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Sifting the middle tier options to shore up the Detroit Tigers’ rotation

We’d be surprised if the Tigers landed a top free agent arm, so let’s sift their other options for finding an above average starter in free agency.

MLB: JUN 27 Astros at Tigers Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Eduardo Rodriguez is gone to free agency, and as expected the Tigers now have a real problem to solve. Pitching was the club’s relative strength in 2023, and while they made a very nice move to swoop in on Mark Canha already this offseason, few expect the Tigers’ offense to be much more than an average unit without further reinforcement. If the Tigers aren’t going to pursue an Aaron Nola or Yoshinobu Yamamoto in free agency, improving the pitching staff over the 2023 edition will be difficult.

Reports indicate the team was in communication with Rodriguez and his agent up in the days leading up to his decision to opt-out of his contract. They couldn’t come to an agreement, and probably Rodriguez was always headed to free agency after a pretty good 2023 campaign. Now that he’s exercised that option, it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll be returning to Detroit.

Scott Harris had a strong undertone of goodbye in his comments on the matter.

“The way his contract is structured, it was his decision,” Harris said. “He walked away from the $49 million on Saturday. He’s earned that right. We can’t fault him for that right. He got it into his contract. But it was his decision, not ours, and he chose to walk away on Saturday.”

Rodriguez was worth 3 fWAR pitcher in 2023, and threw 156 23 innings despite missing five weeks with a finger injury. He really carried the Tigers rotation in the first half and while he struggled some late in the season, his impact on the pitching staff overall was hugely important. He isn’t going to be easy to replace.

One of the key reasons for optimism in 2024 was the Tigers strong second half finish, but while the offense was much better in the second half, their success was still rooted in their pitching. They had Tarik Skubal dominating, and Rodriguez putting up plenty of good starts. Matt Manning was pretty good when healthy, and Reese Olson took a major step to pitch like a good mid-rotation starter in the second half. Sawyer Gipson-Long’s four starts were intriguing, and the Tigers do have wild cards returning in the form of Casey Mize and Spencer Turnbull.

Enough pitching depth exists in the upper minors of the Tigers’ farm system, possibly even Jackson Jobe by mid-season, that it isn’t fool’s gold to expect some help. However in terms of dependably good starting pitchers, right now it’s Tarik Skubal and that’s all. The Tigers could really use another good starting pitcher to dependably give them good production and a solid one-two punch with Skubal.

The hope this offseason was that the Tigers would emerge with improvements in their pitching staff, plenty of depth in Triple-A, and could overcome a pretty average-looking offense, even with Mark Canha’s addition, by out-pitching many teams. Do that, let top hitting prospects like Colt Keith, Justyn-Henry Malloy, and Jace Jung cook for a while, and maybe you have a very interesting trade deadline.

On paper, only a few of the options below will start the Tigers’ rotation in as good a place as it was when the season ended. There are only a couple of free agent starters beyond the top five we outlined recently that are both coming off an above average year and won’t require a $100 million contract.

So let’s take a look at some of the options available for more of a mid-rotation starter type. We’re just looking for a pitcher who is a pretty good bet to give you 150 innings and something like a 4.00 ERA or hopefully a little better. There are a few interesting names here, but pretty quickly we’re going to be right into reclamation project territory.

A final article will follow on the one-year project arm or fifth starter types.

LHP Shoto Imanaga

The most intriguing option is clearly Japanese left-hander Shoto Imanaga. The Tigers pitching staff is currently very short of left-handers, and they’ll be looking to alleviate that imbalance in the wake of Rodriguez’s departure. That has to be a point in his favor. On the other hand, while the organization is under new management, the Tigers have never signed a big-time free agent from Japan or Korea, and the opportunity to get a pitcher like Imanaga at a bit of a value price is probably over. Teams are paying a lot more attention these days and more confident in projecting how skills will translate to the major leagues.

Projected as a good mid-rotation starter at the major league level, Imanaga has been one of the top NPB starters for years, but never quite the best. He’s also 30 years old, so he does have some mileage, but he’s been extremely durable so far in his career and his approach doesn’t depend that much on velocity.

Per FanGraphs, some projections suggest Imanaga is pretty comparable to Kodai Senga, who outperformed expectations somewhat in his debut for the Mets this season. However they don’t have much in common in how they go about attacking hitters. They both feature a splitter, but unlike Senga, Imanaga does not bring premium velocity to the table.

Imanaga has a very good splitter, a fairly deep pitch mix, and excellent command. That alleviates some concerns about his mediocre velocity. Imanaga has kind of a classic hesitation delivery, throws across his body with a quick arm and some deception, and he can cut it and sink it while hammering the edges of the zone when he’s on. However, he’s also generally throwing 92 mph and his mistakes get lit up when he’s not on his game.

The fastball is a little too hittable, and if the Tigers decided to bite on Imanaga, presumably they think they have a plan, and possibly the home stadium, to help him a little there. A year ago, Imanaga may have been a bit of a value play, but after another excellent season, and seeing Senga outperform expectations, probably there will be a team who goes all in here, and it’s unlikely to be the Tigers.

Ben Clemens at FanGraphs projects a four-year, $88 million deal for Imanaga. Eduardo Rodriguez is forecast for something very similar. Maybe the Tigers just like Imanaga better over the next few seasons and are happy to exchange lefties, but it’s unlikely they want to pay for either’s age 31-35 seasons right now. If they’re willing to go that far, it’s smarter to spend the extra money and take a run at one of the bigger names available instead.

I continue to think the Tigers will keep to the cheap side until proven otherwise. Probably even Imanaga and Stroman are really unlikely, but if you’re picking one of the second tier arms here, maybe the left-hander has the inside track.

RHP Marcus Stroman

Marcus Stroman isn’t a name I’ve seen floated for the Tigers but he actually makes some sense too. The right-hander will turn 33 years old in May and chose to exercise his opt-out after two years with the Chicago Cubs at about $24 million each. While his innings totals have declined during his years with the Cubs, he remains a good starting pitcher who still posted 25 starts in both 2022 and 2023. If the Tigers want a veteran who has been through the battles and consistently evolved his game to remain effective, Stroman is a pretty good fit.

FanGraphs projects a three-year, $66 million deal, and that works decently well with the Tigers timetable. Stroman is at least as good an option as Rodriguez or Imanaga, but his age shortens projections for a deal.

I’d actually enjoy watching Stroman work with Chris Fetter’s group and with catcher Jake Rogers. He’s never had overpowering stuff, and so he’s worked hard to max out command, deception, and a deep mix of pitches that give him plenty of ways to attack hitters. He was having a great year, including an All-Star appearance, with a 2.96 ERA and 3.38 FIP through the first half, before a minor hip injury led into a rib cartilage fracture. The injuries cost him all of August and half of September, though he made a few short outings down the stretch.

Despite some injury trouble the past two seasons, Stroman hasn’t had any serious arm problems in his career. He posted his highest ground ball rate since 2018 with a 57.1 percent rate in 2023. His HR/9 was just 0.56. You can expect regression there, but pitching in Comerica Park should help a little too, and forgive me if I’m a little partial to the Tigers pitching coaches on this one compared to the Cubs of late.

Unlike many of the names we’re going to discuss here, at least Stroman and the Tigers have some points of contact. Tigers GM Jeff Greenberg was an assistant general manager with the Cubs when Stroman was initially signed, and obviously Scott Harris has plenty of contacts with the Cubs as well. They’re well positioned to evaluate him and project his value out over the next few seasons.

Another point in his favor from a Tigers’ perspective, is that Stroman probably won’t get a four or five-year deal the way most of the top five starters available in free agency will. The Tigers only have a short window opening now where the roster is both young and improving and still very inexpensive. So it’s understandable if they want to avoid anything longer than a three-year deal for a mid-rotation arm right now.

The meager payroll commitments on the Tigers’ books gives Scott Harris and Jeff Greenberg leverage to outbid other teams in terms of average annual value and keep contracts short. It feels like Stroman will stay on the north side, and I don’t think there’s enough upside here for the Tigers to really force a signing like this. The market for Stroman’s services would have to prove pretty weak for the Tigers to move in here, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

RHP Seth Lugo

At this point, we’re outside the realm of what I would call convincingly good starting pitchers with a track record. Seth Lugo and Michael Lorenzen aren’t terribly similar pitchers, but they had similar make-or-break years in 2023 by successfully returning to a starting role after years as full-time relievers.

Lugo doesn’t have Lorenzen’s velocity, but his command is a little better and he has a deceptive fourseam-sinker mix that can generally keep the ball in the park. The real striking difference is Lugo’s trademark 3200 rpm curveball. The movement remained strong on it this season but he made some mistakes with it as well and it graded out as a pretty average offering. If Lugo can can stay healthy and handle the workload, it feels like he could refine his approach a bit more as a starter in his second year. He’s always had some quality tools to work with.

Over 146 13 innings this year, Lugo put up a 3.57 ERA and 3.83 FIP. He’ll be 34 in 2024, and yet he posted a career high in innings and starts. FanGraphs had him at 2.8 fWAR, while Baseball Reference’s version only gave him 1.8 rWAR in 2023.

Other than a left calf strain that cost him five weeks in May and June, Lugo took the ball consistently all season and held his stuff really well in August and September. There’s no particular reason to think he can’t do it again, although the Padres kept his starts relatively short to try and help him re-acclimate to starting. He just doesn’t have the track record of a starting pitcher in recent years. Lugo’s recent history does suggest that he’ll pitch pretty well whenever he’s out there though.

Lugo will be looking for a team to sign him as a starter, but he might also fit the Tigers’ eye as a pitcher who has a solid track record as a reliever too. FanGraphs says he’ll get a three-year deal for $39 million. The Tigers would probably rather pay him something like two years, $30 million assuming they have confidence that Lugo can continue to produce better than average outings like he did in 2023. I can’t say that signing Seth Lugo would fully restore my confidence in the Tigers’ rotation, but he’s at least a solid option for depth and the curveball gives him a little upside remaining in his second year back in a starting rotation.

RHP Michael Wacha

The second of two Padres quality depth starters along with Lugo in 2023, 32-year-old Michael Wacha is also a free agent right-hander who probably won’t eat a lot of innings in 2024, but will probably be effective when he’s on the mound.

Like Lugo, Wacha doesn’t throw very hard, sitting just 92 mph average in 2023 after averaging 93-94 mph the previous five seasons. That velocity drop is a little concerning, as Wacha doesn’t really have a good breaking ball and really depends on his fastball-changeup separation. He’s a fly ball pitcher who uses his low-80’s changeup as his principal secondary pitch and mixes in a few cutters and curveballs as a change of pace.

Wacha tossed 134 13 innings in 2023, the first time he topped 130 innings since 2017. He was hampered by shoulder inflammation at the beginning of July that cost him six weeks. His velocity dropped pre-injury, but was back up to his more typical 93 mph average in September. That’s the fourth injured list stint of his career for shoulder problems, including some time in 2022 with the Red Sox for a similar issue.

Wacha throws a lot of fourseamers and changeup to lefties, while mixing in more sinkers to jam right-handers. He does get pretty good extension to the plate, and has above average vertical and horizontal movement on both his fourseamer and changeup, so there are some traits for Chris Fetter and company to work with there to help him continue limiting damage. Overall it’s pretty average stuff, as his strikeout rates in recent years attest.

Wacha is coming off a 2.6 fWAR season with a 3.22 ERA and 3.89 FIP. Steamer projects those at 4.56 and 4.64, respectively in 2024. Maybe the Tigers see something in his strong finish that they believe he can build on, but there just isn’t much margin for error in terms of stuff. Any further decline leaves him very vulnerable to getting shelled out of the league. He may be able to replicate his 2023 performance for a year in Detroit, but I don’t see upside worth betting on for multiple years.

FanGraphs estimates a three-year deal worth $33 million. I’ll guess two years, $24 million with some incentives included. The Padres passed on a two-year team option worth $32 million, pushing Wacha to re-test free agency this offseason. He’ll have interest, and seems like a guy who might sign early before the offseason is taken over by the Shohei Ohtani storyline and other top free agents wait that decision out into the new year.

On a one-year deal it’d be fine to overpay him, but that injury history and minimal projection make this exactly the wrong kind of deal for the Tigers in my opinion. Get someone good, get someone durable, get someone cheap on a two-year deal that you think you can fix. Wacha doesn’t fit any of the three categories. You’re better off signing a Kyle Gibson to a one-year deal, accepting backend starter production for a higher certainty of getting plenty of innings than Wacha is likely to provide.

RHP Lucas Giolito

Lucas Giolito doesn’t quite the fit the bill as a starter who gave above average production last year, but I’ll include him here because of a good recent track record prior to his disastrous 2023. He’s certainly a bit of a salvage project at this point, and his prime is likely behind him, but the fundamental stuff and skills are intact and it’s likely he can turn things around.

It was a brief window to be sure, but from 2019-2021, the now 29-year-old right-hander was one of the best pitchers in the game. Showcasing a plus riding fourseamer at 93-95 mph with very good extension, Giolito backed that up with a deceptive 81-82 mph changeup that relied more on arm speed and velocity differential than great movement for success. The changeup shared duty equally with his quality mid-80’s slider, and in his peak years, Giolito was punching out 30 percent of hitters he faced and into elite territory as a starting pitcher. He’s lost a bit of velocity over the past few seasons, but the stuff is otherwise intact and he’s still putting up pretty good strikeout numbers.

Giolito’s issue as he’s lost a bit of velo has been the fastball getting hit harder in the zone. He’s had some walk issues here and there, but as a fly ball pitcher with a pretty straight-on, up-down approach and not a lot of horizontal movement on anything, he’s always going have some trouble with home runs when his fastball command is poor. He needs to limit the walks and locate the fastball well enough to collect a lot of weak outs in the air. He didn’t do that in 2023. Instead hitters teed off on him for a 2.00 HR/9 mark that is far worse than any previous season since establishing himself in the majors in 2018.

Giolito is very familiar to Tigers fans, and we got a good look at some of his best work. I can’t help but be a little intrigued with the idea of signing him. If Chris Fetter seems decidedly good at one particular thing, it’s helping pitchers gameplan and sequence hitters to give up less damage in the air while still attacking the zone. Giolito will still put up good, though no longer great, strikeout totals, and he’s generally kept the walks under control. If they can just get him back down to a manageable amount of home runs he’s a good mid-rotation starter again.

Giolito is still pretty young, has been very durable in his career, and had a lot of factors working against him this year. He had a rough year in every way, from a divorce announced at the beginning of July, to the utter disfunction of the White Sox, to finishing the season pitching for the White Sox, Angels, and Guardians all within a 10-week span. He pitched pretty well from April through June with a 3.53 ERA/4.14 FIP, and then everything went downhill the rest of the season. A fresh start would likely do him well.

FanGraphs suggest four years, $60 million. That’s a somewhat hefty contract for a guy with a 4.06 FIP in 2022 and a 5.27 FIP in 2023 who crumbled in August and September. I’d like two years, $40 million better, but they aren’t going to get a bargain price. Some team out there will be convinced they can fix him. Giolito is likely better than his 2023 numbers suggest, he’s durable, and he’s only 29 years old. If the Tigers front office and coaching staff are interested, I’m willing to trust that they can get him back on track.

Who do you like from this group?

Overall this just isn’t a very appealing group of pitchers to choose from. Imanaga is interesting and he or Stroman could arguably function as a #2 starter to Tarik Skubal. Neither really feels like a Harris/Greenberg target, but we’ll see how things play out. I still feel like the Tigers should go bigger here or stick with someone like Giolito and one of the bargain bin projects we’ll discuss in the third installment of this series shortly.


Which of these pitchers do you want the Tigers to sign most?

This poll is closed

  • 28%
    Shoto Imanaga
    (272 votes)
  • 27%
    Marcus Stroman
    (269 votes)
  • 9%
    Seth Lugo
    (94 votes)
  • 5%
    Michael Wacha
    (56 votes)
  • 28%
    Lucas Giolito
    (277 votes)
968 votes total Vote Now