Detroit Tigers' free agency: 10 potential names for short-term contracts to survive 2021
The Detroit Tigers are just as lost as everyone else.
The 60-game sprint amid the COVID-19 pandemic cut finances across the baseball industry. Like many major league teams, the Tigers made furloughs and layoffs to business operations employees, furloughed media relations employees for the winter, chopped professional scouts and went without fans in the stands this past season.
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Next season is just as much of a mystery. It's unclear if spring training, or the 2021 season, will begin as scheduled. Even then, if all goes as planned on that front, it's unclear how many spectators, if any, will be permitted in stadiums.
And then there's free agency, where teams aim to bolster their roster for the upcoming campaign.
"We're still waiting for the tender deadline and see who gets non-tendered," Tigers general manager Al Avila told the Free Press on Oct. 23. "Right now, I couldn't tell you, as far as free agents, which way we're going to go or what we're going to do."
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Avila doesn't speak as if he's ready to spend more than he did last offseason, and he might be waiting until top prospects Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning and Alex Faedo are together in the majors for 2022.
"We're working at this as fast as we can," Avila said. "Now, when there's enough (prospects) there (in the majors), obviously, at that point, just like every team, you're gonna go outside, and you're going to put together the players you need to complete that team.
"I couldn't give you a timeframe right now."
Here are 10 players to watch in free agency if the Tigers decide to make low-cost one-year signings and repeat the events of last season:
2B Jonathan Schoop
This is an easy decision. The Tigers got 44 games of Schoop in 2020, and he showed flashes of his 2017 All-Star season with the Baltimore Orioles. He had a .278 batting average, eight home runs and 23 RBIs. The 2020 Gold Glove finalist, 29, had only made one error in 174 chances. Unless Detroit commits to moving shortstop Willi Castro to second base, Schoop should be in play for another short-term deal — probably just for one year — in free agency. Perhaps a playoff contender picks him up for a higher price than the Tigers are willing to pay. He signed for $6.1 million in 2020 before salaries were prorated.
1B C.J. Cron
Because it's unlikely Torkelson, the 2020 No. 1 overall pick, will make the big-league roster out of spring training — either as a third baseman (Jeimer Candelario would then play first base) or a first baseman (Candelario would stay at third, his best defensive position) — the Tigers will be in the hunt for another plug-and-play first baseman. Why not go back to Cron? He hit only .190, but season-ending knee surgery 13 games into his season didn't give him a chance to get back to his usual .250 mark. Still, he hit four home runs and eight RBIs, providing the Tigers with valuable power they were missing. He signed a $6.1 million deal in 2020.
C Austin Romine
The Tigers have a slew of catcher options, and if they aren't going to insert themselves into an expensive race for J.T. Realmuto (made $10 million in 2020 and could get a hefty raise), they could go back to Romine. He hit .291 through August for the Tigers yet went through an 8-for-51 (.157) slump in September. If he struggles on offense, the Tigers might be left wishing they had just gone with prospect Jake Rogers, who isn't advanced at the plate but needs more experience for a full MLB evaluation. Romine signed for $4.15 million in 2020.
C Alex Avila
The Tigers GM suggested the team might be better off sticking with Rogers, Grayson Greiner and Eric Haase at catcher for 2021, acknowledging recent second-round pick Dillon Dingler will eventually get his chance in the majors, too. But if the Tigers want a low-value free agent other than Romine, Alex Avila might be the guy. Although former Tiger James McCann is also on the market, he projects as the second-best free-agent catcher, and could cost more than the Tigers are willing to spend. Avila, 33, hit .184 with one homer and two RBIs in 23 games for the Twins this past season. He signed a $4.25 million for 2020 and should settle for less if given the chance for a starting gig.
Other cheap catchers include Jason Castro, Mike Zunino ($4.5 million team option with the Tampa Bay Rays) and, if the Tigers want to add someone on a minor-league deal to make Rogers compete this spring, Welington Castillo.
1B Carlos Santana
There's no chance the Indians pick up Santana's $17.5 million club option. He hit .199 with eight homers and 30 RBIs, and with 47 walks compared to 43 strikeouts, he is an upgrade from Cron but will come at a steeper price. Also, Santana played all 60 games this past season and isn't injury prone. The 34-year-old has ties to the Indians, playing for them from 2010-2017 and again from 2019-20, meaning he might want to re-sign for less rather than go elsewhere. He had a $17.5 million contract in 2020.
Other realistic first basemen on the market include Eric Thames ($4 million mutual option with Milwaukee Brewers), Mitch Moreland ($3 million club option with San Diego Padres), Howie Kendrick and Justin Smoak.
SS Freddy Galvis
Playing shortstop and second base, Galvis would give the Tigers versatility to shift Castro around the infield in 2021. Through 47 games for the Reds, the 30-year-old hit .220 with seven home runs and 16 RBIs. In 2019, between the Blue Jays and Reds, Galvis had 23 homers and 70 RBIs, adding a .260 batting average. He had a $5.5 million contract in 2020. He should have multiple choices in free agency as a second-tier infielder at a lesser price. As a switch-hitter with defensive flexibility, he makes sense for the Tigers.
2B Jonathan Villar
If the Tigers don't re-sign Schoop, Villar has the tools to fill the vacancy. He can play second base, shortstop, third base and center field. In 52 games last season between the Marlins and Blue Jays, he hit .232 with two homers and 15 RBIs. In 2019, he was a .274 hitter with 24 homers and 73 RBIs for the Orioles. Because of his downfall this season, he might be willing to join a weaker ballclub, such as the Tigers, on a short-term contract instead of taking a smaller role with a contender. The Marlins traded him to the Blue Jays at the Aug. 31 deadline for prospect Griffin Conine, so there could be similar value for the Tigers if they were to deal him next year. He was slated to make $8.2 million in 2020.
UTIL Marwin Gonzalez
If the Tigers want to leave Candelario at first base and prefer to give third baseman Isaac Paredes a month in Triple-A Toledo, they could find themselves in the market for a utility player with third base experience. Last season, Gonzalez played 53 games for the Twins, hitting .211 with five homers and 22 RBIs. He spent 23 games at third base, 21 at second base, 14 at first base and eight in right field. Also, he knows how to play shortstop. He would give the Tigers flexibility in the infield to continue bringing prospects up to the majors. In 2020, Gonzalez's salary was slated for $9 million.
If the Tigers aren't interested in Villar, Galvis or Gonzalez, other one-year rentals are on the market: Enrique Hernandez, Jason Kipnis and Leury Garcia ($3.5 million club option with White Sox). And if the Tigers want to go the route of a two- or three-year deal, Jurickson Profar — who can play all over the diamond — makes sense.
RHP Homer Bailey
This just has the makings of a Tigers move, doesn't it? Bailey could end up as a minor-league deal, but either way, the Tigers need low-cost pitchers to eat innings in 2021. Although Manning and Faedo should take on some of that load, they can't solve the entire problem. Spencer Turnbull, Matthew Boyd, Michael Fulmer, Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal may all be given an innings limit while transitioning back to a 162-game season. Bailey is injury-prone and only made two starts for the Twins last season, but the Tigers won't need him to do much other than make spot starts throughout the season. If Detroit wants different short-term pitchers, Anibal Sanchez, Jose Quintana and former Trenton and Eastern Michigan star Matt Shoemaker are on the market.
RHP Taijuan Walker
After only throwing 14 innings in 2018 and 2019, Walker bounced back with a 2.70 ERA in 53⅓ innings across 11 starts between the Seattle Mariners and Blue Jays this year. The Tigers might be able to get him on a two- or three-year deal for a decent price, making him a trade candidate at the deadline if he pitches well. The Tigers have starting pitchers rising, namely Manning, Faedo, Franklin Perez and Joey Wentz (recovering from Tommy John), but they won't take on a full workload until at least 2022. Walker signed a one-year, $2.37 million deal in 2020, but his value was low because he was coming back from Tommy John surgery.
Another idea for the Tigers is going after Corey Kluber — a buy-low, sell-high reclamation project. Yet Kluber's market is tough to gauge because the 34-year-old won the AL Cy Young with a 2.25 ERA in 2017, followed by a 2.89 mark across 215 innings in 2018 before injuries decreased his value. The Texas Rangers declined Kluber's $18 million option for the 2021 season, making him a free agent.
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.