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The Tigers should circle back to the free agent market

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The offseason is far from over and plenty of useful players are going at bargain prices.

MLB: ALDS-Cleveland Indians at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Spring training is underway, and the sights and sounds of baseball are beginning to thaw our chilled Midwestern hearts. However, the offseason is still somewhat ridiculously far from over. With a talented pool of free agents still waiting out the glacial pace of the market, the 2019 season hasn’t even really taken shape just yet. While the Detroit Tigers didn’t sign any big names this offseason, general manager Al Avila has shown a penchant for signing players early in the free agent period, and then circling back for a bargain or two late. If he does so again in the coming weeks, he could still produce a steal or two to flesh out the Tigers’ 2019 roster.

Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remain the elephants in the room. There is a continued sense that some of other remaining free agents are bottled up waiting to see which team loses out on the big dogs and is forced to look for upgrades elsewhere. Closer Craig Kimbrel, fresh off a World Series title, former Astros’ starter Dallas Keuchel, and super-utility man Marwin Gonzalez are all players that could boost a hopeful contender.

The Tigers haven’t shown any interest in such rich fare this winter, though. We’re talking about smaller ticket items at this point. If you have been following along this offseason, the names that may still appeal to the Tigers will be familiar. We’ve written a whole rack of articles encouraging the club to bolster their roster. But for those of you who didn’t follow the rumor mill so closely this winter, welcome to one last look at who is available.

Marwin Gonzalez

Alright, Gonzalez is the one player we will discuss who doesn’t really fit into “bargain bin” status. Gonzalez has been a popular ask from Tigers fans this offseason. The former Astros utility man can still fake it for a few games at shortstop, and is reasonably effective everywhere on the diamond — other than center field and catcher. He will turn 30 in March, and has been worth 8.1 rWAR over the past three seasons while averaging 140 games played. He holds a career 103 OPS+, three percent better than league average offensive production. That’s a pretty useful player for any team.

For most of the offseason, expectations were that Gonzalez would prove too rich for the Tigers’ blood. MLB Trade Rumors pegged him for a four-year contract worth $36 million, with the Minnesota Twins as a likely destination. We mention him here because he remains unsigned, and there don’t appear to be many fits remaining on a contending team — even for a player as versatile as Gonzalez. The Twins dealt with their need, and the Astros don’t seem to be interested in a reunion. Gonzalez may prefer to sign for less money with a chance to win on a better club, but the Tigers could potentially swoop in to add him on a short-term deal.

Gonzalez’s versatility, leadership, and experience would be a nice boon to a rebuilding club. That ability to play all over the field would give the Tigers a stabilizing presence in the lineup and in the clubhouse, and his playing time wouldn’t require blocking future prospects the team holds to build on. For a team with holes at second base and designated hitter, defensive weakness in the outfield corners, and few prospects to plug in during the 2019 season, the switch-hitting Gonzalez could really tie the roster together for a few years.

Catchers

The catcher position occupies a key point of concern heading toward the 2019 season. Weakness at catcher can seriously impact the entire pitching staff, devaluing players the Tigers need to develop. The Tigers seem set on going into the season with Grayson Greiner as the starter.John Hicks, whose abilities behind the plate are debatable, is slated to be the backup at the moment. Several cheap options remain should the Tigers choose to augment their depth with a solid backup.

On the defensive side of the ledger, Martin Maldonado is your guy. Mostly recently a part of the Astros after they acquired him from the Los Angeles Angels at the 2018 trade deadline, Maldonado brings a fine reputation as a game-caller and overall defensive catcher. He doesn’t bring much of a stick with him, but that’s par for the course nowadays. Maldonado would bring recent experience with a pair of good coaching staffs and solid defense, while allowing the Tigers to avoid over-taxing Greiner in his first full year in the major leagues. MLB Trade Rumors pegged Maldonado to the Rockies for two years at a total of $8 million earlier this offseason. It seems likely that he could be acquired for half that, as his market hasn’t perked up in the wake of the J.T. Realmuto deal.

Another solid option is veteran Matt Wieters. He isn’t particularly good behind the plate at this point in his career, but he has a track record with the bat that might make him a good fit. Though he made $10.5 million in 2018, he should not cost more than a few million dollars for a one-year deal. The downside there is that Hicks is fairly likely to out-hit Wieters, and the former top prospect isn’t an upgrade defensively.

If the Tigers believe in Hicks as a solid enough catcher — and believe he will be healthy enough after offseason groin surgery to play regularly — there isn’t much point adding Wieters to fill the role unless he comes in on a minor league deal, which doesn’t seem impossible at this point either. The Tigers already have Bobby Wilson and Hector Sanchez at the Triple-A level as depth, but Wieters or other veterans like Miguel Montero or Nick Hundley could still potentially improve the club’s minor league options. Interest on that front will also be tied to the Tigers’ plan for top catching prospect Jake Rogers, who appears set to start at the Double-A level this year.

Second base

The Tigers may just decide to play Niko Goodrum here all year. He earned the opportunity with a nice rookie season at the plate in 2018. The defensive ability is still lacking, however, and the Tigers moved Goodrum around the diamond last season. Prospect Dawel Lugo didn’t have much to offer last season. His bat will require more seasoning before receiving regular playing time in the major leagues. Isaac Paredes, one of the Tigers’ top two positional prospects, may well be the best option by midseason, though the Tigers seem unlikely to promote him to the show that quickly.

Plenty of cheap options do remain if the Tigers want a stopgap measure. Jose Iglesias, Logan Forsythe, and Josh Harrison are all capable of handling the keystone defensively and providing something approaching league average production at the plate. None of them are going to be making more than a few million dollars on a one-year deal at this point. However, with the Tigers already having added meager depth like Gordon Beckham and Kaleb Cowart, don’t expect them to bother with, at best, a slight upgrade at the second base position. Cowart is also being used as a pitcher this spring, which adds some intrigue.

Don’t close up shop just yet

Last year, the Tigers signed Francisco Liriano and Travis Wood late in the offseason. They are no stranger to a late addition, even with camp underway. So far this year, they have added shortstop Jordy Mercer and a pair of veteran starting pitchers in Tyson Ross and Matt Moore. Those three players will cost the Tigers $13.5 million in 2019 (not including performance bonuses). That’s less money than they paid Victor Martinez alone in 2018. For just a few million dollars more, the Tigers could still procure some modest upgrades while maintaining a similar payroll for another season. Don’t expect much — these negotiations are a two-way street, of course — but as free agents look for a home, there may still be a useful bargain or two that strikes the Tigers’ fancy.