In the early years of Dave Dombrowski’s tenure with the Tigers, he had a track record of signing pitchers to shorter-term contracts. Aside from five- and four-year extensions for Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman, respectively, Dombrowski’s lone long-term pitching investment in Detroit was to keep Aníbal Sánchez on a five-year deal. That fit his history; the only deal longer than three years for his World Series champion 1997 Marlins staff was Alex Fernandez’s five-year deal.
As Scott Harris ramps up his second offseason as the Tigers' president of baseball operations, he also has a pattern. When it comes to free-agent pitchers, he likes to find upside.
In Harris’ previous job as the Giants' general manager, he was part of a front office that specialized in short-term, low-risk signings of pitchers looking for a career reset. Several times, it worked for both sides:
• Kevin Gausman signed a one-year, $9 million deal for 2020 coming off a 5.72 ERA season in ‘19 in stints with Atlanta and Cincinnati. He signed another one-year deal with San Francisco the following winter, doubling his salary, became an NL Cy Young candidate, then signed a five-year, $110 million contract with the Blue Jays.
• Drew Smyly also signed a one-year, $4 million contract for the 2020 season after struggling with a 6.24 ERA the previous season with Texas and Philadelphia in his return from surgery. He fanned 42 batters over 26 1/3 innings in the pandemic-shortened season, then he signed an $11 million deal with Atlanta and won a World Series there in '21.
• Anthony DeSclafani signed a one-year, $6 million contract with San Francisco for 2021, posted the best season of his career, then signed a three-year, $36 million extension.
• Alex Wood signed a one-year, $3 million contract for 2021 after two shortened seasons, got the bounceback he wanted, then signed a two-year extension that just ended after the ‘23 campaign.
• Alex Cobb signed a two-year deal prior to the 2022 season after showing signs of a breakout with the Angels the previous season. The Giants just picked up his team option for next year.
• Carlos Rodón signed a one-year contract for 2022, trying to build on a stellar first half for the White Sox the previous season. He turned an outstanding year with San Francisco into a six-year deal with the Yankees.
Harris’ first two major signings for Detroit were starters Matthew Boyd and Michael Lorenzen on one-year contracts. While Boyd posted a 5.45 ERA over 15 starts before undergoing Tommy John surgery, Lorenzen went 5-7 with a 3.58 ERA in 18 starts. He notched 2.1 bWAR before being traded to the Phillies for infield prospect Hao-Yu Lee (now the Tigers’ No. 8 prospect).
“We don’t have any hard-and-fast rules,” Harris told reporters at last week’s GM Meetings. “I think we demonstrated a year ago that we could go into free agency and find a pitcher like Michael Lorenzen, who was still trying to establish himself as a starter. And then fast-forward a year, and he just had the best year of his career. He was an All-Star and he took huge steps forward in Detroit, and [he] credited our pitching group and the environment we created as being one of the many reasons why he took that step forward.
“That’s really important. We have to create that type of environment. We’re not all the way there yet, but we took a huge step forward, both with the young pitchers and the veterans that we brought here who got a lot better.”
The Tigers have invested heavily in pitching instruction and design, from pitching coach Chris Fetter and mechanics guru Robin Lund in Detroit to pitching director Gabe Ribas in the farm system. As they head into an offseason in which every team seems to be looking for pitching, and Eduardo Rodriguez's departure left a void in the rotation, that coaching and development system is arguably their strength.
In Mark Canha, the Tigers added a veteran who can lead by example and instruction for a group of young hitters around him. Now, Detroit is are essentially looking for the same thing on the pitching side.
“If we can add a veteran presence into our team that can help some of these young pitchers along, I think that’s going to be an area we’re going to look at,” Harris told reporters.