Let's take a look at the roster as it stands now. Believe it or not, the Tigers could actually field a full 26-man team without signing a single free agent. But, I'll warn you now, this isn't pretty.
(Side note #1, I'm using Operation Sports to make these depth charts. The tool has worked pretty well for this purpose and has the ability to create html that can be inserted online.)
(Side note #2, I'm deferring to the Tigers depth chart in some places. Swapping Boyd and Turnbull is a valid debate, as is swapping Goodrum and Castro in the infield.)
Ok, obviously, this team has some holes to fill. That's painfully obvious. No one is suggesting moving forward with this depth chart. (Queue the long list of replies from people calling me crazy for suggesting they not sign anyone. Please don't be that guy.) Here are where I see holes:
- Catcher: I was really surprised early in the winter when Al Avila was quoted saying the catcher position was not a top priority. They have three who could be a backup, but that's about it.
- First Base: This roster would use a third basemen as the primary option and in the process causing a few other holes. That doesn't work.
- Middle Infield: I have no problem penciling in Willi Castro or Niko Goodrum as starting middle infielders going into next spring. No problem at all -- granted I'd probably swap them. But, to rely on both of them? And to do so without a legit backup for either position? No.
- Corner Outfield: Plain and simple, this team needs a corner outfielder.
- Starting Pitching: I originally convinced myself that there wasn't a need to add anyone. They have Turnbull, Boyd, Fulmer, Mize, Skubal, and Norris ready to start right away meaning we already have one pitcher bumped to swingman. Beyond them, Matt Manning, Beau Burrows, and Alex Faedo are ready for MLB debut (as a starter in Burrow's case) and Tyler Alexander is available for spot starts. That's the requisite ten starters that most GMs look for. That's a lot of question marks up and down the list, though. I now see the value in adding a low-upside reliable starter.
- Relief Pitching: 2021 could finally be the year that the Tigers give all kinds of relievers a real shot at MLB batters to see what everyone can do. I don't see them needing additional warm bodies to shoulder the load. If there is a problem, it's having the firepower to get through late innings. Farmer is a quality solution for 8th inning-like duties, and Soto, Jiménez, and Bryan Garcia all... exist. I definitely see the value in a reliever who will be part of the late inning mix.
So, how to fill these holes.
In looking at this list, I relied on this Top 50 MLB Free Agents post from MLB Trade Rumors. If you haven't done it yet, download their mobile app and configure it to notify you whenever there's Tigers breaking news.
I know it's fun to imagine this team breaking out of the rebuild by signing a whole slew of the top free agents, Pudge Rodriguez-style. Everything that we've heard so far is that the Tigers won't be swimming in these waters just yet, so my offseason plan isn't going to go there. But, just for fun:
- Trevor Bauer, P. MLBTR estimate: 4 years / $128M. That would be one way to fill the small hole in the rotation. Don't get me wrong, the Tigers will need a top free agent pitcher in the next couple years. I don't think it will be Bauer.
- JT Realmuto, C, MLBTR 5 years / $125M. The best catcher in baseball would immediately help the team.
- George Springer, CF, MLBTR 5 years / $125M. The Tigers might actually use him in a corner, which would be just fine.
- Marcell Ozuna, LF, MLBTR 4 years / $72M. Ozuna has already changed agencies amid frustration that he didn't have enough offers. The Tigers should put a team-friendly deal on the table in the hopes that he gives the Tigers an early-signing discount. Yes, it would be dumb for him to not wait out a higher offer but it was already dumb to fire an agent in November because he didn't have enough offers.
- DJ LeMahieu, IF/OF, MLBTR 4 years / $68M. Of the swing-for-the-fences candidates, LeMahieu would be my top priority. He could be used across the infield based on which free agents are willing to sign over the next few years and which prospects really turn into something.
Coming back down to earth, here's how I'd progress.
Sign a 2B/SS
I'm looking to address the middle infield issue with a player who belongs on the field on a daily basis but can cover either 2B or SS. AJ Hinch would be able to mix in Goodrum, Willi Castro, Paredes where they fit best around him. Free agent targets:
- Ha-Seong Kim, MLBTR estimates 5 years / $40M. Kim could arguably belong on my swing-for-the-fences list, but uncertainties about his transition from the KBO to MLB make him a realistic target. Rolling the dice on a $10M per year really isn't all that crazy, especially if we assume the first season might be a little bumpy before he settles in and hopefully performs above that mark.
- Jurickson Profar, MLBTR 1 year / $7M. A switch hitter, Profar can reasonably play at 2B, SS, and 3B.
- Jonathan Schoop. From his time here in Baltimore and then with the Tigers, I'm a fan of Schoop. He'll represent you well on and off the field. My question is if he'd be interested in moving around the infield some. He has played SS in the past, though the Tigers didn't deploy him there at all in 2020 when there were plenty of opportunities.
- Jonathan Villar. Villar might be the opposite of Schoop. He can reliably play both 2B and SS and can also play a legit CF. I like that! On the flip side, there are rumors that it's tough to get him to buy in to what the team wants him to do. I don't like that.
- Brock Holt. Holt was the guy I wanted most for this job in Detroit a year ago. He went on to have a horrible time in Milwaukee, with the pandemic separating him from his pregnant wife and young son likely playing a role. When he's right, he can play all over the field while providing some nice offense. If he's available on a minor league commitment, I'd jump at it wholeheartedly. If his stock hasn't fallen that far, a low salary/incentive-driven deal seems appropriate.
- Enrique Hernandez. Enter Kiké Hernandez who just contributed to the Dodgers title run this season as a super utility. They've trusted him to play in well over half of the games in LA since 2016 mostly at 2B, SS, and OF. 2021 will be his first veteran contract.
- Freddy Galvis. Capable at both 2B and SS, Galvis does just enough at the plate as a switch hitter to deserve everyday at bats.
Sign a Catcher
Obviously, it would be great to swing for the fences and sign JT Realmuto. I don't think he's ready to be the 2021 version of Pudge, though. He wants to spend his prime years with a team that's already championship material. Free agent targets:
- Yadier Molina, MLBTR 1/$10M. It's most likely Molina stays in St Louis. He wants two years, but he's asking for that at 38 years old.
- James McCann, MLBTR 2/$20M. I'd be more than happy at the MLBTR estimate of $20M over two years for McCann. Sign me up. There were rumors recently that he's been offered four years by the Mets, though. I just don't see that being the right risk to take now.
- Austin Romine. If it comes down to Romine or no one, sign me up for Romine. I want to survey the marketplace before committing to a reunion, though.
- Alex Avila. I'd actually prefer Avila over some of the other guys on this list since he can take some games at 1B. I wouldn't get caught up thinking about him, though. He has opted to play for contenders since leaving Detroit, even at the expense of some playing time.
- Tyler Flowers. Flowers is an experienced productive backup with excellent pitch framing. His declining offensive numbers are why he's a backup even at the catcher position, but he draws walks and can hit with power at times.
- Curt Casali, It appears the Reds non-tendered Casali to make room for a prospect. Let's hope it wasn't to trim the projected $2.4M arbitration salary, though other moves by the Reds make you wonder. He could be retained through 2022 via arbitration.
- Tony Wolters. He was non-tendered by the Rockies under similar circumstances as Casali. As the primary catcher with the Rockies, he brings experience and above average defense, though it comes with below-average offense. One of the few left-handers on my list, Wolters oddly doesn't have better offensive numbers against right-handed pitchers. Another oddity, Wolters has sporadic experience at 2B (25 games), 3B (3 games), and LF (2 games).
- Mike Zunino. Zunino has plenty of raw power considering he's a catcher, but strikeouts are his undoing. At 30 years old and a history of quality defense behind the plate, there's still some time to find another gear if only as a gap filler.
If Realmuto, McCann, and Molina are out of reach (each for very different reasons), I'd probably allocate $5M for Romine and maybe $2-4M for anyone else on the list. At such a low rate, I wouldn't have any problems committing to a second year.
Sign a Corner Outfielder
If anything the Tigers outfield is fairly heavy with right-handed hitters, so I might pick a left-handed hitter if given the choice. Having said that, it's more important to find the best player at the price the team wants to pay. Free agent targets:
- Marcel Ozuna, MLBTR 4 years / $72M. As I mentioned above, it sounds like Ozuna wants to sign on the dotted line yesterday. I'd put a slightly team-friendly version of the MLBTR estimate in front of him right away and see what happens.
- Michael Brantley, MLBTR 2 years / $28M. The left-handed hitter who can play a solid LF seems like a perfect fit for this roster. A $14M annual salary shouldn't be done lightly, but a two-year commitment would limit the risk.
- Joc Pederson, MLBTR 2 years / $18M. Joc crushes right handed pitching but really struggles against left-handers. That's a perfect fit with the Tigers. At 29, MLBTR thinks he'd prefer a shorter deal so he could continue to build value in advance of one last payday at 31 years old. I'd explore that with him and see if on opt-out after year one would be interesting.
- Eddie Rosario. As Brandon Day tells us, Rosario fits the left-handed mold set by Joc Pederson and could be had on a similarly priced one-year deal. That's what teams turned down when they decided not to claim him, after all.
- Kyle Schwarber. Another recent non-tender, Schwarber will never be a great fielder, but his bat makes up the difference when he's right. He's garnered a bit of interest already, but you can assume his eventual asking price will be a bit lower than the $8-9M estimated arbitration rate.
While Ozuna would make this conversation moot, I'd be happy with anyone on the list. The Tigers should have a decent option in front of them for their corner outfield need.
Sign a First Baseman
When I sat down to write this list, I went searching for the 1B/OF profile that we used to see across the league. Trey Mancini here in Baltimore is the perfect mold. If Hinch can move the every day first baseman out to the outfield occasionally, he could then move Candelario to first base for that day and open up some at bats elsewhere in the infield for another player. Last season's injury to Cron pushed Gardenhire into that situation on an everyday basis and it ended up getting plenty of at-bats for Isaac Paredes and a few others. It's a bit awkward at times, but there's value in having that flexibility.
If there's a guy on the outfield list who is serious about adding first base to his resume, I'm all ears. Tigers fans certainly went through that debate with Nick Castellanos. Maybe Schwarber would be interested. Whoever it is, he'd be forced to man first base all but once or twice a week. He better be ready to settle in there.
Free agent targets:
- CJ Cron, Justin Smoak, Jake Lamb, Ryan Zimmerman. Cron certainly headlines this list from MLBTR, but all of them need a one-year deal to prove what they can do for various reasons.
- Josh Bell. Though not a free agent, the Pirates were rumored to be interested in moving Bell. The assumption now is they'd be selling low on Bell who is still under arbitration control for two seasons. With the first base market being what it is, some team might just pay up a little.
- Marwin Gonzalez. The player that I really want for this team is the Marwin Gonzalez that signed a two-year deal with the Twins in 2019. Like the rest of us, Marwin has aged at least two years since early 2019. Today's version might be limited to a 1B/OF role while being able to shift elsewhere in a really tight pinch.
- Howie Kendrick. I hesitated to even include Kendrick. He's been used on a part-time basis including time at second base. I wonder if near full-time action at first base is even an option. If it is, I bet some team out there asks him do exactly that.
- Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Daniel Murphy, Mitch Moreland, etc. I wouldn't be against signing a bunch of those former performers to spring training try outs to see if anyone still has it. I wouldn't rely on this alone, obviously, but maybe do this in addition to signing someone like Cron.
Sign a Starting Pitcher and a Closer(ish)
So, I'm not going to put a lot of energy into running down a full list of serviceable free agents. There are many. The guy the team chooses will be unexciting but serviceable... and that's just fine. The starting pitchers that jump out at me are Kirby Yates, Jon Lester, Rick Porcello (all MLBTR 1 year / $5M), and Chris Archer (MLBTR 1 year / $4M). The relief market is even more broad. Just for fun, there are plenty of names but old friends Shane Greene and Joakim Soria are still out there.
My Free Agent Selections
Time to take some wild guesses at actions I might take between now and Spring Training...
- Sign Enrique Hernandez. $13M over 2 years with a team option in 2023 for $6.5M. The Dodgers saw fit to trust him with a lot of different duties over multiple title runs and he rewarded that trust. It's a slight overpay, but only a slight raise over his pre-COVID 2020 arbitration salary of $5.9M. That overpay is also paying for the option in 2022 when he'll still only be 31.
- Sign Tony Wolters. $2M over 1 year. I know people want a much better option here, but Wolters has been the primary catcher in Denver for a while for a reason and should be able to stabilize things. The Tigers would have arbitration rights on Wolters in 2022 and they'd probably tender him at least as a reliable backup.
- Sign Michael Brantley. $30M over 2 years. Here's your Pudge Rodriguez move. In Cleveland and Houston, Brantley has played on some good teams. His left-handed bat fits in nicely to an outfield that will have switch-hitting Reyes and a bunch of righties. It's a very slight overpay over the MLBTR estimate, but nothing crazy. At the end of the contract at age 36, it's not crazy to imagine Brantley is ready for an OF/DH role, so I wouldn't turn down team options or maybe a vesting options beyond that if it's on the table.
- Sign CJ Cron. $5M over 1 year. I honestly think some competitive team that is desperate for a first baseman will settle on Cron leaving teams like the Tigers to get creative. But, I'll go ahead and land on him for this exercise.
- Sign Rick Porcello. $5M over 1 year. Eenie meenie miney moe... Catch a Tiger by his toe... at the MLBTR estimated commitment.
- Sign Shane Greene. $7M over 1 year. Spotrac calculates $7M for 1 year as his market value, and that seems about right for a guy who is in the second tier of available closers -- or at least close enough for this exercise. At 32, Greene might want some more long-term security. If so, I wouldn't be against offering him $5-6M per year over another year or two, perhaps as vesting options or something. He has been a productive pitcher for a number of years and it's a reasonably good bet he'll continue to be.
- Roster cuts: Derek Hill, Sergio Alcántara (out of options), Troy Stokes Jr, Eric Haase (also out of options), the Rule 5 pick, Joey Wentz (moved to 60-day IL).
- If the Rule 5 pick is at all interesting, trade for his full rights in a low-end trade instead of trying to roster him. Otherwise, I don't think there's much space to roster a guy for more than a month or so into the season unless he's performing up to the task. This shouldn't be Victor Reyes in 2018 any more.
That's a total commitment of $40.5M in 2021 and $21M in 2022.
Ok, so let's take a look at the updated depth chart. This isn't a championship roster, but it's better than 2020 (which was better than 2019).
Going group by group:
- In the infield, Candelario, Goodrum, Hernandez, and Cron is your default lineup, but Willi Castro is nipping at Goodrum's heals (by shifting Hernandez from 2B to SS). Cron, who I think will be someone other than Cron, will be backed up by Goodrum and Candelario opening up at bats for another infielder, likely Isaac Paredes or Willi Castro. Harold Castro is a phone call away in Toledo.
- Brantley and Jones are your near-everyday starters. Reyes is the primary guy in RF while also backing up Brantley and Jones when they need a day off. There's room for one young guy to fight for at bats, but it's a tougher fight than in the past. I start with Demeritte in that slot, but you can plan on Stewart working his way back up as long as he improves in Toledo. Daz Cameron simmers a bit in Toledo as well and gets a chance along the way. If all the infielders are hitting well, Hernandez can quite reasonably be used in the outfield.
- Wolters and one of the in-house options -- I'm choosing Rogers for the prospect pedigree -- form a timeshare at catcher. Wolters has been through this for a few years now, so it's nothing new for him. If anything, his load is a little less than before.
- Boyd, Turnbull, Fulmer, Porcello, and Mize are penciled into the rotation as a starting point. Rotation order is a topic for someone else to dive in to, but I might just leave Boyd at the top as a do-over for 2020. Daniel Norris is the swingman fighting to get back in, but it's not uncommon for one pitcher out of five to be a bit off going into spring. Skubal starts the season in Toledo along with a others awaiting MLB debuts.
- This bullpen still has its question marks, but things look a lot better by inserting Shane Greene (or some other closer-like reliever) at the top and letting everyone else trickle down a spot.
Okay, so there you have it... Just in time to see who the Tigers sign first.
Free agent news in 5... 4... 3...
Update 12/18: I still think that the fanbase is over-analyzing Al Avila's comments that now still isn't the time to open the checkbook. We all should have known that players like Marcell Ozuna might be out of reach, unfortunately. But I'm still not convinced his comments rule out Brantley or maybe more likely Joc Pederson. But, fine, here's an alternative reality with a similar approach without Brantley. While I'm at it, I'm going to assume that there isn't a full-time first baseman available and the Tigers have to go with a timeshare approach.
- Sign Eddie Rosario for $7M over 1 year. Teams could have claimed him on waivers for his arbitration rate -- which MLBTR estimated would be $8-12M. The Twins weren't willing to bite and all 29 teams decided not to claim him.
- At first base, there are a number of part-time options. I brought up Marwin Gonzalez already and Alex Avila's name has come up lately too. MLBTR's survey of the 1B position also identified a number of utility options. I'll stick with Gonzalez and assume the same salary that I had allocated to CJ Cron -- $5M. It's a cut from what he saw in Minnesota, but age is starting to cut into Marwin's abilities on the field. I'm assuming he's a 1B/RF only but can be asked to play elsewhere in a pinch.