Major League Baseball’s historically slow offseason could present several teams with a rare opportunity to add value to their rosters. Over 120 players remain unsigned with less than two weeks to go until spring training. These include seven of the top 10 and half of the top 50 free agents, per MLB Trade Rumors.
Tigers general manager Al Avila has made it clear that the club wants to stockpile prospects and restock the farm system. They won’t pay a luxury tax, nor trade prospects. But what if Detroit spent some of the money it has saved to build a more competitive team for the 2018 season, all without selling the farm, paying taxes, or mortgaging the future? Cameron discussed this possibility recently, but let’s try a more reasonable approach.
We’re talking about going on a spending spree, but with a few restrictions.
Stay under the luxury tax
With a payroll for tax purposes sitting at $135 million, the Tigers could add about $62 million in average annual value (AAV) of contracts and avoid paying a luxury tax. They would pay 50 percent as a third time offender should they go over the $197 million threshold.
No trading prospects or losing draft picks
While the Tigers might wind up trading some players to aid in their continuing rebuild, they will neither trade prospects nor sign players who would cost precious draft picks. As a luxury tax offender, signing any players who declined a qualifying offer would cost them a second and a fifth round pick next June. That means no Jake Arrieta, or Alex Cobb.
No huge long-term contracts
It would be nice to have J.D. Martinez back, but he would cost $25 million per season and a six-year commitment to reacquire. We will be looking for short-term contracts that won’t be albatrosses in a few years.
We will use the MLBTR projections when signing players, although many will likely sign for less than expected at this point. Additionally, we will have a “nothing to lose” attitude toward the 2018 season.
Detroit would need rebound seasons from Miguel Cabrera and Jordan Zimmermann, plus progress from Daniel Norris and other young players to contend in 2018. Regardless, here are seven available free agents who could make the Tigers competitive.
Jonathan Lucroy, catcher: two years, $24 million
Lucroy has been one of the premier catchers in the game over the past several seasons, with a career .281 batting average and .353 on base percentage. Lucroy struggled with the Rangers in 2017, but regained some of his value after being traded to the Rockies. He might be interested in a short term deal to further rebuild his value. Lucroy would compliment James McCann behind the plate and work well with Detroit’s young pitchers.
Carlos Gomez, outfielder: two years, $22 million
The veteran center fielder batted .256 with an OPS of .802 last season, slugging 17 home runs and stealing 13 bases with the Rangers. If he can be signed on a short-term deal, I wouldn’t worry about blocking Jacoby Jones or displacing Leonys Martin.
Neil Walker, second baseman: two years, $20 million
Walker hit .265 with a .362 on base percentage (OBP) last summer, with an .801 OPS between the Mets and the Brewers. He added 14 home runs while playing steady defense at second base. He is also a brother-in-law of former Tiger Don Kelly.
Andrew Cashner, starting pitcher: two years, $20 million
The 31-year-old right-hander spent most of his career with the Padres, but has continued to have success with the Marlins and Rangers. He racked up 4.6 rWAR in 2017 over 28 starts, with an ERA of 3.40 in 166 2⁄3 innings. He has battled injuries in his career, including the start of last season, beginning the year on the disabled list. He doesn’t strike out a ton of hitters — he struck out 4.6 per nine innings in 2017 — but he’s effective when healthy.
Jaime Garcia, starting pitcher: two years, $16 million
Garcia has also had his share of injuries. In 2017, he posted a 4.41 ERA in 157 innings between the Braves, Twins and Yankees. The Tigers might not want to add two more starting pitchers in addition to Mike Fiers as they work their own young pitchers into full time starting roles, but Garcia would be an ideal candidate to have a bounce back season and be flipped for value in July.
Jarrod Dyson, center fielder: two years, $12 million
If not Gomez, Dyson is a speedster who would make a nice Plan B. The 33-year-old hit .251 with a .324 OBP last year and stole 28 bases. He also posted +10 defensive runs saved (DRS) and +8.5 ultimate zone rating (UZR) in the field.
Tony Watson, relief pitcher: two years $12 million
The 32-year-old left-handed pitcher spent his whole career in Pittsburgh until he was traded to the Dodgers last July. He doesn’t post spectacular numbers, but has never had an ERA above 3.38 over a full season. Watson has remained healthy, appearing in at least 67 games each of the past six seasons. He carries a career WHIP of 1.09 while holding opponents to a batting average of .218.
Seung-hwan Oh and Bud Norris are other relief pitchers who should fall into a similar price range.
Detroit wouldn’t have to sign all of these free agents to make the team competitive, but signing five of this group could address several immediate needs. The team would avoid paying a luxury tax and make a run at the playoffs without selling the farm or hurting its chances to rebuild in the future.
If the Tigers found themselves falling out of the race in July, they could trade any of these reasonable contracts for younger players who could help them compete over the long run.