Okay, so we’ve gotten our obligatory article on signing one of the top free agents out there already. The offseason is underway. Certainly the Tigers could easily afford the likes of Carlos Correa or Trea Turner, or Aaron Judge, for that matter. The current 2023 payroll, including arbitration raises, stands at just $119 million, perhaps two-thirds of what is realistically possible. Still there are no signs of willingness to push much beyond $150 million until the club shows major signs of progress.
The problem with the big time free agent ideas is that while the Tigers could afford them, there are an awful lot of question marks about the future. Meanwhile, they’ve already committed to two sizable mid-term length deals with Eduardo Rodriguez and Javier Báez, both of which currently look decidedly underwater. With so much of their future success riding on unproven players like Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson, Casey Mize, Matt Manning and a few others, maintaining enough payroll flexibility to keep making adjustments as they see how these players’ careers pan out over the next two seasons is a pretty sensible stance.
Personally, if we’re targeting a big fish, it begins and ends with Justin Verlander. The greatest pitcher in Tigers’ history is still at the height of his powers and should be finishing his Hall of Fame career in Detroit. The yearly cost will be very high, but there’s no long term commitment involved. Meanwhile with only modest improvements to the offense, the Tigers could feasibly be a problem in the AL Central led by a pretty high end starting rotation. However, I’ll leave that for a separate article.
Instead, let’s try and come up with some relatively inexpensive options that specifically address the targets new President of Baseball Ops, Scott Harris, laid out at this week’s General Manager’s Meetings. Harris mentioned adding help at pitcher and catcher, while specifically mentioning adding a left-handed hitting infielder and a right-handed hitting corner outfielder into the positional mix. Taking those as the goals, what follows are just a few general ideas to pursue.
Keep in mind that if the Tigers aren’t going to significantly add to their payroll to address a need, they’re going to be trading prospects. There’s no way around that if you believe in getting significantly better in 2023 without adding any long-term payroll commitments. But perhaps a judicious mix of spending and a shrewd deal or two can get the Tigers to the point where they’re at least a credible foil to the top AL Central clubs next season. With excellent pitching depth despite vacancies at the front of the rotation, certainly the focus will be on position players. But there are some interesting pitching options available as well.
With the graduation of Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, Spencer Torkelson, and Riley Greene, along with Beau Brieske and Alex Faedo, some fans seem to be under the impression that the farm system is now empty. This is far from the reality, and since we’re going to discuss some trade ideas, let me first give you a rough idea of the prospect valuations in the system.
50 FV tier: 3B Colt Keith, RHP Wilmer Flores, RHP Jackson Jobe, LHP Joey Wentz, 2B/SS Cristian Santana.
After a huge early season breakout that was unfortunately cut short by injury, Colt Keith returned as one of best hitters despite less experienced than most in the Arizona Fall League. I wouldn’t be shocked to see one of the top prospect sites slap a 55 FV grade on Keith. On the other hand, while I think Santana is a 50, but others might tend a bit lower until they see him against better pitching. Wentz is more of a wild card, but with his newfound post-TJ velocity and the advancements in his cutter and overall command late in the season, and a solid seven start major league debut, he should be on some top 100 prospect lists and regardless, should be valued by the Tigers like a solid young left-handed starting pitcher with six years of team control attached.
You get the idea. We can quibble about this, but the Tigers do have several good prospects and a pretty solid supply of maybes just a tier lower.
45 FV tier: C Dillon Dingler, 3B Izaac Pacheco, OF Parker Meadows, OF Kerry Carpenter, RHP Reese Olson, RHP Ty Madden, 2B Jace Jung, SS Peyton Graham, 2B Wenceel Perez.
It’s very possible that certain sites will peg 3B Izaac Pacheco, OF Parker Meadows, 2B Jace Jung, or RHP Reese Olson with a 45+ FV tag. Personally, as a big fan of the Tigers’ Peyton Graham selection in the second round of the 2022 draft, I’d put a 45+ on him as well. Believers might even go a little higher. There will probably be some disagreements in this range, but we’re just trying to give you a functional idea of the system’s quality before we talk trades.
40+ FV tier: OF Roberto Campos, RHP Dylan Smith, C Josh Crouch, 3B Andre Lipcius, SS/3B Ryan Kreidler, RHP Keider Montero.
We can go further, and we’ll debate all this much more in depth as we prepare our new Tigers top 30 prospect list this winter, but hopefully this gives us a rough idea what Harris has to work with here. There are several other interesting prospects on both sides of the ball that won’t get mentioned here, but would only be add-on pieces to any notable deal for a major league player.
In the end, the only opinion on these players that matters is that of the Tigers’ front office and their potential trade partners. The point is simply that the Tigers have at least three top 100 prospects, and a host of solid prospects a tier or two below them. Probably Harris doesn’t want to gut the farm system right out of the gate, but if he can keep Keith, one of Flores or Jobe, and manage to hang onto a few of the high upside, high variance guys like Pacheco, Meadows, or even Campos, we can live with dealing away some prospects to fill out a much improved Tigers’ roster in 2023.
The obvious premium option here is long-time Cubs’ backstop Willson Contreras, arguably the best hitting catcher in the game. We’ll call him option A. Normally, under the Tigers’ current circumstances a player like Contreras wouldn’t seem like even a possibility. The relationships between Harris, a long-time Cubs’ assistant general manager during Contreras tenure there, Javier Báez, long-time Cubs’ infielder, and Contreras, may make this more feasible. The problem is that Contreras is the only really good option available, and as one of the few good two-way catchers in the game, is going to have a lot of demand.
Most estimates seem to be for a four or five year deal at around $20 million per year. The Tigers might have to go to the upper range to win out, as plenty of top teams could get involved in the bidding here. Contreras throws reasonably well, but is pretty average in the framing department, and a little below average in terms of blocking. However, he’s easily among the 2-3 best hitting catchers in the game, and could continuing transitioning toward being a part-time catcher who makes for a good DH the rest of the time, and can play first base or corner outfield in a pinch.
Contreras doesn’t really fit this article’s mandate of finding a way to bulk out the roster for 2023 without spending significantly more payroll. However, top free agent catching options are few and far between. Contreras isn’t ideal behind the plate, but he’s arguably at least as good as Tucker Barnhart, plus you get a very good major league hitter in the deal. So we’ll leave him as a possible exception to our strict payroll approach here.
The second tier options don’t exist in terms of free agency. If the Tigers want to get a good young catcher with years of team control, they might want to talk with the Toronto Blue Jays about top prospect catcher Gabriel Moreno, or the Oakland Athletics for a really good catching option with three years of team control in Sean Murphy.
Moreno and Murphy make for interesting options both because acquiring one of them would set the Tigers up at the catcher position for years to come, and because their respective teams are in very different places. The A’s are in full rebuilding mode, and without a new stadium seem to be leaning toward a move to Las Vegas in a few years. Let’s just say the franchise’s future is very much in doubt at the moment and they’re in a position to trade major league talent for prospects. The Blue Jays, on the other hand, are in win-now mode and would presumably want major league pitching help from the Tigers in order to deal Moreno.
Harris could potentially acquire either without giving up Colt Keith, but Murphy is going to cost a good amount in prospect capital. Maybe something like Jackson Jobe and Dillon Dingler could start a conversation. For Moreno, the Tigers could maybe withhold Tarik Skubal, but would otherwise have to give the Blue Jays their pick of a starter and a reliever just to get real talks off the ground. Considering Spencer Turnbull is returning from Tommy John in 2023, and most of the Tigers other starters, other than Eduardo Rodriguez, are still young and coming back from injuries, I’m somewhat unconvinced that we’re as good a trade partner with Toronto as some think. They just happen to have catchers available.
The cheaper options at catcher would see the Tigers instead trade for Danny Jansen, the Blue Jays more veteran catcher. That would be less expensive than gunning for Moreno, just based on years of control available. Jansen is a 2-3 WAR catcher with two more years of team control left. He wouldn’t cost too much in terms of prospects. The problem again is that the Blue Jays aren’t really in position to trade talent for prospects. They’ll want major league help.
In free agency, the options aren’t great beyond Contreras. They could sign a solid hitting catcher who hits left-handed in Omar Narvaez. The long-time Milwaukee Brewers’ backstop is probably looking at a two-year deal, but is a bit of a liability in his throwing. Christian Vasquez might cost a bit more as a very experienced veteran catcher with good skills behind the plate, and would be a solid addition. Both would likely be upgrades from Barnhart’s 2022 production. Each could be a solid low cost option to pair with Eric Haase and perhaps Jake Rogers eventually, while giving Dingler and Crouch another year to develop.
With Jonathan Schoop in place at second base, and the Tigers faced with the decision to keep or non-tender Jeimer Candelario at third base, there aren’t a lot of easy fits in the Tigers’ infield without blowing some serious cash in free agency. Possibly they can add a little offensive firepower in trade, though they might weaken their overall infield defense in the process. There are no easy answers this offseason.
A top target for the infield is Tampa Bay Rays’ second baseman Brandon Lowe. Lowe fits every criteria we laid out the other day in terms of hitter profiles the Tigers will pursue. The Tigers would have to work him into the lineup at second base, perhaps bumping Schoop to third part-time, but Lowe could also credibly DH against right-handed hitters. He’s the left-handed hitting infielder Harris specified he wanted, has good plate discipline, hits fastballs, and his pull power would fit nicely at Comerica Park. Lowe is coming off a season plagued by back issues that limited him to just 65 games in 2022. He avoided surgery and is supposed bound to be 100 percent by the spring, but it’s certainly a factor to be concerned about. That may keep the likely return modest, but don’t be surprised if Lowe draws a fair amount of interest as there are few other left-handed bats likely available in an infielder.
The problem with Lowe is that he’s under contract at an inexpensive rate the next two seasons, and has a pair of team friendly options attached. The Rays typically trade a player with Lowe’s service time, but he’s actually pretty well cost controlled. Still, at $14 million over the next two years combined, and more expensive team options to follow, it won’t be a surprise if the cost conscious Rays decide it’s time to make a deal for Lowe as well as a few other players on the roster. They’ve already traded Ji-Man Choi to Pittsburgh and declined an option on Kevin Kiermaier, making him a free agent. The re-shaping of the Rays roster is a yearly ritual and looks to be well underway already.
Possibly the Tigers could get in touch with the Arizona Diamondbacks in regard to third baseman Josh Rojas instead. The left-handed hitter typically plays third base at an average level, but has proved capable enough at second base and in a corner outfield spot in a pinch. The former Houston Astros farmhand has four years of team control remaining until free agency, but is 28 years old already. The Diamondbacks are currently in difficult straights and don’t appear to be a threat to contend anytime soon, so he could well be available.
While lacking in home run power, Rojas does have speed and the ability to get on base. A relatively low strikeout rate typically right around 20 percent and a career 10.7 percent walk rate provide a consistent foundation of skills with which to get on base, hopefully take advantage of the bigger bases next season, and run wild. Rojas stole 23 bags in 2022. If the Diamondbacks are willing to deal, it won’t take a premium prospect package to land him.
One left-handed hitting infielder who is available in free agency is veteran third baseman Jace Peterson. The 32-year-old veteran had an odd year for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2022. Typically he’s decent as a left-handed hitter against right-handed pitching, and poor against left-handed pitching. Those career splits reversed a bit this year as Peterson got out to a red-hot start, albeit in part-time duty. An elbow strain sent him to the disabled list in mid-July and he didn’t return until late August, struggling down the stretch.
Peterson is a better defender who could perhaps be paired with Ryan Kreidler at third base for a few million less than Candelario will likely get in arbitration. There’s a reasonable argument that the Tigers would just be better off hoping for a bounce back from their veteran third baseman, with prospect Colt Keith looming in the background toward 2024. Still, adding Peterson to the mix would give the lineup another left-handed hitter who has some speed and power and is a better than average third baseman. That’s perhaps enough to qualify as a real upgrade unless Harris and his team really believe in an offensive rebound for Candelario in his final year before free agency.
Other lower cost possibilities in free agency would include Jean Segura, who is mainly a second baseman but provides a bit of speed and a lot of contact, or Cesar Hernandez, also mainly a second baseman, who hits left-handed but isn’t particularly good against right-handed pitching and carries little power. Neither really seems to fit Harris’ designs for the roster. Both players could add a little flexibility to the Tigers’ infield mix, but they don’t necessarily solve any problems other than the fact that both have low strikeout rates, put the ball in play a lot, and are still somewhat adept base stealers. Adding one of them would give A.J. Hinch some options, but isn’t going to do much to bulk out the offense overall.
Once again we don’t find too many exciting options in Harris and the Tigers’ wheelhouse. Certainly they could try to sign Brandon Nimmo. That will probably cost something similar to the price for Contreras, but he’s likely well worth the money. Sure he hits left-handed, but he also lives on-base with a career .385 OBP and can play a credible center field. There’s no reason to be shy about putting three left-handed bats in the outfield when all three of them should be average or better hitters no matter who they’re facing. Riley Greene and Austin Meadows aren’t guys who tend toward huge splits in the first place. The problem with Nimmo is that he had a great year and is at the peak of his powers. There will be no bargain available here. Nimmo is certainly a quintessentially Harris-type hitter, but the Tigers will be far from alone in valuing his services.
However, if we stick to the right-handed hitter mandate and a lower tier of cost, we’re looking at Wil Myers or Mitch Haniger as the primary free agent targets. Michael Conforto hits left-handed, but has enough bounce back potential not to worry about that. He’s probably looking for a prove-it type deal after struggling through injuries the past two years. He’s an excellent bounce back candidate if he’s right, and the Tigers could afford to overpay him on a short deal hoping to get prime Conforto production without any long-term contract risk involved. Myers makes some sense, as he crushes lefties and can also play first base, providing a little optionality should Spencer Torkelson struggle again. Haniger doesn’t have as much upside, but he’s a decent bounce back candidate as well and a solid right fielder.
While Conforto might cost the Tigers more than the two-year, $20 million deal FanGraphs’ crowdsourced estimate projects, the contract isn’t going to be very burdensome. Both Myers and Haniger are beyond age 30 and neither should really command much more than a relatively inexpensive two-year deal, though Myers is the preferable and relatively more expensive option. With so little available in free agency though, the Tigers will probably have to outbid everyone by a decent margin to land any of these players.
Hopefully this gives you an idea of the limits on Harris this offseason. Unless he and Chris Ilitch are willing to pursue some substantial free agent targets, knowing that the payroll will be in much better shape next season without Cabrera’s contract, there aren’t many options available to seriously improve the team without making some pretty bold trades.
Certainly the Tigers only path to strong sustainable improvement is to improve internally. If their young pitchers can’t stay healthy and improve a little bit, nothing they can do in free agency and on the trade market is going to fully turn the tide. If Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson, Austin Meadows, and Javier Báez aren’t significantly more productive, nothing short of signing several top free agents is really going to turn the offense into a force.
However this is Scott Harris’ first offseason, and the decision to fire Al Avila and replace him with Harris has been very well received at both the local and national levels. We might presume that the new front office doesn’t want to lay a complete egg this winter. They need to add at least one good player who could be part of a future contender. Whether that’s a catcher like Murphy, Contreras, or Moreno, or a bat to bolster the infield or outfield such as Lowe, Nimmo, or even a bounce back bet like Conforto, is anyone’s guess, but getting another piece in place would make for a good first offseason for the new front office. Hopefully Harris has some even better ideas. If they fill out the rest of the roster with modest short-term moves, we can live with it.