The Tigers are still on the lookout for a center field stopgap, tweets Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press, but their preference is to add a low-cost option and spend around $2MM to fill the vacancy. Fenech further notes that the Tigers have opportunities to trade for a center fielder that fits that mold, but adding an affordable veteran via free agency is seemingly the likelier course of action.
Detroit’s in-house candidates in center field include the likes of Tyler Collins and Anthony Gose, each of whom is out of minor league options and will need to break camp with the team or be exposed to waivers. JaCoby Jones represents a younger alternative that has drawn some praise from the organization, but the 24-year-old Jones hasn’t played much center field in the pros. He also hit just .243/.309/.356 in 324 plate appearances at Triple-A last year, so while the Tigers may view him as an option down the line, there’s certainly a case that he could use more development time.
The vast number of corner bats and relievers left on the market have generated more attention than the remaining center-field capable bats, but Detroit GM Al Avila should have plenty options to choose from if his hope is to add a cheap center fielder to handle the position on Opening Day. While some of these players figure to command more than $2MM, that’s not characterized as any sort of hard cap by Fenech, and the sheer number of available assets relative to the number of teams seeking this type of player may suppress salaries.
All that said, here’s a look at some of the available names that could yet fit the bill in Detroit (listed alphabetically, as this isn’t intended to be a ranking of any sort)…
- Peter Bourjos: Long considered one of the game’s premier defenders, Bourjos’ defensive ratings have taken a hit following offseason hip surgery following the 2014 campaign. He’s never recreated his brilliant 2011 season — .271/.327/.438 with 12 homers, 22 steals and elite glovework in center — but Bourjos fits the bill as a cost-efficient stopgap that could compete for the regular center field job in Spring Training and act as a fourth outfielder even if he loses out on the gig. Bourjos hit .251/.292/.389 in 383 plate appearances with the Phillies last year and enjoyed a torrid June before suffering a July shoulder injury.
- Michael Bourn: The 34-year-old isn’t the elite defender and baserunner that he once was, but he still contributed positive value on the bases in addition to a +4 DRS rating in 2016 (UZR had him a tick below average). Bourn .264/.314/.371 with six homers and 15 steals between the D-backs and Orioles last year, and he’d give the Tigers a left-handed bat to pair with a heavily right-leaning lineup. Then again, with Collins swinging from the left side, a righty bat may be actually be preferable for the Tigers based solely on matchup purposes.
- Coco Crisp: To be clear, Crisp has spent much more time in left field than in center over the past two seasons, and with good reason, as his once-excellent defensive ratings have taken a steep nosedive as Crisp has advanced into his upper 30s. The 37-year-old switch-hitter batted .231/.302/.397 between Oakland and Cleveland last season but still showed a blend of pop and speed, hitting 13 homers and swiping 10 bags.
- Austin Jackson: No player on the free-agent market is more familiar to the Tigers than Jackson, who starred in Detroit from 2010-14 before somewhat surprisingly being shipped to the Mariners in 2014’s three-team David Price trade. Jackson’s bat has been mostly anemic since that swap (.255/.302/.345), and he ended last season on the shelf after suffering a knee injury that required surgery. That may call into question how capable Jackson is of manning center field. But, Jackson won’t turn 30 years old until Feb. 1, and he made just $5MM with the White Sox last year. A reduced salary seems likely, and there’s a bit of upside here to go along with the obvious familiarity.
- Desmond Jennings: Even though he’s seven years younger than Crisp, Jennings comes with similar question marks surrounding his ability to handle center field. The 30-year-old once looked like a star in the making, but his career has been slowed in recent years by a cavalcade of knee and hamstring issues. Jennings had arthroscopic surgery on his knee in 2015 and has also had separate DL stints for a bruised knee and a knee contusion since going under the knife. He’s batted just .222/.295/.347 in 93 games/333 plate appearances in the past two seasons. Like Jackson, he’s still relatively young and is only a couple years removed from being a solid everyday contributor.
There are at least two other hypothetical options in Colby Rasmus and Angel Pagan, though neither spent much time in center in 2016 and it seems likely that they’ll command a good bit more than Fenech’s suggested price range (possibly, over a multi-year term). Detroit would likely need to jettison salary elsewhere in order to make a play for either outfielder.
Additionally, there are a number of veterans that figure to sign minor league deals and could potentially be options for the Tigers. (Although any of the above players could certainly need to settle for a minors pact as well, depending on how the market plays out.) Players like Will Venable, Sam Fuld, Craig Gentry and Drew Stubbs all have recent center field experience that could be of appeal to Detroit.