When you peruse the Detroit Tigers’ current roster, the needs are pretty obvious this offseason. All teams look for pitching each winter, so that’s a given. The Tigers have a glaring need at shortstop, and no realistic internal options on the 40-man roster. James McCann could be the starting catcher next season, but the team has made it fairly clear that they need an upgrade at the position. Finally, there’s a hole at second base that is less pressing than other issues, perhaps, but could be solved inexpensively this winter.
The offseason is already off to a quiet start, and contending teams seem to be more interested in pursuing trades than free agents at the moment. The specter of another very late offseason signing pattern already hangs over the whole market after the way things played out last winter. A plethora of free agent second baseman makes it likely the Tigers will find more intriguing bargains available than they expect this winter, and they would be wise to take advantage. Former Colorado Rockies second baseman DJ LeMahieu could be one of them.
Why LeMahieu fits
There are a lot of connections between LeMahieu and the Tigers. The 30-year-old LeMahieu grew up in the Detroit area, playing his high school ball for Brother Rice in Bloomfield Township. The Tigers actually drafted him out of high school in the 41st round of the 2007 draft, indicating future interest. LeMahieu was always headed to college, however, and won a National Championship with LSU in 2009. He was drafted by the Chicago Cubs and eventually traded to the Rockies, where he has spent the entirety of his major league career.
LeMahieu is a good defender, with metrics show him improving his value in recent years. However, he doesn’t hit for much power, nor steal bases; he hit a career high 14 home runs in 2018. Solid defense and an ability to get on base form most of his game. He sprays line drives and ground balls to all fields, doesn’t strike out much, and probably would fit Comerica Park pretty well. Steamer projects league average production from him at the plate.
Price shouldn’t be an obstacle
There are plenty of solid options available to teams looking for a second baseman this offseason, and only a handful of teams seemingly in play. Players like Marwin Gonzalez and Jed Lowrie offer potentially above-average production, and may be sought after by contenders like the Dodgers, Athletics, Yankees, or Cubs. Brian Dozier, Daniel Murphy, and Josh Harrison are stopgap measures the Tigers would presumably look to acquire, but will be a little more sought after than a host of other names who remain. Both LeMahieu and old friend Ian Kinsler would qualify in the latter category.
While reuniting with Kinsler for a year makes sense for the Tigers, LeMahieu is young enough to expect consistent production for another few seasons. He’s the sort of veteran, all-around player who could help give the Tigers stability in their middle infield until help arrives from the farm system. And the cost should be minimal. MLB Trade Rumors projected LeMahieu to the Tigers on a two-year deal for $18 million total as the offseason began. They have both Dozier and Murphy also getting short-term deals worth roughly $10 million per season.
That all seems reasonable to begin with, but it’s possible they are overestimating the demand for these players based on previous offseason free agent markets. There’s a good chance that LeMahieu, Logan Forsythe, Kinsler, and Neil Walker will still be available and amenable to a cheap one-year deal well into January, if not beyond.
The one fly in the ointment could be the Rockies themselves. They declined to offer LeMahieu a qualifying offer, knowing he would accept, but a reunion still isn’t out of the question. However, if the Rockies aren’t interested, it’s hard to see any real demand for LeMahieu at all. There are just so many mediocre-to-average second baseman available that the Tigers are going to have plenty of bargain options to choose from.
Should the Tigers bother?
It’s possible the Tigers may just decide they have other pressing needs, and pass on acquiring a second baseman. Perhaps they prefer to give the reins to Niko Goodrum for the year, hoping that a regular position helps him perform better defensively. They are invested in Dawel Lugo as well. It’s already a given that the Tigers offense will be quite poor again in 2019. Bad defense, especially up the middle, would not only hurt the team overall, but would specifically hurt the development and value of some of the Tigers’ young pitchers. Unless they really believe Goodrum has more to offer, or that Lugo is closer to a breakthrough than his play has indicated, making either of them their full-time second baseman this year probably isn’t putting them to best use.
In the end, it just makes sense to take advantage of the imbalance between supply and demand at second base. Lugo doesn’t really have much prospect shine left on him after a few stagnant seasons. Isaac Paredes is at least another year away, and many believe he profiles best at third base. Kody Clemens has a lot to improve on, and he will have to move up and succeed at the Double-A level before he starts to look like a second baseman of the future. No one is really forcing the Tigers’ hand for playing time. Signing LeMahieu, or another solid veteran defender at the position, is a cost-effective way of improving the entire roster.