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Don’t take the Austin Romine signing in isolation

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An underwhelming move at catcher is okay if the Tigers actually follow through on their promises elsewhere.

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila didn’t make many promises in his public comments during MLB’s Winter Meetings this week, but his tone was decidedly different from the past two offseasons. According to Avila, the Tigers are done stripping the roster down at this point and prepared to start building something. He and manager Ron Gardenhire are both emphasizing the point that the Tigers intend to put a better team on the field than the woeful units fans have endured over the past two seasons.

That’s music to the ears of a downtrodden fanbase, but things are off to a rather lackluster start this offseason for a team that needs to add 15-20 wins to its 2019 win total just to escape Major League Baseball’s cellar. If they are going to live up to their goal of showing substantial improvement on the field next year, they have a lot of work still ahead of them.

After missing out on signing former catcher Alex Avila, and finding Jason Castro too rich for their blood, the Tigers inked long-time Yankees backup catcher Austin Romine to a one-year, $4 million deal on Thursday. Romine doesn’t fit their platoon requirements as a right-handed hitter the way Castro or Avila would, but he is a solid backstop with plenty of big game experience, and comes from an organization with a strong reputation for pitcher development and game planning. As such, he meets the Tigers’ need for a veteran catcher with a strong reputation as a leader who can help mentor their young mix of pitchers and catchers in 2020.

Still, the fact that the Tigers couldn’t land Alex Avila, yet ended up spending just a hair less than Avila received doesn’t fill one with confidence. The Tigers made very clear they were prioritizing the catcher position this offseason, but in the end they pivoted off their top two targets to a rather odd fit considering Romine’s right-handed stick and pugilistic history with Miguel Cabrera. They likely would have had to pay a premium to lure Avila back to Detroit, but that tax probably won’t change anytime soon.

In isolation, this feels very much like more of the same, but the story of the offseason isn’t written yet. So far, the free agent market has moved much faster than in the previous two seasons, but there remain a whole roster worth of fairly inexpensive players who could help the Tigers next season.

The club presumably has a budget of around $15 to 20 million to spend this offseason. That amount would still leave them with a lower payroll than the $115 million they spent in 2019. There appears to be plenty of space to improve in the coming weeks and months. If refusing to spend what it would take to lure Castro, Avila, or another veteran starting catcher allows them to add one more useful player to fill out a major league caliber roster, it will be money well saved.

Right now, the Tigers have at least two gaping holes in their infield, and one in a corner outfield slot. Niko Goodrum looks like the starting shortstop. Jeimer Candelario will get another long look at one of the corner infield spots. Christin Stewart will play the major of games in left field, while JaCoby Jones and Victor Reyes handle center field and compete for extra playing time elsewhere. Beyond them, no other position player has any real claim to playing time. There is still plenty of room for Al Avila to give Ron Gardenhire a pair of decent offensive weapons to work with without blocking a young player or going over budget.

Here at Bless You Boys, we have already profiled numerous players who could be added in free agency to provide some offensive support or to bolster the back end of the rotation. Plenty of decent bounce-back candidates and platoon options are still available and should fit into the Tigers budget. The Tigers also claim to have inquired about dealing for Texas Rangers outfielder Nomar Mazara before the Chicago White Sox swooped in, so a minor trade isn’t out of the question either.

The problem, of course, is that any players who can help the Tigers are going to have other suitors, and as we have said ad infinitum over the past two seasons, losing a lot of games damages a team’s chances of finding value on the free agent market — unless they are shrewd enough to see something other teams don’t. So far, we have seen precious few examples. The Tigers can talk all they want about their commitment to being substantially better next year, but they are ultimately going to have to walk the walk.

The Romine signing was met with a lot of shrugs and eye-rolling from the fanbase on Thursday, and that’s probably as it should be. The team’s sluggish pace in rebuilding the farm system and modernizing the organization — not to mention the currently grim outlook for most of their 2017 teardown trades — hasn’t earned them any trust.

If the Tigers want to be believed and start building the foundations of a future contender, they are going to have pursue and land two or three more free agents who can really help them. To get such players is going to require outbidding clubs seen as better, more competitive, destinations. If the Tigers fail, and end up going into 2020 with nothing more than another round of castaways, Avila’s happy talk is going to look like just another betrayal of the paying customers by the time pitchers and catchers report in February.