The Tigers have to start finding value somewhere. The 2019 team was a comedy of errors, but the season is over and there’s little point in rehashing just how bad it was. After being the worst team in baseball for the second time in three years, the trajectory has to start pointing up. A large crop of pitching prospects are about start breaking into the majors, which means it’s time for the front office to make preparations for their arrival.
The driving force behind the Detroit rebuild has been a simple concept: the team wants to grow its own pitching staff and frame an offense around it. It’s understandable that talented free agents aren’t especially eager to while away their at-bats on a losing team. That means the front office has to come up with creative solutions to extract the most value from the players willing to come to Detroit.
One player they could consider turning to is New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorious.
Only 29-years-old, the infielder is one of the younger players on the free agent market this offseason. He has spent time in the majors with three teams — the Reds, Diamondbacks, and Yankees — but his time with New York has lasted longest.
A strong Yankees start
He was acquired to fill the hole at short caused by the retirement of Derek Jeter in 2015 and rode his excellent defensive skills to put up 3.1 fWAR. His offensive breakout came in 2017, when he averaged .287/.318/.478. He dialed things up again in 2018, when he hit .268/.335/.494, which was good for a 122 wRC+.
Those numbers tell the story of a player who would normally be out of the Tigers’ reach, both because of their current aversion to spending and because he could easily hold down a spot on the roster of a contending team.
Unfortunately, his progress was brought to a grinding halt by a down season right on the brink of free agency.
Limping through 2019
Injury put a wrench in his 2019 season, causing poor performance at the plate and preventing him from putting up a full win of value (he ended the season at 0.9 fWAR). His plate discipline also suffered. Gregorious offered swings at more pitches out of the zone and his walk rate dropped to 8.4 percent to 4.9 percent.
In short, he mostly likely won’t be getting the big payday he might have been dreaming of after a tremendous campaign a year ago.
A good fit in Detroit
In that light, Gregorous checks all the boxes for the kind of player the Tigers should be hunting this offseason. His upside is undeniable and he’s demonstrated talent on both sides of the ball. His troubled campaign raises some concerns a contending team may not want to take on. The team who signs Gregorious will be gambling that his injuries are behind him and his approach at the plate will return to form. It’s a gamble that General Manager Al Avila should be willing to make.
The fact still remains that any player would rather play for a contending team than a loser and the 2020 Tigers won’t be winning anything. That means they have to make any deals they strike player-friendly. How could the front office sweeten their contract offers? There are a few options.
Show him the money
The first step would be accepting that they need to spend money to get better. The free agent acquisitions of the past few offseasons have been of the bargain-bin variety. While there’s nothing wrong with filling out a roster with low cost players, targeting only low cost players is not a recipe for success. Tempting a player who could contribute on the next contending Detroit team requires paying them the kind of money they command on the open market.
In the case of Didi Gregorious, that means paying him for his upside rather than expecting him to cut a bargain. While handing out a large monetary commitment runs contrary to the current organizational direction, the team’s projected payroll for 2020 comes in under $100 million at the moment, meaning the ownership group could more than handle it financially. Guaranteeing money to a young, athletic shortstop is far from the worst thing to happen to a franchise.
Another option is to put Gregorious in the power position regarding the length of the contract. That means offering him the best of both worlds by writing both a long-term deal as well as an opt-out after two years if he feels he could find a better situation on the open market at that point. That way, he has the assurance he’ll get paid whether he rebounds or not, whether the Tigers are competitive or not, and whether the market changes or not.
There’s little doubt Gregorious would be a fine addition to the next Tigers’ roster. He provides flexibility that would allow Ron Gardenhire to experiment with Willi Castro and Isaac Paredes during the upcoming seasons. He’s a better defenseman than most in the organization right now. He’d shore up a lineup that’s been nothing short of abysmal for the last two years.
The only question is whether ownership and management are willing to do what it takes to bring him to the Motor City.