The free agent season is upon us, and it is no secret that, despite the seeming lack of willingness to do so, the Detroit Tigers have money to spend. It’s no small amount either. I’m talking sick money, frosted glass limo money. Will they spend that money? Probably not in droves, but the last two seasons have shown us that the team is willing to dish out smaller contracts to guys who may prove to be valuable enough to deal at the trade deadline.
In 2018, this worked out (see: Mike Fiers). In 2019 they were less successful (see: every free agent they signed). Coming into the 2019 offseason, there are some potential cheap options available, and outfielder Hunter Pence is one of them.
Let’s get a look at the good and the bad to consider with Pence.
Hunter Pence was introduced to the world in 2007, the same year as a bespectacled, dad-jeaned Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone. Pence became a mainstay in the lineups of the Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, and then San Francisco Giants for roughly the next decade. Time, as it is wont to do, seemed to have caught up to the aging outfielder and after a few years of underwhelming production, he was left to sign a $2 million minor league deal with the Texas Rangers going into the 2019 season.
Pence started out strong last year, playing his way into a full time role and a place on the American League All-Star team, but suffered injuries and ended up playing in just 83 games for Texas. He sits on the free agent market once again at age 36, waiting to see if anyone is willing to take another chance.
Why the Tigers should sign him
In the gap between a dismal 2018 season that saw him bat .226 with a .590 OPS, Pence played in the Dominican Winter League, where he focused on retooling his swing. That led to an unexpected resurgence. He played a first half worthy of an All-Star berth, batting .294 with a .962 OPS and 15 home runs.
In 2019, hot bats in Detroit were about as plentiful as full sets of real teeth in a retirement home. If Pence can continue to hit at a pace remotely close to what he did last year, he would certainly be an upgrade on the offensive side of things. His 1.8 fWAR would have been good enough to make him the second-best batter Detroit fielded last year, behind Niko Goodrum’s 1.9 fWAR, and Pence got there in 156 fewer at bats.
On top of this, despite the impressive numbers Pence put up in Texas, he is likely to once again be available for cheap. Two stints on the injured list limited his playing time significantly, and he finds himself once again looking for a team willing to take a chance on a product with some red flags. That’s good news for the Tigers, because he should be available for the kind of Walmart DVD bargain-bin money most MLB owners are willing to spend right now. He signed a one-year deal for $2 million last year. If the Tigers could land him for that, it would be well within the limits they have preferred to operate in in recent years.
Also, he would be a hell of a lot of fun to have around because he’s the kind of weird this team could use. He could bring along his infamous scooter, and I’d bet good money that a guy like Pence would be an instant fan and media favorite in Detroit.
Reasons to stay away
Pence isn’t getting any younger, or any less injured. He hasn’t played a full season of baseball since 2014. It’s certainly going to be a gamble on his durability if the Tigers would expect him to play any kind of meaningful time in the outfield.
Speaking of meaningful time in the outfield, the days of Pence playing the majority of his games there are probably in his past. He spent most of his time in Texas batting out of the DH position. That is a spot where we would expect to see Miguel Cabrera pretty firmly entrenched in 2020, although there could be a possibility that they could split time both there and at their respective positions in the field.
It’s a safe bet that Hunter Pence isn’t going to be anything to write home about on defense, but let’s not kid ourselves. Defense in the corner outfield positions at Comerica Park hasn’t been anything remarkable for quite some time.
A healthy Hunter Pence could be a substantial offensive upgrade for the 2020 iteration of the Detroit Tigers, and a set-up where he could split DH duties with Miguel Cabrera while playing sparingly in the field would be ideal and not outside the realm of possibility. The price tag should be right, and playing Pence doesn’t seem likely to be blocking any kind of meaningful production from younger players, as this organization doesn’t exactly have corner outfield talent that is quite big league ready.
The question mark remains with Pence’s health and the ability to repeat what he did in 2019. At $2 million or so, that might be a chance worth taking.