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Mailbag: Yes, the Tigers should pursue Bryce Harper this offseason

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He won’t sign with the Tigers, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t give him an offer.

Washington Nationals v Colorado Rockies Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

We’re just over 24 hours away from the start of the 2018 World Series. While that makes for some exciting TV — especially given the caliber of the two teams involved this year — it also means we’re just over a week away from the end of the baseball season.

If there’s one good thing to come from the end of the season, it’s the excitement that the offseason Hot Stove provides. Last winter’s sluggish free agent market aside, the first couple months of winter give fans renewed hope for the season to come. Between trades, free agency, the upcoming Winter Meetings, and even more mundane topics like arbitration salaries and the Rule 5 draft, there’s more to focus on in November and December than we’ll see when the Red Sox and Dodgers steal everyone’s attention for the next eight days.

The Detroit Tigers, in particular, have been busy in those early winter months under Al Avila. He made an early splash after being hired in 2015, signing Jordan Zimmermann to his big five-year deal in November. Other early signings include Mike Fiers (December 8), Mike Pelfrey (December 6), and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (December 6) — not to mention a few trades, two involving Cameron Maybin.

This offseason probably looks to be another quiet one for the Tigers, but there’s a chance we see owner Chris Ilitch open up his wallet a bit more than we did last year.

How much? Well, now is the time to dream.

The short answer here is yes, which will send some people into a “It’s not time to spend yet” frenzy. No, the Tigers do not have a team that is ready to compete in 2019. They are coming off back-to-back 98-loss seasons, and their best prospects are still at least a year away from their first significant big league action.

But they should still look to improve their roster in smart, sustainable ways. Signing Bryce Harper or Manny Machado to a mega contract might not be the team’s best use of financial resources, but if the Tigers find that paying one of these guys is part of their path back to contention, so be it. Free agents of this caliber don’t hit the open market often, and both are young and talented enough to stay productive through a couple of lean years before the team is truly ready to contend again. Plus, either player could be a huge upgrade in a very weak AL Central, and potentially expedite Detroit’s return to prominence. After all, we saw the same out of Ivan Rodriguez and Magglio Ordoñez before Detroit’s run to the World Series in 2006.

Given the Tigers’ dearth of quality infield prospects, Machado would be the better fit for this roster. He probably isn’t a shortstop long-term, but could fill in there for a year or two before making the same transition to third base that Alex RodriguezMachado’s idol growing up — made later in his career. However, Machado’s history of questionable on-field decisions, including last week’s foot swipe at Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar, isn’t a great look. Harper doesn’t fit this roster quite as well, but would replace Nicholas Castellanos (a free agent after 2019) as the team’s full-time right fielder. It’s only an awkward fit for one year, and the Tigers have an open DH slot to stash one of Harper, Castellanos, or Christin Stewart on most days.

Neither one of them will end up in Detroit, though, so we won’t waste too much time worrying about their fit, or the long-term ramifications of a contract that big.

Big fish aside, any argument against the Tigers spending this winter is just putting more cash in Chris Ilitch’s pocket. The Tigers may not win 95 games next year, but they should still be actively looking for ways to improve the major league club. There are several free agents on the open market this winter that would make the Tigers better in 2019. Catcher, in particular, is an area the Tigers could really stand to upgrade. James McCann may be on the way out, and Grayson Greiner is now headed for offseason wrist surgery. John Hicks may or may not spend some time behind the plate in 2019, but certainly isn’t a full-time starter.

Prospect Jake Rogers’ trajectory is also an open question. He is still at least a year away from significant major league action, and will likely break into the bigs as more of a backup. If things go well, this happens in 2020 before he is ready to take on a larger role in 2021. This means the Tigers should be looking for a catcher who can help them for two or three years, not just one.

This is good news for our commenters who would like to see Yasmani Grandal in the Olde English D. The 29-year-old backstop will probably receive three and four-year offers this winter, which fits well with the Tigers’ catcher timeline. Grandal is a solid hitter, but better against right-handed pitching, making him a good platoon partner for any of the in-house options already mentioned. He is also a plus defender, and graded out as baseball’s top pitch framer this season. His bat also makes him more versatile; if Rogers eventually ends up taking over as the team’s primary backstop, Grandal could move to first base or the DH spot to keep his bat in the lineup.

Another option is Martin Maldonado, who will receive a lot of attention from teams this winter. He also graded out as one of the better pitch framers in the game, and threw out an MLB-best 49 percent of attempted base stealers this year. His bat isn’t anything special, which should lower his price tag some, but he will still be highly coveted around the game. Don’t expect the Tigers to win a bidding war against anyone else for a top free agent this offseason.

Many people expected more out of Alex Faedo this season, but I was more disappointed with how much Gregory Soto at High-A Lakeland. The power lefty had a breakout 2017 season with the West Michigan Whitecaps, posting a 2.25 ERA with 116 strikeouts in 96 innings. He put up similar numbers in a five-start cameo with the Flying Tigers down the stretch that year, and was named the team’s minor league pitcher of the year. His command has never been great, but many hoped that he would eventually start to find the zone a little more, and reach his ultimate ceiling as a mid-rotation starter.

Soto continued to pile up the strikeouts in 2018, but couldn’t find the strike zone. He walked 70 batters in 113 13 innings, resulting in a 4.45 ERA and 1.51 WHIP across 25 appearances. While I’m not usually one to get hung up on a player’s ERA, I would expect a power lefthander worth his salt to dominate in High-A, particularly when he’s facing hitters his age. Though he struck out over a batter per inning, he was nowhere near the dominant force one would expect out of a legitimate mid-rotation arm prospect in the lower minors.

danross70: Is Zac Houston really as promising as his AAA numbers (a little better than Joe Jimenez’s AAA numbers) indicate?

Probably not. Houston was an unheralded 11th round pick out of Mississippi State in 2016, and has blazed his way through the minor leagues so far. He struck out 55 of the 146 batters he faced at Triple-A Toledo last year, a better rate than what Joe Jimenez posted in 25 innings with the Mud Hens in 2017. Houston also limited opponents to just 20 hits in 38 innings, and just two home runs. Best of all, he’s only 23, still a little young for that level.

I hesitate to truly compare him to Jimenez, though. Houston is a couple years older than Jimenez was when he first reached Triple-A, and doesn’t come with the same pedigree Big Joe had even before he hit the Tigers prospect radar. While Jimenez went undrafted, he was expected to go somewhere in the top 10 rounds, and only dropped due to bonus demands. His fastball ramps up a tick higher than Houston’s as well, and he was expected to generate swings and misses at the MLB level.

We’ve also seen other Tigers prospects dominate in the minors only to not quite have the stuff to get major league hitters out. Drew VerHagen was this pitcher for a while, and other mid-round relievers like Jeff Ferrell and Paul Voelker have recently fallen by the wayside. Houston’s numbers are a fair margin better than those two, though, so hopefully things go better for him when he reaches the major leagues in 2019.

I’m not entirely sure, but we’ve seen players run on the grass to put themselves in better position to get plunked by a throw to first. Putting yourself even six inches closer to the field of play can make the throw that much more difficult for an infielder if the ball is traveling down the third base line.

In Victor’s case? I’m not sure. Maybe the grass was a little more comfortable on his balky knees. Maybe it just put him that much closer to the Tigers dugout after yet another groundout into the shift. Maybe he just really likes the chalk lines and didn’t want to ruin them.