DETROIT -- The last time the Tigers suffered as many defeats in a season as they did during their 114-loss campaign in 2019, they made an offseason splash that culminated in the late signing of seemingly underappreciated free agent Pudge Rodriguez, a deal that arguably changed the course of the franchise for the next dozen years.
Signing a future Hall of Famer to a long-term deal likely won't happen this year, but waiting out the market and seeing which big names are available after the holidays appears to be a real possibility. It would be a change in direction from the early signings the Tigers pulled off last offseason, all of which went awry.
“It's going to be a long process, I've gotta say,” general manager Al Avila said earlier this week from baseball’s GM Meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz.
While the Tigers reached out to clubs and agents at this week’s meetings to discuss offseason plans, Avila characterized the discussions as preliminary: trying to figure out who might fit Detroit's needs for 2020 rather than actual negotiation.
Compare that to last year, when much of the Tigers’ offseason needs were filled by mid-December. Detroit signed free-agent starter Matt Moore before the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas and added Tyson Ross and Jordy Mercer during those meetings. Detroit’s only Major League deal after the holidays was the Feb. 23 signing of Josh Harrison.
Ross and Moore combined for nine starts and 45 1/3 innings before sustaining season-ending injuries. Mercer missed much of the season’s first half with a right quad strain, then was relegated to a utility role once shortstop prospect Willi Castro was called up in late August. Harrison hit just .175 (24-for-137) in 36 games before undergoing surgery on his left hamstring tendon; the Tigers released him Aug. 9.
Add them up, and the Tigers spent just over $15 million for four signings that combined for a -0.1 bWAR. Moore’s 0.7 bWAR was the best of the bunch, impressive for just two starts and 10 scoreless innings. Harrison’s -1 bWAR in just 36 games was on the opposite end.
It was a far cry from 2018, when center fielder Leonys Martin and starter Mike Fiers combined for a 4.5 bWAR before being traded down the stretch of a 98-loss season. Both were December signings, but they had better health histories. They also had been cut loose by their previous clubs before becoming eligible for traditional free agency.
In hindsight, last offseason's early signings were also less productive than some later signings from other clubs. The Tigers signed Mercer as the first of a group of shortstops that included Freddy Galvis, Adeiny Hechavarría, Alcides Escobar and ex-Tiger José Iglesias. Galvis signed Jan. 29 with the Blue Jays for about the same salary as Mercer and hit .260 with 23 homers, 70 RBIs, a .731 OPS and a 2.3 bWAR. Iglesias, who was unlikely to return to the Tigers, enjoyed a bounceback season with the Reds after agreeing to a non-roster invite on Feb. 23.
The early signings weren’t an organizational plan, Avila said, so much as a reaction to the market.
“Every year is different,” Avila said, “because it depends on who's out there, who's motivated to sign earlier than later, what fits might be better for us. You kind of play to what's available at the time.”
This year, with the Tigers looking for similar signings, they seem ready to play later. But that could depend in part on how early the top free agents sign, setting the market for others and allowing suitors to move on to other options.
The good news for Detroit is that its hole for an offensive contributor in the outfield or at first base is pretty unique. Many clubs with aspirations to contend either have first base set or rotate players at the spot, though the White Sox could be a notable exception with José Abreu a free agent. The Tigers would’ve been set there if not for Miguel Cabrera’s knees limiting him to designated hitter.
The Tigers won’t pursue Abreu, but they could go for the next tier. They’ve had internal discussions about Justin Smoak and could find a fit with Eric Thames, whose $7.5 million option in 2020 was declined by the Brewers.
“We definitely would like to bring in somebody that can help our lineup,” Avila said. “We do need to help some of these young guys out. What position, whether it be in the outfield or first base, we don't know yet. Right now we're setting the groundwork to see what we can come up with acquiring.”
The same goes for catcher, where the Tigers are hoping to add a veteran alongside Grayson Greiner while Jake Rogers goes back to work on development.
“Catching's an area, like hitting, of importance this winter, for sure,” Avila said.
Like the previous two offseasons, the Tigers are also hoping to add a veteran starter, a position that has options down the stretch run of every offseason as pitchers work their way through injury rehabs and throwing progressions.
None of the signings the Tigers are expected to pursue will turn them into contenders in 2020. Even with Pudge Rodriguez, Detroit still lost 90 games in 2004. But a few value signings could at least point the Tigers in the right direction as they await an influx of homegrown prospects.