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Offseason checklist: Tigers' needs, moves

@beckjason
January 7, 2021

The Tigers went 23-35 in 2020, finishing last in the American League Central for the third time in four years. But their rebuilding effort picked up pace with the arrival of top prospects Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Isaac Paredes, Daz Cameron; the continued development of shortstop Willi Castro and the

The Tigers went 23-35 in 2020, finishing last in the American League Central for the third time in four years. But their rebuilding effort picked up pace with the arrival of top prospects Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Isaac Paredes, Daz Cameron; the continued development of shortstop Willi Castro and the breakout of cleanup hitter Jeimer Candelario.

Now, with A.J. Hinch on board as the next manager following Ron Gardenhire’s retirement, the Tigers have sent a message that they’re serious about moving forward on the path to contention. It might not happen right away, but Detroit sees 2021 as a critical year for progress.

6 questions facing Tigers after Hinch hiring

“Obviously, we've got a lot of work to do,” Hinch said at his introductory press conference. “We got a lot of things to do between now and when a team is put on the field and in Spring Training and into April, but the good times are coming. And we’ve got to go put in the work to make sure that happens because this fan base, this ownership group, this front office and these players, they deserve it.”

To do that, the Tigers need help beyond their young talent, especially in these important needs listed below. MLB.com will keep track of deals and signings here as the offseason rolls on.

BIGGEST NEEDS

Impact hitters
The Tigers benefited early this past season from the additions of second baseman Jonathan Schoop and first baseman C.J. Cron, two veteran run producers who provided a much-needed combination of power and experience to what was generally a younger, free-swinging lineup. But the team’s offensive struggles following Cron’s season-ending left knee surgery in August and Schoop’s season-ending right wrist injury in September showed why Detroit isn’t ready to go entirely with youth just yet.

The Tigers haven’t re-signed an everyday player in free agency since Victor Martinez after the 2014 season, but they could do so with Schoop, a Gold Glove Award finalist at second base, who enjoyed his best offensive season (albeit a shortened one) since '17. Cron’s situation is trickier given his rehab ahead, but Candelario’s ability to play either infield corner gives Detroit flexibility on the market.

Detroit signed Robbie Grossman to bolster production from the outfield corners, where Cameron Maybin struggled before being traded to the Cubs.

Catcher
Detroit has struggled to replace James McCann ever since he joined the White Sox as a free agent two years ago. Austin Romine provided veteran stability behind the plate this past season while working with young pitchers, but he faded down the stretch offensively to a .238 average, .582 OPS and a 47-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

That should’ve opened the door for top catching prospect Jake Rogers (the Tigers' No. 12 overall prospect per MLB Pipeline), but he spent the entire season working on his swing at the alternate training site in Toledo, and he now faces future competition from 2020 Draft pick Dillon Dingler.

With the Tigers’ top pitching prospects arriving in Detroit, the club needs to figure out who will catch them in 2021. Among the free agents on the market are Romine and McCann.

Pitching depth
Between top prospects and returning starters, the Tigers have enough pitching to fill their rotation internally and still have a spare swingman or two. But general manager Al Avila has always preached the need for pitching depth to prepare for injuries, and the jump from this year’s 60-game season back to a standard schedule will mean a major innings jump unless Detroit has even more options to share the load.

Detroit hasn’t had much luck at the low end of the free-agent pitching market the past two years, with Iván Nova, Matt Moore and Tyson Ross having contributed just 13 starts combined before sustaining season-ending injuries. But the Tigers have to be careful about blocking their youngsters by guaranteeing a spot to a veteran on a heavy contract. This could be a delicate balance for Avila to strike, but he has the advantage of what will likely be a deep pitching market.

MOVES MADE

Jan. 5: Signed OF Robbie Grossman
The switch-hitter, who played for Hinch in Houston in 2015, signed a two-year, $10 million contract. Grossman has a .252 career batting average and hit .241 for Oakland last year, but his 21 walks in 51 games bumped up his on-base percentage to .344, while his eight home runs and 12 doubles in the abbreviated season resulted in a 130 OPS+.

Dec. 23: Signed RHP Jose Ureña to a one-year, $3.5 million contract
Ureña is a former Opening Day starter for the Marlins who struggled the past two seasons. He’ll get a chance at a rebound in Detroit, where Juan Nieves – his pitching coach in Miami from 2016-18 – is the new assistant pitching coach. The 29-year-old Ureña was a standout pitcher under Nieves in 2017, posting a 14-7 record with a 3.82 ERA in 28 starts and six relief appearances. The right-hander went 9-12 with a 3.98 ERA in 31 starts in '18 and posted a career-best 1.18 WHIP and a 1.30 groundout/flyout ratio, the last part a product of a power sinker that averages near 96 mph. He has struggled since then, including an 0-3 record and 5.40 ERA in five starts this past season before suffering a fractured forearm in his final outing.

Nov. 20: Added LHP Wentz and RHPs Matt Manning, Alex Faedo and Alex Lange to the 40-man roster
The Tigers protected four pitching prospects, all former first-round Draft picks, from December's Rule 5 Draft. Matt Manning and Alex Faedo were no-brainers; both are on MLB Pipeline's list of the Tigers' Top 30 Prospects (Manning is No. 3; Faedo, No. 10) and could’ve made their big league debuts this past season if not for forearm injuries that ended their seasons. Joey Wentz (No. 9) underwent Tommy John surgery in March and isn’t expected to return to pitching until summer 2021. Alex Lange has emerged as a versatile relief prospect after coming over from the Cubs in the Nick Castellanos trade on July 31, 2019.

Nov. 19: Released IF/OF Dixon
The Tigers released Brandon Dixon, their 2019 home run leader, so that he could pursue an opportunity to play in Japan. He played in just five games down the stretch for the Tigers in 2020, batting 1-for-13 with a double and two RBIs, after spending most of the season at their alternate training site. Expect Detroit to look for organizational depth at first base on the free-agent market as a result.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.