We’re closing in on Christmas, but a somewhat slow moving offseason that was dominated for several weeks by the Shohei Ohtani pursuit means there are still a lot of top free agents left on the board. So it follows that there are a lot of teams out there whose rosters are far from finalized. The Tigers presumably aren’t pursuing any big name free agents after the addition of Kenta Maeda and Jack Flaherty to their rotation options, but perhaps there will still be a chance to add a reliever or find a trade for a bat that can help the Tigers in 2024.
Speaking on Sirius XM’s MLB Network Radio after the addition of Flaherty, new Tigers GM Jeff Greenberg said recently that the club is in good position at this point, but will remain opportunistic throughout the rest of the offseason. That could mean a lot of things or nothing at all, but the underlying tone suggests that the front office believes they’ve largely accomplished their offseason goals. With their baseline needs met in terms of the rotation, and the addition of Mark Canha and Andrew Chafin to the lineup and the bullpen respectively, they can spend the rest of the offseason hunting opportunities to make an upgrade somewhere.
"We're in a position now given what we've done, we can be opportunistic."— MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM (@MLBNetworkRadio) December 17, 2023
After adding Kenta Maeda, Andrew Chafin and (reportedly) Jack Flaherty, the #Tigers are still looking for more arms. @Tigers | #HotStove pic.twitter.com/I7URqpX11H
Now, it wouldn’t be at all surprising for the club to add another starting pitcher they want to work with, but it’s almost certainly going to be a minor league deal with an invite to camp, rather than a major league contract.
With Tarik Skubal, Kenta Maeda, Reese Olson, Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Jack Flaherty, and Sawyer Gipson-Long all in the mix for the rotation, the inn is all booked up. Keider Montero, Wilmer Flores, Ty Madden, and Brant Hurter are all going to be in Toledo looking to break into the Tigers rotation this season. Finally, top pitching prospect Jackson Jobe is right on their heels and will look to leapfrog the competition as he starts the season at Double-A Erie. Depth is good, and injuries will occur, but you still can’t run a six or seven man rotation out there either, and unless the Tigers shock us with a major rotation upgrade, there just isn’t much point to adding another depth starter on a major league deal.
So, we’re left to consider the bullpen and the lineup as points where perhaps the Tigers can still make a somewhat significant move.
Unfortunately, there remain few if any reasonable options to improve the Tigers offense in free agency. Sure, they could sign 39-year-old Justin Turner to play a mix of third base and designated hitter. Turner posted a 114 wRC+ with 23 home runs in 626 plate appearances for the Boston Red Sox in 2023. His defense appears to finally be falling off a cliff, and you have to wonder how much longer the hitting ability will hold up. That 114 wRC+ mark was the worst since the early part of his career predating his 2014 swing change with private instructor Doug Latta.
Turner certainly has a fair amount to teach and might make a good mentor for younger hitters. However, if he can’t play a solid third base anymore and with his bat in decline, there just isn’t much reason for the Tigers to add another veteran. If they’re considering just adding a regular DH, there’s another option with closer ties to Detroit.
JD Martinez himself is available, coming off a bounce back season at the plate for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Tigers probably don’t want to offer Martinez full-time ABs, considering they have Canha, and bat first prospects like Colt Keith and Justyn-Henry Malloy nearly ready for the major leagues, but if they’re looking for offense, a one-year deal to Martinez isn’t a bad idea.
Like Turner, Martinez was one of the biggest names in the swing mechanics revolution, rebuilding his swing with Latta’s Ballyard partner, Craig Wallenbrock prior to his 2014 breakout season in Detroit. He has plenty to teach about hitting and handling high pressure at-bats. Martinez also had a great year at the plate as a 36-year-old, mashing 33 homers and posting a 135 wRC+ in just 479 plate appearances.
Who knows if Martinez would even be interested in a reunion. He’ll be trying to lock on with a contender and probably looking for something like a one-year deal for $16M or so after a 2.2 fWAR season in which he only played in three-quarters of the Dodgers games. Obviously, a certain Japanese once-in-a-lifetime player means he won’t be returning to LAD, and as a dedicated DH, there aren’t so many contending teams who are really a fit for him. The Yankees still have the ghost of Giancarlo Stanton clogging up the DH spot when healthy, while the Astros have Yordan Alvarez locked into that role.
A team like Philadelphia, St. Louis, Arizona, or possibly the Toronto Blue Jays make more sense than the Tigers do as a landing place. However, when Greenberg and Harris say they’ll be opportunistic, Martinez starts to sound like a better fit. If no one makes much of a push for him, the Tigers could add a pretty big bat to their options at a very reasonable one-year price. Still, the assumption that the Tigers won’t want to offer Martinez 600 plate appearances, and would probably prefer to DH him in 100 games or less and use him as a pinch-hitting option, means he’s unlikely to be interested unless his other options don’t pan out. It’s something at least to keep an eye on, but remains very unlikely.
Third baseman Matt Chapman is obviously still available as well, and positionally he’s the one who really fits with the Tigers’ needs. Chapman remains a comfortably plus defender at third base and posted a 110 wRC+ with the Blue Jays in 2023. However, the Tigers aren’t looking to add a veteran on a multi-year deal, particularly at third base where they’re hoping one of Colt Keith or Jace Jung will be ready to seize that role as soon as this season. Arguably a mix of Zach McKinstry, Matt Vierling, and a bit of Andy Ibanez is just as effective as Chapman is likely to be, and without any long term commitment. It’s just hard to see the Tigers locking up a veteran like Chapman on a 4-5 year deal, and we’d be very surprised were that to occur.
Other options that could unfold
Possibly trade candidates like Alex Bregman and Gleyber Torres were thought to be potentially available this offseason in trade, but those rumors have fizzled out for the most part. Both would cost an awful lot for one year unless an extension was pre-arranged, and so they just don’t really seem like reasonable possibilities at this point. We’d certainly be curious if either could be acquired and extended, but neither appears to be available. We’ve also discussed the Reds’ Jonathan India, but while he is available in trade, I don’t really consider him an upgrade anywhere at this point.
Another player that had a bit of trade chatter around him was Tommy Edman, an excellent and versatile defender for the St. Louis Cardinals who packs speed and plenty of raw power, but hasn’t figured it out consistently at the plate yet despite rarely striking out. The reason someone like Edman is more appealing than a somewhat similar player like Vierling, is the fact that Edman can handle shortstop and would provide good insurance on the performance of Javier Báez this season.
It’s tough to see much point in adding a player that isn’t either a real force at the plate, like Martinez, or capable of backing up Báez like Edman. However, the Cardinals appear to have pivoted to a plan to use Edman in center field in 2024, making way for top shortstop prospect Masyn Winn. So Winn’s arrival no longer looks likely to make Edman available in trade.
Other free agent infielders include guys like former Marlins standout third baseman Brian Anderson. The 30-year-old was laid low by shoulder injuries the past few seasons, and was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for the 2023 season. His defense is still solid at third base, but signs of the old hitting ability remained a little lacking as he produced just an 85 wRC+ for Milwaukee and missed significant time with a back injury.
There is also switch-hitting third baseman Eduardo Escobar, who at age 34 saw his production offensively and defensively crater to all time lows. Gio Urshela remained a pretty solid defensive third baseman after moving to the Los Angeles Angeles, but he also had a down year at the plate at age 32, and has never hit for much power.
Ultimately, I don’t expect anything to come of any of these possible third base options. None seems like a clear upgrade other than Chapman, and Chapman isn’t enough of an upgrade for the Tigers to bother paying a declining player in his 30’s on a multi-year deal. However, I do think the Tigers could be interested in one of these guys on a minor league deal with an invite to camp as an opportunity to add some veteran depth to compete in spring training. They just aren’t going to get a major league contract from the Tigers right now.
If JD Martinez doesn’t find much of a market for his services, the Tigers could certainly pivot there and potentially add some thump and some leadership to the offense. If they’re actually open to carrying a one-year DH, options like Brandon Belt and Rhys Hoskins, who both play first base as well, may make a little more sense as they’re getting less attention than Martinez. Either could back up Spencer Torkelson and perhaps teach him a thing or two at the position, while getting most of their ABs in the DH slot. Both are still very good hitters, though Hoskins is coming off an ACL tear that cost him the whole 2023 season.
Really though, there’s just nothing to pursue aggressively right now at the Tigers’ price points. The thing to do now is to lay back in the cut and wait to see who still needs pitching in a few weeks time. With Ohtani off the board, we should start to see a lot more movement from teams and greater clarity into how they’re all positioned heading into the spring.
Yoshinobu Yamamato, Jordan Montgomery, Blake Snell, Shoto Imanaga, and Marcus Stroman are all still unsigned, so most of the top free agent talent this offseason in terms of starting pitching is still available. As a result, many of the top rosters around the game are pretty far from finished for the offseason.
Until those guys are all inked to deals, teams aren’t going to get very panicky. But there will no doubt be a few teams that lose out and fail to upgrade their rotations this offseason. At that point, the Tigers might be in the catbird’s seat, listening to offers for someone like a Matt Manning or even a Reese Olson. It would be a surprise, but perhaps they find a deal that upgrades the offense by dealing from their deep stash of starting pitchers without hurting the rotation much.
As the Tigers didn’t land one of the top free agent starters themselves, we’ll assume Tarik Skubal is pretty close to untouchable this offseason unless a team offers the absolute moon in exchange. However unlikely though, until all those top starting pitchers sign there’s still a faint chance the Tigers could sign one of them for a good price themselves, and then perhaps dealing a starter, even Skubal, becomes a more realistic possibility. For now? We consider the Tigers probably done on the position player side.
Harris and Greenberg continue to say they can’t have enough pitching, even after the Chafin and Flaherty deals. Based on those comments, and their plentiful starting pitching depth, the idea of adding a reliever seems like the most likely possibility for an upgrade.
Top option Josh Hader is still out there, but signing the top free agent reliever on the market is not in accordance with the Tigers Way. Beyond him, they’re probably looking more toward the right-handed side of the market with both Tyler Holton and Chafin now in the bullpen.
The top remaining right-hander is probably flame-thrower Jordan Hicks, he of the 105 mph turbo sinker. After a pair of tough, injury plagued seasons in 2021-2022, Hicks found his way back in 2023, posting a 3.29 ERA/3.22 FIP across 65 2⁄3 innings of work. Hicks continues to walk a lot of batters but did improve in that regard. Either way, he strikes out plenty of hitters and is very difficult to make hard contact against. FanGraphs projects a three-year, $30M deal, which is pretty reasonable but presumably more than the Tigers are willing to pay a reliever at this point.
A sneaky lower cost option that could do almost as well is right-hander Robert Stephenson, a fly ball specialist whose recently developed cutter carried him to a fine 2023 season after he was dealt from Pittsburgh to the Tampa Bay Rays in June. The 30-year-old has had a pretty good career as a setup man, but once the Rays ditched his slider for a much harder cutter at 88-89 mph, his production hit a pretty incredible new level.
After averaging a 28.2 percent K-rate throughout his career, that mark jumped to 42.9 percent with the Rays. Stephenson also became incredibly stingy with the walks, cutting them down to just 5.7 percent. As an extreme fly ball pitcher, he remained a bit home run prone, but a move to Comerica Park might help in that regard, and either way it’s tough to argue with the 2.35 ERA/2.45 FIP he posted once coming to Tampa Bay. With much better control than Hicks, Stephenson certainly fits the Tigers “control the zone” mantra. However, he’s likely to get essentially the same deal Hicks will, but based only on his work from June 1 of this year onward. He became a completely different pitcher with the switch to throwing 50 percent cutters, and he’ll be paid like it.
Finally, we have Japanese right-hander Yuki Matsui, who has been posted by the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles to MLB this offseason. We know the Tigers are trying hard to establish contacts and a better reputation with the Japanese market in the hopes of landing more talent in years to come. Kenta Maeda was the first move in that plan, other than their work behind the scenes. Perhaps Matsui could be another signal that Detroit is a good place to consider for his NPB peers.
The left-hander averages 92-93 mph, but his short, 5’8” frame and excellent fastball shape give him an excellent attack angle and movement combination. He packs a plus splitter, and an underused slider that some teams think should be a bigger weapon for him coming over against MLB hitters. FanGraphs projects a three-year, $30M deal for Matsui as well, and while I’d say that’s pretty steep for a likely setup reliever, the Tigers could potentially view such a deal as an investment in the future, particularly if they can get him for a little bit less.
Beyond those three options, there are a lot of middle relief type arms the Tigers could add, but I fail to see why they’d sign a reliever to a major league deal unless it was one of the top guys still available. Expect instead a few more minor league signings or waiver claims for arms the Tigers think they can develop into good relievers.
With Will Vest, Jason Foley, Tyler Holton, Alex Lange, and now Chafin in the mix, the bullpen is in pretty good shape. They have guys like Beau Brieske and Brendan White, possible conversions like Alex Faedo, and several minor league arms like Tyler Mattison who could take a step. They also re-signed Freddy Pacheco and Trey Wingenter to minor league deals over the past week. Pacheco has closer caliber stuff, but is recovering from elbow surgery and won’t be available until the second half of the season. Wingenter battled some minor injuries with the Tigers in 2023, and his command suffered as a result, but the stuff is still quite good, so perhaps that can tune him up a bit more in year two and get the production they hoped for last year.
As with the position group, the Tigers roster is deep enough not to bother with another major league free agent signing unless they’re going after a significant upgrade. That seems quite unlikely, but again we’ll have to wait now and see how free agency plays out. The Tigers say they’re going to be hunting for opportunities, but we’re going to have to wait a while to see if they come home with anything good.