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.
“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.
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 hadn’t re-signed an everyday player in free agency since Victor Martinez after the 2014 season, but they did do so with Schoop, bringing him back on a one-year, $4.5 million deal following 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 he was traded to the Cubs.
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, Ohio, 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. Detroit brought in free agent Wilson Ramos on a one-year contract in January to provide a veteran presence and a productive hitter, though his numbers were down last year.
Between top prospects and returning starters, the Tigers have enough pitching to fill their rotation internally and still have a spare swingman or two. Detroit signed former Marlins front-line starter José Ureña to a one-year contract to bolster the rotation, and added right-hander Erasmo Ramírez and left-hander Derek Holland on Minor League deals to serve as in-season help, as 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 combined starts before sustaining season-ending injuries.
Feb. 12: Signed OF Nomar Mazara to a one-year, $1.75 million deal
The veteran 25-year-old Mazara had a hard-hit rate of 48.9 percent last season that ranked in the top 10 percent of Major League hitters, according to Statcast, and the Tigers are hoping he'll provide a powerful left-handed bat in the lineup. Mazara posted four consecutive seasons of 19-20 home runs and an OPS in the mid-.700s with the Rangers to start his career. Despite a drop in production while with the White Sox in 2020, Mazara still managed a career-best 91 mph exit velocity, good for the top 18 percent of MLB. He is expected to compete for a spot in Detroit's crowded outfield, possibly as part of a platoon in right field with Cameron or switch-hitter Victor Reyes.
Feb. 10: Signed IF Greg Garcia and 1B/DH Renato Núñez to Minor League contracts with Major League invites to Spring Training.
The Tigers are expected to give the 26-year-old Núñez a long look in Spring Training at first base, where he split his time in Baltimore over the past two seasons while hitting 43 home runs over 203 games, including 12 homers over 52 games last year to go with a career-best 121 OPS+. His swing-and-miss tendencies and defense are issues along with whether his power will play at Comerica Park, but the low-risk signing gives Detroit a potential resurgence candidate. Garcia gives the Tigers an experienced option for a utility infield role, having played nearly 400 Major League games at second, third and short, while also providing a left-handed bat. The 31-year-old owns a .245 career average and a .693 OPS.
Feb. 5: Signed Jonathan Schoop to a one-year, $4.5 million contract
Bringing back Schoop always made a lot of sense after he showed on-field production and clubhouse leadership in 2020, but the Tigers feared he might attract interest from other clubs in a thin market for free-agent second basemen. Instead, Schoop returned to Detroit after bouncing around four clubs over the previous three seasons. He batted .278 (45-for-162) with eight homers, 23 RBIs and a 115 OPS+ last season, while his defense made him an American League Gold Glove Award finalist. Interestingly, Schoop said he talked with Hinch about positional versatility ahead of re-signing.
Jan. 29: Signed C Wilson Ramos to a one-year, $2 million contract
Ramos provides a veteran presence behind the plate for a Tigers roster that had very little catching experience before. The 11-year-veteran worked through a bad start to last season and ended up with a .239 average, five home runs, 15 RBIs and an 88 OPS+. He had a solid 2019 season in New York, posting a 2.2 bWAR while batting .288 with 14 homers, 73 RBIs and a 106 OPS+ in 141 games, including 113 starts behind the plate. No Tigers catcher has posted a 2.2 bWAR in a season since Alex Avila in 2012.
Jan. 23: Agreed to terms with LHP Derek Holland on a Minor League contract with Major League invite to Spring Training
Holland provides the Tigers with a potential multi-inning reliever to help handle the workload bump from a 60-game season to 162 games. His splits the last few years also suggest a potential to match up against left-handed hitters while still filling innings. Left-handed batters have hit .176 (48-for-273) against him over the last three years with one home run, 27 walks and 56 strikeouts.
Jan. 19: Signed RHP Erasmo Ramírez to Minor League contract with Major League invite to Spring Training
The former Mariners and Rays starter fills a need for pitching depth. The 30-year-old spent the second half of last season in the Mets' bullpen, where he gave up one run on eight hits in 14 1/3 innings. The well-traveled right-hander will compete for a spot in big league camp, but Ramírez could also serve as in-season help if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster. He no longer boasts a mid-90s fastball in his arsenal, but he succeeded last year on his sinker-cutter combination, comprising about 78% of his pitches thrown.
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.