Detroit Tigers: The Case For, and Against, the Big Ticket Free Agents

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 27: DJ LeMahieu #26 of the New York Yankees looks on during the second inning against the Miami Marlins at Yankee Stadium on September 27, 2020 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 27: DJ LeMahieu #26 of the New York Yankees looks on during the second inning against the Miami Marlins at Yankee Stadium on September 27, 2020 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images) /

According to the latest reports ($), the Detroit Tigers are looking to take a safe approach to free agency this winter

The Detroit Tigers and GM Al Avila enter the annual winter meetings with some specific needs to address. The club signed Austin Romine, Jonathan Schoop, CJ Cron, Ivan Nova, and Cameron Maybin all to one-year deals last winter in hopes to provide a short-term makeover to the lineup. The results were mixed with unfortunate injuries hindering the expected production of a portion of their talent influx.

Unfortunately, after the patches depart, there still aren’t ready replacements to remedy those positions. Jake Rogers was passed over by Eric Haase toward the end of the season, speaking further to their hesitation toward a full-time job for Rogers. The club has options for Jonathan Schoop in Isaac Parades and Willi Castro, but neither has historically been a second baseman consistently.

Cameron was called up and showed flashes of what the club was hoping for when they traded for him in 2017, but calling him a lock for the right-field job in 2021 would be a stretch. The first base spot is perhaps the barest save Spencer Torkelson, who many don’t believe will be ready until the end of the season at the very soonest.

The club has self-acknowledged their need for starting pitching and has already been linked to possible one-year players like Taijuan Walker in free agency. If the intention is competing, filling each of these needs would be the minimum to field a competitive club in 2021. So, then, free agency and trades need to be the focal point of the off-season. The question is, how to approach both.

Many fans, perhaps wishfully thinking, were hoping the Detroit Tigers would make a big splash this winter. Beyond boredom, a big signing makes sense, while the bargain bin has been the usual over the last few seasons.

The Case for the Detroit Tigers to Spend Small

Admittedly, this is a bit of a tough sell. In the spirit of empathy, though, I’ll do my best to make sense of the circumstance. The reason for the Detroit Tigers taking the same approach to their 2020-2021 off-season is likely to be labeled as financial, as many MLB teams have self-reported losses from the 2020 year which featured a shortened season and no fans.

With the lack of assurance around 2021, it makes sense why a team might be timid about a big signing on one hand. On the other, we see teams like the Atlanta Braves signing players like Drew Smyly for a surprising $11 million and it starts to make a little less sense. Not to mention, while others have larger tv deals and markets, all were cornered into the same financial constraints across the league. In the end, someone has to sign the higher-ticket players.

The most coherent argument to be made is the fact that the team as it sits is not anywhere near contending for a World Series–and there really isn’t much they could do in a single off-season to make that happen. Spending big just to back into a playoff spot and get booted in the wild card round when they could very well do something similar with smaller deals would save ownership on payroll while accomplishing the same end result.

The Case for the Detroit Tigers to Spend Big

The Detroit Tigers, while have undoubtedly seen a decrease in revenue over the pandemic, have also some newfound payroll flexibility as Jordan Zimmermann has entered free agency. The Tigers have been public about their intention to ‘build-up’ as the rebuild enters its final stages–and while this free-agent class lacks some depth of other classes, there are still several players that could help this year as well as the years that would follow.

A player on a four or five-year deal would align with players like Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Willi Castro, Spencer Turnbull, and Gregory Soto. From the standpoint of entering a competitive window, having other long-term assets outside of what they have on the farm will be necessary to build the consistent contender they have preached since the start of the rebuild.

Lastly, as stated above, building a contender is certainly going to take more than one off-season. There simply isn’t enough talent to realistically insert on a club with so many needs. The club has also preached a sense of urgency–and what better way to show urgency than to make a concerted, financial effort to get better? Adding now begins the process of contending; doing so next year only kicks the process down yet further.

Rooting for ownership to put money in their own pockets is a strange proposition from the perspective of a fan unless you’re also an accounting employee for the team I suppose. However, it is equally questionable to act as if payroll is not a factor that plays into the decision-making of an organization. In this case, the club appears to be practicing the old adage, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Like it or not.