Tigers in good spot to shop free-agent market
Club's No. 9 pick protected as others risk losing early selections
DETROIT -- The Tigers didn't have a qualifying offer issued to any free agents last week, so they weren't on pins and needles as players decided whether to accept or decline offers on Friday afternoon. That doesn't mean they weren't watching closely.
After seeing free agents linger on the open market well into the winter and taking a pass, preferring not to forfeit their first-round Draft pick in some cases as compensation, the Tigers are in a position to take advantage of such a market if it occurs this offseason. Their first-round pick in the 2016 Draft is protected by virtue of a last-place finish in the American League Central, earning Detroit the ninth overall selection.
The Tigers' needs are many, including a left fielder, two starting pitchers and multiple relievers, including a closer. While the club has money to spend, with so many holes to fill, that money has to go a long way. The qualifying offer system might help the Tigers make it happen if they can pick up players other clubs don't want to surrender the Draft pick to do so.
For top free agents, Draft-pick compensation is almost always an afterthought. If a team is willing to pay top dollar for David Price, Zack Greinke or Jason Heyward, a first-round pick is simply part of the premium. For some mid-ranked free agents, especially those in crowded segments of the market, the compensation can be an albatross.
Among the players to sit on the market in recent years with that hanging over them is Nelson Cruz, who didn't have a deal for the 2014 season until the Orioles signed him on Feb. 24. Ubaldo Jimenez was in a similar situation that winter, and the pair helped Baltimore win the American League East title in '14. The O's didn't have a protected first-round pick, though, so they drafted late that summer. Likewise, Ervin Santana lasted until mid-March that year before signing with Atlanta.
Cleveland took advantage of a protected first-round pick in 2013 and signed Michael Bourn in mid-February, albeit to a deal it eventually had to unload. Stephen Drew didn't sign until well into the 2014 season with the Yankees after declining a qualifying offer from the Red Sox; even the Tigers stayed away after losing Jose Iglesias to injury that spring.
There were just a dozen qualifying offers in the 2014 offseason, but James Shields lasted until mid-February before signing a four-year deal with San Diego. The Twins, whose first-round pick was protected, were able to snag Santana on a three-year deal in mid-December.
Twenty players received qualifying offers last week. Outfielder Colby Rasmus, catcher Matt Wieters and starting pitcher Brett Anderson accepted. Marco Estrada, a potential fit for the Tigers, instead signed a two-year deal to stay in Toronto. The other 16 declined, meaning any team that signs them will lose a pick, either in the first round or later.
The Tigers are not expected to be involved on Price or Greinke. After that, however, the market is open. The next tier of starters has a slew of selections with qualifying offers. That includes Hisashi Iwakuma, who declined his offer from the Mariners after four seasons in Seattle. He's in the Tigers' mix of free-agent pursuits, as Al Avila confirmed earlier this week from the General Managers Meetings. According to ESPN's Buster Olney, the Tigers also have interest in right-hander Yovani Gallardo, who turned down his qualifying offer from the Rangers. Ian Kennedy, John Lackey and Wei-Yin Chen all received and rejected qualifying offers as well.
Those pitchers are generally regarded in the same tier as Scott Kazmir and Mike Leake, who were ineligible for qualifying offers since they were traded in midseason. Doug Fister, who would've been in that tier if not for a struggling 2015 season, didn't receive a qualifying offer, either. Time will tell how that market plays out.