle Farnsworth Farnsworth's first deal with Detroit
Feb, 2008 Acquired Armando Galarraga in a minor league trade Under the radar move paid off
Jan, 2009 Signed Brandon Lyon for 1 yr, $4.25 million Lyon lost closer's job to Fernando Rodney in spring
Jan, 2010 Signed Jose Valverde for 2 yr / $14 million plus option First multiyear free agent contract signed by Detroit in over 3 yrs. Option exercised for 2012
Jan, 2010 Signed Johnny Damon for 1 yr / $8 million Replaced Granderson near top of the order one season
2011 Signed Brad Penny for 1 yr / $3 million Fifth starter ate innings
2012 Signed Prince Fielder for 9 yr  / $217 million Traded Fielder to Texas for Ian Kinsler, paying $ 6 mil per season to Rangers
2015 Signed Joba Chamberlain for 1 yr / $1 million Signed with Det in 2014 for $2.5 M. Released before the All-Star break.
2015 Signed Tom Gorzelanny for 1 yr / $1 million Cheap bullpen solution was no solution

This year, the Tigers have a new general manager who may deploy new methods of team building. While the club has undergone significant changes, the rebooting process began last July at the trade deadline and was largely completed in December. The club is not desperate, not looking for star players to build their roster around, and no unforeseeable situation has presented an urgent need that requires a mega-deal to address.

With a payroll once again pushing maximum density, the club could look to the trade market for a last minute deal, but Al Avila has been more protective of the team’s young prospects than his predecessor. If the Tigers are going to make a major free agent signing, they will do so because this year’s market presents them with a unique opportunity. But if history is an indication, the major acquisitions for the 2016 roster have already been made.