Detroit Tigers “Great Awakening” must not be slowed by work stoppage

Marcus Semien takes a practice swing in the on deck circle. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Marcus Semien takes a practice swing in the on deck circle. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images) /
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The Detroit Tigers are coming off a 77 win season which may not be a forest fire level of excitement but it was at least a bonfire for its fans to keep warm around in the cool of autumn as we await the Hot Stove season.

It has made many believe the Detroit Tigers are on the verge of a baseball-style “Great Awakening” after the doldrums of the dreary rebuild. The time has come to add pieces designed on contention.

The Tigers have gone on a bender of adding coaches and advisors to its minor league system from both the professional and collegiate ranks to get an under-the-radar jump on the off-season. “The Purge of the Littlefield Gang” led to these moves plus a front-office reshuffle many believe were at the behest of skipper AJ Hinch.

Things are shaping up to be a highly anticipated off-season of intrigue as the Tigers look to tick off the list of acquisitions they’d need to contend. Shortstop, starting pitching, catching, etc…

That is…except for the turd in the punch bowl. The pungent floaty we’re talking about is, of course, the looming CBA negotiations and the very likely lock-out of players on December 2nd by the owners.

It’s exasperating timing for such a seemingly critical off-season for the Tigers to run smack into what could possibly be a long acrimonious work stoppage. But then…

You gotta have (Barn)-Hart

With the lockout likely over the horizon the Tigers stunned many on the day after the Atlanta Braves won the World Series. An elated GM Al Avila swung a deal with the Cincinnati Reds for two-time Gold Glove-winning catcher Tucker Barnhart.

Nobody anticipated the Tigers getting the jump on the Hot Stove in such an authoritative fashion. Avila was quoted as identifying Barnhart as a top priority with Jake Rogers likely to miss the vast majority of 2022.

Detroit has made the commitment to deal for Barnhart to pick up his $7.75M team option for ‘22 instead of waiting for the Reds to cut ties with the catcher and allow him to hit the market. The soft market for catchers likely would have driven up Barnhart’s price among a few competitors. Avila bypassed that with a quick surgical strike to secure his guy.

A positive sign?

Perhaps the most encouraging sign of the Barnhart trade is Detroit’s willingness to add the payroll in the blink of an eye. The Tigers were ~$45M under the league average in payroll in ‘21. The question for owner Chris Ilitch has been about being ready to invest in his product. Adding a top defensive catcher at $7.75M on Day-1 of the off-season is a sign they’re ready to dig in and compete for talent.

However much work remains for a sub .500 club with one of the worst offenses in the American League.

Free Agency and the Lockout

It’s one thing to commit to Barnhart-money prior to the game shutting off the lights during a stoppage. Will there be free agent spending across the league prior to December 2nd? That’s kind of an unknown right now.

The Tigers have long been identified as being ready to seize one of the premium shortstops due to hitting the market. Will the players on the market look to secure a deal prior to the uncertainty of the labor situation kicking in? Or will they wait for the lockout to end to know the exact rules they’re signing under?

In the case of Carlos Correa, generally considered the most attractive shortstop in the group, $300M before the lockout will probably work just as well as a $300M deal after the lockout. It’s possible he could just take his best offer, sign it for certainties sake, and wait out the labor situation knowing the pile of cash is secure.

Would the Tigers want to strike that fast? They also wouldn’t know the rules the sport will return to when labor peace breaks out. It’s a risk to take on a $300M deal when a degree of uncertainty will envelop the sport for a possibly extended period of time.

However one would have to believe the deal would work out upon the game’s return no matter what conditions emerge from the new CBA. The Tigers aren’t in a current salary crunch not near the tax threshold and really Correa and two other signings probably wouldn’t shake Ilitch’s financial situation all that much.

Aggression versus patience

Striking a quick trade certainly lends itself to believing the Tigers could move fast in free agency or more trades and attempt to get its heavy lifting out of the way in November if its targeted players are amenable.

Especially if other clubs, specifically any who might be facing luxury tax implications with a big signing, adopt a wait and see approach to navigate the post-lockout landscape and the likely signing frenzy over a short window of time in the Spring.

The Tigers just might be best off to go in immediately with its sword drawn to fill its needs early while other clubs are posturing. Whether it’s Correa, Marcus Semien, Corey Seager, Starling Marte, Marcus Stroman or Justin Verlander among several others…see who is ready to get a deal done for themselves and get a lineup spot or two nailed down before the labor war.

The Tucker Barnhart move might signal some major early activity by the Tigers. Avila noted today the phone was lively talking to agents and other teams.

If enough other clubs are balking at deals before the lockout, perhaps the play is for Detroit to offer safe harbor now to a few players it really likes. They can still get into the cheaper end of the market post-lockout as the players leftover scramble for jobs.

Is the Detroit Tigers’ “Great Awakening” afoot? Time will tell. But it would seem adopting an aggressive stance might yield some opportunities unique to the current labor situation.

Act fast with no fear or regrets to raise the club’s talent level to coincide with prospects bubbling up from Toledo. Will Ilitch, Avila, and AJ Hinch push their chips into the middle early? We shall see.

The Tigers must not let the labor uncertainty and any remaining fallout from the COVID crisis put a halt to their plans. Labor uncertainty can also bring opportunity and Detroit should likely adopt that thought to aggressively chase and land opportunities instead of a “slow and steady wins the race” stance.