The holiday gift-shopping is over, and the post-Christmas sales at stores are just about wrapping up. By contrast, the Tigers’ Hot Stove shopping season is just getting started.
As the calendar flips to 2021, Detroit still has a ton of work to do to fill out its roster and address priorities to take the next step in its rebuild. Unlike your Christmas shopping procrastination, the Tigers’ delay was partly by design. The expectation going into the offseason was that general manager Al Avila would wait until the back half of the Hot Stove calendar to try to acquire veteran help while staying within a budget.
The quiet offseason across baseball means a lot of teams will come out of the holidays in a similar position to the Tigers, looking to fill holes with most of the free-agent field still available.
As we eagerly herald the end to 2020 and the arrival of a new year, here are five questions facing the Tigers for '21:
1) Can the Tigers find veteran help for their lineup like they did last offseason?
That’s the hope, though the Tigers have prioritized finding pitching on the market. Avila struck strategically last offseason, signing Jonathan Schoop and C.J. Cron to virtually identical one-year contracts right around Christmas. Neither player was at the top end of the market, but both were a major upgrade over the Tigers’ internal options. Both had a big impact in the Tigers' lineup, before injuries ended both of their seasons early. Detroit wants to make sure to allocate at-bats for young players who need to be evaluated, but the team has also made clear it wants to take a step forward this coming season under new manager A.J. Hinch.
One area to watch is the corner outfield, where Adam Duvall and Nomar Mazara are among the options the Tigers are expected to consider. Duvall hit 16 homers for the Braves last season, and Mazara is looking for a rebound after a disappointing 2020 season with the White Sox.
2) What are the chances of Detroit bringing Schoop and Cron back?
Both are free agents and still unsigned, so it’s certainly possible. Avila, for his part, said in mid-December that the Tigers are casting a wide net for offensive help while still leaving open the possibility for reunions.
Cron is expected to be ready for Spring Training after undergoing knee surgery in August, but first base is usually one of the deeper positions on the market, though that could change quickly if MLB brings back the designated hitter position for National League clubs. Schoop’s situation could depend in part on where DJ LeMahieu signs, setting the rest of the second-base market in motion.
While Avila hasn’t publicly committed to signing a second baseman, Hinch has said he envisions Niko Goodrum as a superutility player rotating positions for near-regular at-bats, which removes the most logical internal option at second.
3) How does Alex Faedo's Tommy John surgery affect the team’s pitching plans?
Faedo was on a path to likely make his Major League debut this coming season, so his surgery affects not only his development, but the Tigers’ depth. Avila said recently that the Tigers would like to sign at least one starter and possibly two. He got one out of the way just before Christmas by signing Ureña. With Faedo sidelined until 2022, look for the Tigers to try to add another starter, at least to compete for a spot. The last thing Detroit wants to do is put additional pressure on fellow prospects Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize to cover more innings as they and other Tigers starters ramp up from a shortened season.
4) Is 2021 the year Miguel Cabrera joins the 3,000-hit and 500-homer club?
If Miggy stays healthy for a full 162-game schedule, he has a good chance. Cabrera needs 13 home runs to become the 28th Major Leaguer with 500 career homers. He’s 134 hits shy of 3,000 hits, a mark just 32 players have reached. Cabrera had 139 hits and 12 home runs playing 136 games in 2019. Several sites project him right around the totals he needs:
Baseball-Reference: 129 hits, 16 home runs
FanGraphs (Depth Charts): 150 hits, 23 home runs
Steamer: 152 hits, 23 home runs
Bill James Handbook: 105 hits, 14 home runs
5) Is 2021 the year the Tigers turn the corner?
It might not be the year the Tigers return to contention, but the expectation is for them to return to competitiveness. Detroit was a .500 team after 34 games last season, at 17-17 before injuries and inexperience sharpened their fall down the stretch with a 6-18 finish. A new manager often brings a bounce, and Hinch has said he wants his team to go into next season with the mindset to win that day’s game and see where it lands them. A Jim Leyland-type jump might be ambitious, but this season should be a step in the right direction, especially if the Tigers can bring in more of their young talent from the farm system.