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Scott Harris focused on the foundation in a low key Tigers offseason

It was a measured, sensible offseason in most respects, but it didn’t generate much optimism about the 2023 Tigers.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Few teams in baseball have gone through as many changes as the Detroit Tigers over the past six months. So it feels strange that they enter spring camp without any major alterations to the likely active roster. There are plenty of new faces, but other than the ballpark and the game’s ruleset, the 2023 edition of the Tigers is going to look pretty familiar when they take the field. Coming on the heels of major organization changes in leadership, the actual roster feels a bit anti-climatic. Much has changed, but the roster doesn’t look much different.

Of course, that’s the point. Everything is still riding on the performance of a core group of young players fulfilling their potential. So it’s hard not to look at the 2023 season as something of a do-over. That doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. More than anything that happens this season, including their final record, the success or failure of their younger talent will be the important takeaway. If they can’t get a lot more out of the current roster after stockpiling blue-chip prospects for several years, it doesn’t appear as though ownership is going to swoop in to rescue them with tons of free agent dollars.

Chris Ilitch and Scott Harris did have an opportunity this offseason to make a big splash and capitalize on the momentum generated by his hiring. They chose to make the organization sit down and eat its vegetables instead. We would’ve preferred a little more savory fare. A trade or signing, something significant to give hope to this offense. Instead Harris stuck to the basics, adding plenty of useful depth without doing anything too aggressive. That might prove wise in the long run, but it leaves many in a pretty grim state of mind regarding the Tigers at this point.

Assuming they weren’t going to spend a lot of money, nor make some kind of blockbuster trade, Harris did right by focusing on the fundamentals. A deeper, more versatile roster and improvement in the scouting, analytics, and player development departments are the foundation of a consistently strong franchise, and that’s where he put all his emphasis. There just wasn’t any sizzle at the top to provide hope of a rapid turnaround.

Their most aggressive move was trading Gregory Soto and that wasn’t really a stretch. Austin Meadows or Javier Báez could rebound with better seasons, but any real hope still depends almost entirely on Riley Greene, Matt Manning, Spencer Torkelson, and the rest of the club’s former and current top prospects. So it’s easy to look at the upcoming season as a re-run with different management.

That’s pretty tough on a fanbase that has watched its beloved franchise collapse into one of the worst stretches in the club’s history over the past eight years. It’s especially difficult after being sold the idea that tanking for a few years would rapidly turn things around. Harris may prove correct in avoiding any big deals or big contracts until he sees the young players mature for a season, but it’s still hard to take after so much failure. The only thing that is going to get people excited is players breaking out and the Tigers winning games. In that sense, there was little Harris could do to put fans in a really optimistic state of mind until they see it on the field.

Major league additions

The four major league additions Harris made this offseason were not flashy, but they do give the Tigers a greater degree of depth and stability throughout the pitching staff and position player group. Matt Boyd, Michael Lorenzen, Nick Maton, or Matt Vierling could all produce well in their roles, but their assumed roles are depth starters who might fetch a decent prospect in July, and toolsy platoon players who help tie the position player group together and give A.J. Hinch some versatility to work with. None is projected to be worth more than major league average value.

Maton and Vierling’s job is to continue to develop at the bat while putting their positional versatility to work plugging any gaps in the roster. For now, Maton is the odds on favorite to win most of the reps at third base heading into camp, but he’ll probably sit some against left-handed pitchers if a right-handed option is available. Vierling is a bit of a lefty mashing outfielder who can credibly play anywhere in the outfield and is also working out at third base.

While Maton’s power potential is average at best, Vierling is likely similar in terms of power production, but actually has plenty of untapped raw power he hasn’t been able to convert into enough hard contact in the air. Both players offer speed, good control of the strike zone, and the ability to provide quality defense at a lot of positions. Both have the potential to be quality everyday players if they can close their platoon splits, but for now they’re there to strengthen the roster’s foundations for the next few years. In essence, they’re just upgrades for Harold Castro, Victor Reyes, and Willi Castro. Each has a degree of upside beyond that, but they aren’t going to power the Tigers out of the AL Central basement.

In the case of Boyd and Lorenzen, the Tigers saw what’s possible in terms of injuries to starting pitchers last season. The two veteran starters probably won’t produce more than average value in the rotation, but they do add an extra layer of depth. At least until the injury bug starts taking its yearly toll on arms, those two signings move Joey Wentz, Beau Brieske, Alex Faedo, Rule 5 selection Mason Englert, Garrett Hill, Tyler Alexander, and Rony Garcia all into backup roles. They can either continue developing as starters at Toledo, or move to support a bullpen that was already depleted at season’s end and got worse with the trades of Joe Jiménez and Gregory Soto.

All that depth also means that the Tigers two most advanced starting prospects, top prospect Wilmer Flores, and fellow right-hander Reese Olson, can take all the time they need working at the Triple-A level before being called on to make their major league debuts.

These additions are not at all flashy, but it’s easy to underestimate the importance of roster depth over a six month season, particularly on the pitching staff. We’ve complained loudly at times about the club’s unwillingness to be more aggressive in finding a really good bat to add to the mix this offseason, but the moves they did make were entirely sensible. They just don’t go very far toward making the Tigers a more dangerous baseball team.

The Joe Jiménez trade

The final big addition this offseason was of prospect Justyn-Henry Malloy in the Joe Jiménez deal with the Atlanta Braves. Malloy has played third base but most expect him to move to left field full-time, where he’s still regarded as sub-par defender. However, he’s already a really polished hitter who broke out in a big way in 2022. One non-top 100 prospect isn’t going to change how the farm system is viewed right now, but Malloy was a quality addition with a very good chance to hit at the major league level. He’s already projected as one of the Tigers better hitters in 2023 by the ZIPS projection system and he only reached the Triple-A level at the end of last season. For one year of a good but typically inconsistent reliever, that looks like solid work from the new front office as well.

Minor league signings

Of course, many of the key additions this offseason were to the front office and coaching staff. Those decisions have more to do with the Tigers long-term success or failure under Harris than any of these low key roster moves, but can’t really be graded at this point. They seem to have added some coaches with interesting backgrounds and did the smart thing by poaching some talent from better major league organizations and college programs.

Likewise, the new Vice-President of Scouting Rob Metzler and new scouting director Mark Connor seem to have distinguished track records in the Rays and Padres organizations and there is plenty of good reason to view them as upgrades. Still all of that remains unproven, and will probably take a long time to really evaluate.

Where all those changes may have already paid some dividends is in the quality and amount of good minor league free agent acquisitions they were able to make this offseason. The Tigers are not a major league free agent destination, but a minor barometer for how the front office and coaching staff are viewed by players is in the number of quality minor league free agents who chose the Tigers over other options.

Relievers like Matt Wisler, Trey Wingenter, Kervin Castro, Chasen Shreve, Edwin Uceta, likely had multiple offers. Most teams in the league badly need better bullpen depth, and the Tigers were still able to compete and add more usable arms with legit swing and miss stuff than we’ve ever seen before.

Obviously stockpiling a full island of misfit toys for your pitching coaches to work with is only step one. But to get players with significant upside in their roles, you first have to convince them that coming to Detroit is going to be good for their careers. We’ll take the horde of quality minor league additions as a positive sign on that front. The bullpen needs some help beyond what the major league roster and farm system have to offer, and they managed to add a full handful of pitchers who are just a healthy season or a small adjustment from being solid major league relievers. We haven’t seen much of that in recent years.

Between the minor league signings, relief prospects, and the starting depth they’ve built up, they should be able to put together a solid bullpen. That will be a test of the Tigers pitching coaches this season, and something to watch for. If they can consistently develop relief talent, things get a whole lot easier for the front office going forward. If they can’t? Then they still just aren’t anywhere near the level of the better organizations.

Final offseason grade: B

Heading into the offseason in the wake of Al Avila getting fired, my feeling was that if the Tigers could add one really impactful bat and bulk up the roster depth in Detroit and at Toledo, while showing us something in the front office and coaching hires, this would be a very good first offseason for Scott Harris. He didn’t quite do all that. There was no impact bat on the menu, and so the lineup doesn’t look much better than last season.

While I generally don’t like using school grades for this sort of thing, this clearly wasn’t an A caliber offseason. On the other hand everything they did do made pretty good sense, and he presumably didn’t have carte blanche to spend more money until Miguel Cabrera’s contract is off the books next year. I really would’ve liked to trade for Sean Murphy, but I’ll just have to go on somehow. We’ll go with a slightly optimistic B from me.

As a long time critic of Al Avila and his staff, it would be pretty disingenuous to rip Harris for not immediately turning things around. Overall I’m somewhat more excited about the future of the franchise. This should be a really interesting season as long as we keep our expectations in check. After years of insularity, bad decisions, and just generally being too slow to evolve in a time of rapid change throughout the game, the Tigers have a fresh start and a coherent plan to turn this into a better organization. I just wish that plan had featured more aggressiveness out of the gate.

Scott Harris decided to stabilize the foundations and fill in the cracks, taking time to assess what he’s working with before making any major commitments. In the meantime, the Tigers will just have to weather fan frustration until the team proves that things are changing on the field.