'Being opportunistic is key': Inside Tigers manager AJ Hinch's philosophy on free agency

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Tigers are at crossroads in the rebuilding and subsequent building stages of their organizational overhaul.

They have their new manager in AJ Hinch. They have the prospects, headlined by Casey Mize, Tarik SkubalMatt Manning, Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene. And they have the finances available to make marquee signings, as Miguel Cabrera's $30 million is the only guarantee locked into the 2021 budget.

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"I do believe that the organization understands that, in order to advance this, we're going to need to invest in players," Hinch said Thursday. "We're going to need some player development, to have some players come up and contribute. Takes a little bit of everything."

So, when will it happen?

That's the question nobody has answered — not owner Christopher Ilitch or general manager Al Avila. Yet the Tigers, losers of 64% of games in the last four years, promise they will spend big at some point, without giving a definitive response as to when that will be.

"Whether that happens in '21, the market is going to kind of tell us that," Hinch said. "The early talks with Al, he has been very forward with me about the fact that we're not going into camp (spring training) with the same team that we have today."

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Winning in free agency, whether it's with star or role players, is crucial to getting the Tigers back into the postseason.

This year, the top free agents include catcher J.T. Realmuto, outfielder George Springer (who Hinch managed with the Houston Astros), second baseman DJ LeMahieu, right-hander Trevor Bauer, outfielder Marcell Ozuna and shortstop Marcus Semien.

"Everybody shoots to the top of the market and you start talking the big names and the big money," Hinch said. "I don't know if that's going to be the case or not. That's not even that important to me as much as it was a big vision of consistency in your thought process on what we're trying to build here.

"Being opportunistic is key."

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Houston Astros left fielder Michael Brantley doubles against the Detroit Tigers in the fourth inning Aug. 22, 2019 in Houston.

The second tier of free agents, which the Tigers could be more likely to chase this offseason, includes left-hander James Paxton, outfielder Michael Brantley (who Hinch managed in Houston), shortstop Didi Gregorius, catcher Yadier Molina, utility player Jurickson Profar, right-hander Taijuan Walker and first baseman Carlos Santana, to name a few.

And then there's the third tier of free agents. In recent years, the Tigers have taken advantage of this category to fill holes in the lineups.

[ Detroit Tigers' free agency: 10 potential names for short-term contracts to survive 2021 ]

Some of these players are second baseman Jonathan Schoop (with Tigers in 2020), utility player Enrique Hernandez, catcher Jason Castro, first baseman C.J. Cron (with Tigers in 2020), catcher Alex Avila, shortstop Freddy Galvis, right-hander Matt Shoemaker and lefty Rich Hill.

Detroit Tigers' Jonathan Schoop (8) scores past Chicago White Sox catcher James McCann on a sacrifice fly during the sixth inning of a baseball game Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, in Chicago.

Eventually, the Tigers will need to make major splashes on the open market, boosting the building stage Avila pledged when he interviewed Hinch to become the team's next manager.

So, the question remains.

When will the building begin?

"Maybe that's January, maybe it's in December," Hinch said. "Maybe, right now, the middle part of the market gets a little nervous about contracts when they're not sure how the market is going to me. Maybe there's opportunities there.

"We've talked about so many players in the last week, and I know that the front office is contacting a lot of people and trying to put that puzzle together. ... We'll see what it ends up being."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.