With the Detroit Tigers it is impossible to rule out any sort of surprise move, but any blockbuster this offseason will probably see star players leaving the team instead of coming to the Motor City. Instead, if the Tigers want to compete, they will have to do so with smart, low-budget options that may not be too exciting on the surface. However, some of the best buys in baseball are the ones that fly a little under the radar.
Only one or two spots need to be filled in the Tigers’ starting lineup, and the biggest of them is in center field. In-house options do not inspire too much confidence, so the Tigers would be wise to survey the free agent landscape. One player who could make an impact is first-time free agent Desmond Jennings. The former Tampa Bay outfielder is looking for a new home after seven seasons with the Rays. Could Detroit be the perfect fit?
Who is he?
Jennings is a speedy outfielder and decent defender whose career took a tumble thanks to injuries. From 2011 to 2014 with Tampa, Jennings hit .249/.327/.402 with 47 homers and 86 steals for 107 wRC+. During that span he tallied at least 10 homers and 15 steals each season and totaled 12.0 fWAR, which put him among the top 20 outfielders over that stretch.
Since then, Jennings has only played in 93 games. A knee injury in 2015 knocked him out for most of the season, and hamstring issues in 2016 caused him to be released by the Rays in August. No team signed him for the remainder of the season, making him a free agent. Jennings was earning $3.3 million last season.
Why should we care?
Signing Jennings would certainly be a risk given his injury history and declining production, but if the Tigers could turn him around he would be a huge bargain. Maybe his speed is not as sharp as it used to be, but Jennings could still be a productive part of the batting order. A 100 wRC+, 2.0 fWAR season does not seem that unrealistic, and for the type of contract he could be signed for, that would be a steal.
Jennings has spent a good chunk of time in both left and center field, but the Tigers need him most in the latter. He grades out as a plus defender overall with 19 DRS and 9.0 UZR throughout his career. These numbers are not off the charts, but coupled with decent offense, they make up exactly what the Tigers are looking for in center.
Why should we stay away?
Multiple injuries. A .222 batting average. Eight home runs. Seven steals. 78 wRC+. There is not a ton to like about Jennings’s last two seasons. The expectation for most players is a rough decline starting at 30, but Jennings seems to have already started his before reaching that milestone. The Tigers already had a center fielder struggle with injuries all last season and it is unlikely they would like to experience that again.
Even if Jennings does find a way to get healthy, there is no guarantee that he would be able to replicate his production from two, three, four years ago. One troubling stat is his rising strikeout rate; during 2016, Jennings had a strikeout rate of 25.8 percent, much higher than his career average of 20.5 percent. Given his leg injuries, his steal rate is sure to fall as well, limiting his overall production.
Will he end up in Detroit?
Jennings is basically a lottery ticket. He is either going to get a cheap, one-year deal to prove his health, or a slightly longer, slightly cheaper option, and both scenarios would be fine for the Tigers. For a team that is hoping to keep the payroll down while staying competitive, taking on a player like Jennings is the easiest way to do so.
If all of the other center fielders seem too pricey, the Tigers should take a stab at Jennings. He showed flash at one time in his career, and could provide serious bang for the buck if everything goes right. The worst case scenario is a minor investment lost to injury or limited production. Jennings may never reach 3.0 fWAR again, but he should do better than any option currently in the organization.