The key challenge for the Detroit Tigers this offseason is finding relatively low-cost help to improve the team without blocking the handful of young players deserving of another look in 2020. Positional flexibility in players they pursue would help assuage those concerns, but one way or another, this team needs real offensive help to meet their stated goal of showing substantial improvement on the field in 2020. Free agent infielder Travis Shaw fits the bill, and Jon Morosi of FOX Sports reports that the Tigers have shown interest in him this offseason.
The 29-year-old has played a little bit of first and second base in his five years in the league, but is mainly a third baseman. He consistently grades out above average at the hot corner according to defensive runs saved (DRS), so splitting time at first base shouldn’t be a problem if required either. In a pinch, he can probably fill in at second base as well.
Prior to last season, Shaw was also a consistent performer at the plate. He was above average by wRC+ in three of his first four seasons, but didn’t really breakout offensively until the Boston Red Sox traded him to Milwaukee prior to the 2017 season. Shaw flourished with the Brewers after the trade, topping 30 home runs in both 2017 and 2018 while producing 20 percent better than a league average hitter and playing above average third base.
Unfortunately for him, Shaw got off to a dreadful start in 2019 and never really recovered. As a result, the cost conscious Brewers non-tendered him on December 2nd rather than carry him in his second year of arbitration.
Can Travis Shaw rebound?
The problem with Shaw is that there aren’t any obvious reasons for the brutal start he got off to last spring. He was never on the injured list, and yet his production absolutely cratered early in the year. The Brewers sent him down to get right, but by the time he returned from a very successful tour in Triple-A, there just wasn’t any playing time available to him.
The most glaring statistic involved was a strikeout rate that jumped from 18.4 percent in 2018 to 33.0 percent last season. His power disappeared along with his contact ability. After two consecutive seasons with an isolated power (ISO) number near .240, he posted just a measly .113 mark in 2019 with seven home runs in 270 plate appearances. The Brewers sent him down for a minor league tuneup in May and he ended up spending most of the summer there while Mike Moustakas moved from second to third base to make room for top prospect Keston Hiura.
Shaw played 42 games at the Triple-A level in total and absolutely wrecked shop in his time there. He hit 12 home runs and posted a .437 on base percentage for the San Antonio Missions and spent July and August mashing Pacific Coast League pitching. The PCL is a great hitter’s league, but Shaw’s strikeout rates also rebounded to career norms. Yet he couldn’t earn playing time when he returned with both Moustakas and Hiura performing well and the Brewers in a pennant chase. He saw just 34 plate appearances in September.
Good plate discipline has always been one of Shaw’s attributes, and there was no falloff in that regard last year. He actually left the zone a little less in 2019 than in his best years, and swung at a few more strikes. That’s obviously what you’re trying to do. He’s always drawn his share of walks and posted an excellent 13.3 rate this season, yet somehow his contact rate collapsed by more than 10 percent. His swinging strike rate jumped from its usual range between eight and nine percent to a whopping 12.9 percent.
In his best seasons with Milwaukee, Shaw absolutely punished fastballs. He posted a .383 weighted on base average (wOBA) against all fastball types in 2017, and a .392 mark in 2018. Last season? A pitiful .270 wOBA against the hard stuff in 2019 feels like a key piece of the puzzle. If there was something like a wrist or hand issue hampering his bat speed, you’d expect numbers like that.
On the other hand, it could be Shaw’s swing, which is geared to hoist a ton of fly balls. His fly ball percentage has increased substantially each of the past two seasons, and he posted a 49.3 percent mark in 2019. That was fourth most among all players with 200 plate appearances last year. Incidentally, or not, he was one place ahead of Mike Trout in that regard.
Obviously players are trying to hit lots of fly balls these days because it works, but perhaps Shaw is a player who has gone too far with it for his own good. Heatmaps indicate that pitchers stayed up at the top of the zone with fourseam fastballs much more in 2019 than in the previous two seasons and he struggled to deal with it. Otherwise there weren’t any major changes in pitch mix against him.
Another strong possibility is that Shaw just got out to a rough start and started pressing too hard to hit the ball out of the park. Ultimately he was squeezed out of the mix by a strong Brewers roster, but his return to more Shaw-like numbers in the minor leagues makes the case that he’s already put those early season struggles behind him. In that case he may be ready to turn over a new leaf with the opportunity to start fresh and play full time.
Is he a fit in Detroit?
Of course, if Travis Shaw had kept up his prior level of production, we wouldn’t be writing about him. The Tigers have been quiet in free agency so far, but with the signing of Austin Romine at catcher, their biggest need has been filled cheaply, which should free them up to pursue some offensive help if their talk of putting a markedly better product on the field next year is worth anything. Shaw is going to draw a lot of attention, and the Tigers will have to be convinced to outbid other teams.
As with free agent outfielder Domingo Santana, the Tigers do have an inside source on Shaw in the form of their new head of player development, Kenny Graham. Graham was the minor league hitting coordinator for the Brewers over the past three seasons and should be able to lend some insight into the likelihood that Shaw can turn things around.
Shaw was probably due for something in the neighborhood of $6.5 million in arbitration this offseason had the Brewers held onto him. However, that doesn’t mean he won’t get more than that in free agency. Milwaukee’s general manager, David Stearns, operates in a tight payroll environment and his club has more pressing needs. Keeping Shaw was a luxury they felt they couldn’t affford. Other teams will see things differently.
On the other hand, the fact that no one was willing to give up a decent prospect to trade for two years of Shaw’s rights tells you that he’s not going to get the kind of benefit of the doubt that leads to a substantial multi-year deal either.
Will it happen?
The Tigers reported interest in catchers Jason Castro and Robinson Chirinos didn’t amount to anything and they settled for a solid backup option in Austin Romine. If that saved them money to actually pursue a bounceback candidate like Travis Shaw, we can live with it. If the Tigers are going to live up to their goals next year, they need to show some aggression and actually hit on at least one free agent bat. No one is buying it until they do so.
So far, the free agent market moving much faster than it did the past two seasons. There aren’t many quality free agent third basemen still available. Anthony Rendon and Mike Moustakas are off the board already, and Josh Donaldson remains the only marquee name looking for a home. When Donaldson signs, there is going to be competition for a good bounceback candidate and flyball revolution darling like Shaw. The Tigers would be wise to put in a substantial one or two year offer immediately. If it costs one year contract at $8-10 million or even a modest two-year deal, it would still be a smart investment for a club that is going to be hard pressed to attract a potential impact bat otherwise.
No matter what they say, it’s certainly still hard to expect the Tigers to spend even that much until they do it, and Shaw may well have greener pastures to choose from. But there’s nothing wrong with having some expectations. The Tigers claim to be on to their building phase and willing to make some modest investments to improve the club in the here and now. A left-handed power bat like Travis Shaw’s would go a long way toward easing fears of another feeble lineup next year, and even at a premium should be within range for them.