DETROIT -- The Tigers re-signed a free-agent shortstop on Friday, but it had nothing to do with Jose Iglesias. Nor, for that matter, does Pete Kozma's return on a Minor League contract fill the void left by Iglesias' expected departure in free agency this winter.
But by bringing back Kozma, among a dozen Minor League contracts announced by the team on Friday, the Tigers protected themselves in case Iglesias' eventual successor is either injured or ineffective. Based on what the Tigers saw from Kozma in his two big league stints last season, they'll be happy with that.
Other Minor League contracts announced Friday included left-handers Liarvis Breto, Eudis Idrogo and Caleb Thielbar; right-handers Johan Belisario, Christian Binford, Anthony Castro, Jose Cisnero, Fernando Perez and Andrew Schwaab; catcher Chace Numata and infielder Harold Castro. Other than Kozma, Harold Castro was the only one to see time in Detroit last year, going 3-for-10 in six games as a late September callup.
While most of the signings help supplement the Tigers' farm system while the organization continues to replenish its prospect ranks, Kozma is the recognizable name for most fans. The 30-year-old, signed as a non-roster invite last winter, filled in for an injured Iglesias in May and again in September.
What Kozma provided fit his career profile. Though he struggled at the plate despite a home run in his Tigers debut May 9 at Texas, his value is in the field with a sure glove and strong arm. Kozma converted all 39 opportunities he had at shortstop, according to FanGraphs, including two even-chance plays and an unlikely one. His four Defensive Runs Saved in 105 innings topped several Major League regulars, including Iglesias (1 DRS in 1,055 innings). Kozma also posted a 2.8 Ultimate Zone Rating, compared with an 8.2 UZR for Iglesias.
Given the priority general manager Al Avila is placing on defense at short for 2019, it made sense to bring back Kozma as a fallback option.
"For our young pitchers, we're hoping to get a guy that can play good defense at a premium position," Avila told reporters Wednesday at MLB's GM Meetings. "You want a good defensive player that can make the plays for your pitchers, particularly our young pitchers. That's important to us. At the same time, if you get a little offense out of your shortstop, that would be great."
Kozma and Castro both received invites to Major League camp. So did Cisnero, an Astros reliever for parts of the 2013 and '14 seasons who has battled injuries since, including Tommy John surgery that cost him this past season. He boosted his market with a solid early showing in the Dominican Winter League.
Cisnero has appeared in 10 games for Escogido, striking out 13 batters over 10 1/3 innings with three earned runs allowed on four hits and four walks. One scout who watched him pitch in consecutive games for Escogido last month tracked his fastball from 95-99 mph.
That doesn't guarantee anything, especially for a 29-year-old reliever who hasn't pitched in affiliated Minor League ball since 2015. But it's the kind of low-risk, high-upside signing the Tigers are likely to repeat this offseason as they try to find undervalued players.
Thielbar rejoins the Tigers system after posting solid stats between Triple-A Toledo and Double-A Erie. The 31-year-old lefty went 7-1 with a 2.05 ERA in 57 innings over 39 appearances. Left-handed batters actually hit him for a better average (.246) and OPS (.669) than right-handed hitters (.216/.533).
Anthony Castro posted a 9-4 record and 3.34 ERA between Class A Advanced Lakeland and Double-A Erie, striking out 105 batters over 126 2/3 innings in his age-23 season. Similarly, the 25-year-old Breto racked up 73 strikeouts over 61 2/3 innings and 19 appearances between Lakeland and Erie.