With the World Series behind us, and the Winter Meetings still a week away, this is the brief window in the baseball calendar where everyone gets an unencumbered crack at playing Nostradamus. Predicting outcomes in the free agent market is always difficult, and it’s only gotten trickier as teams have become far more cost conscious and willing to play a waiting game into spring camp. So let’s keep in mind that most of these are no more than educated guesses at this point. Without rumor of actual talks between parties, this is still just batting around ideas at this point.
MLB Trade Rumors released their predictions for the top 50 MLB free agents, and the most interesting to Tigers fans is their guess that outfielder Yasiel Puig lands in Detroit. Coming off a year in which he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds where he struggled before getting dealt to Cleveland near the trade deadline. He seemed to settle in there but overall it was still a down year. As a result, Puig is predicted to accept a one-year deal worth $8 million. The projected cost seems suspect, but there is a fairly good argument to bring the Cuban firebrand to Detroit.
Wild horse in the D?
Two seasons of drastic payroll reduction and precious little in free agent commitments have left most Tiger fans feeling as though anyone notable must be out of the Tigers reach. Yasiel Puig is a polarizing player and certainly a thrilling one as well. On name recognition alone, the bottom feeding Tigers seems an unlikely fit for the 28-year-old corner outfielder. However, his performance on the field has rarely equaled the outlandish promise he displayed in his first two seasons in the major leagues.
Since his electrifying entrance on the major league scene back in 2013-2014, Puig has put up only one above average season according to FanGraphs’ WAR (fWAR). He’s consistently been at least a productive hitter and retains the speed to nab 15-20 bags per year, but he’s coming off the worst offensive season of his career, posting basically league average numbers in a season split between the Cincinnati Reds and the Cleveland Indians. Meanwhile, defensive metrics have long marked him as a below average corner outfielder despite his speed and arm strength, dragging down his value.
The Tigers need bats badly
The Tigers certainly seem unlikely to make any sudden changes in course this offseason. They won’t be pursuing any of the top free agents. But there does appear to be some recognition that with Nicholas Castellanos gone and Miguel Cabrera a complete question mark, the Tigers need to add some offense this offseason. Right now they can’t confidently claim to have a single outfielder in their entire organization who will post average or better numbers in any of the next few seasons. Other than 19-year-old Riley Greene, the situation is bleak for the foreseeable future. While they continue to show little urgency to improve the major league roster, allowing a terrible offense in 2019 to get worse would hopefully be out of the question.
With a projected payroll under $90 million, and only a year remaining on Jordan Zimmermann’s onerous contract, the Tigers can afford a few inexpensive position players this offseason and deploy them without blocking any notable younger players. Several traditional big spenders like the Yankees, Dodgers, and Cubs are signaling tight purse strings this offseason, and the free agent class is actually shaping up quite well, particularly as compared to the next year’s projected class. There is an opportunity here for the Tigers to take a couple of low risk flyers without failing in their goal of keeping their payroll on the low side.
In general, it doesn’t make sense for the Tigers to fill up their roster with too many veterans past their prime. This is why Puig could be an ideal fit in Detroit. Not only does he bring at least a solid bat to a team that desperately needs it, but he’s still just 28 and appears to have put his injury issues behind him over the past two years. He has the foul line to foul line approach the Tigers love, and could prosper in a good hitting environment like Comerica Park. The organization once coveted Yoenis Cespedes, who had a similar blend of ability, inconsistency, and unfulfilled early potential. Puig presents a vaguely similar opportunity at a much reduced cost.
While MLB Trade Rumors suggests that a one year deal is likely, that’s hard to believe, and isn’t even in the Tigers’ best interest. FanGraphs expects Puig to have more interest and more earnings potential and it’s hard not to come down on their side of the equation. They suggest a contract in the neighborhood of $39 million over three years. Even at that price, you’d be hard pressed to think of a better use of that amount for the Tigers. There may well be more competition than expected for a player who still seems to have some untapped potential, but for an organization still desperately lacking in position player talent, Puig is likely the most talented position player they have available to them.
The problem is still that a multi-year expenditure of any magnitude may well be beyond what the Tigers are willing to do right now. With so little in the pipeline, the Tigers would be best served by a short multi-year deal to Puig, giving them a little stability and a possible breakout candidate while they try to pivot toward putting together the lineup of the future. He would also be more valuable in trade with extra team control attached should an opportunity present itself.
With so little in the prospect pipeline in terms of position players, the organization is going to rely on free agency and/or trades to build the position player side of the roster for at least a few more years to come anyway. Starting with Yasiel Puig helps keep an already terrible lineup from falling off a cliff in 2020, and, should he thrive, could give the offense a focal point to start building around in the next few seasons.