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The rebuild process continues for the Tigers, who will likely use the winter to seek more young talent while plugging a few roster holes, but they do have spending power to work with if they wish.
- Miguel Cabrera, 1B: $162MM through 2023 (includes $8MM buyout of $30MM club option for 2024)
- Jordan Zimmermann, SP: $50MM through 2020
Arbitration Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Nick Castellanos – $11.3MM
- Shane Greene – $4.8MM
- James McCann – $3.5MM
- Michael Fulmer – $3.0MM
- Matthew Boyd – $3.0MM
- Alex Wilson – $2.8MM
- Daniel Norris — $1.4MM
- Blaine Hardy – $1.2MM
- Drew VerHagen – $900K
- Non-tender candidates: McCann
Other Financial Obligations
The Tigers head into the offseason knowing that their 2019 lineup will consist of Jeimer Candelario at third base, super-utilityman Niko Goodrum at one of a variety of positions, future Hall-of-Famer Miguel Cabrera at either first base or DH (with John Hicks supplementing him), and likely power-hitting prospect Christin Stewart in left field. Beyond these spots, however, the team has a lot of flexibility to work with as the Tigers continue to figure out who will be part of their long-term future.
At both center field and catcher, for instance, Detroit has to decide how it will best fill positions until some notable minor leaguers make their arrival. JaCoby Jones and Mikie Mahtook are the top in-house choices in center field, though it isn’t an ideal platoon since both are right-handed bats and neither delivered much at the plate last season. The Tigers could choose to augment the position with a veteran signing, as they did with Leonys Martin last winter, or just stick with Jones and Mahtook until top prospect Daz Cameron is ready (perhaps later in the season). Cameron has shown solid on-base skills over his four pro seasons, including a .285/.367/.470 slash line over 226 Double-A plate appearances last season, though he’ll need some more seasoning after playing just 15 games at Triple-A last year.
Catching prospect Jake Rogers could also enter the big league picture once he debuts at Triple-A and shows more consistency at the plate, as scouts and observers are already very impressed by his defense. That leaves the Tigers with the option of sticking with James McCann, Hicks, and Grayson Greiner until Rogers is ready, or perhaps trading or even non-tendering McCann to instead go with a combo of Greiner and Hicks behind the plate. McCann is coming off a sub-replacement level season both offensively and in terms of pitch-blocking and framing, though he did provide decent value (1.6 fWAR, 95 wRC+) in 2017. McCann is projected for a $3.5MM salary via arbitration, though that sum is modest enough that the team’s decision will just come down to whether or not it feels McCann is the best choice for the pitching staff going forward.
The most obvious hole in the lineup is at shortstop, as the Tigers were unable to move Jose Iglesias after months of trade rumors and will now allow the sparkling defender to reach free agency. Iglesias will get some attention from other teams looking for a defensive upgrade up the middle, though four straight seasons of below-average offensive production will limit his market. While Iglesias has already publicly said his goodbyes to the Detroit fans, he might very well end up fitting the team’s need for a relatively inexpensive veteran shortstop. Sticking with a known quantity like Iglesias might be preferable to signing another veteran in free agency (e.g. Jordy Mercer, Freddy Galvis, Alcides Escobar), though if the Tigers are thinking about flipping their veteran acquisition at the trade deadline, they could aim slightly higher with someone like Asdrubal Cabrera, who offers more at the plate.
An experienced shortstop would go a long way towards bolstering the infield situation for the first part of the season, as the Tigers surely hope that more than one of their best infield prospects (Dawel Lugo, Willi Castro, Isaac Paredes) can force a promotion to the big league roster later in the year. Lugo already made his MLB debut in 2018, so he and rookie Ronny Rodriguez are favorites as utility infield depth while Goodrum is probably the top choice at second base. Alternatively, the Tigers could use Goodrum and Rodriguez at shortstop while adding a regular second baseman. Someone like Galvis, Mercer, or Cabrera could fit either middle infield spot, of course, while free agent second basemen like Josh Harrison or Logan Forsythe would also offer a bit of versatility at third base. Perhaps the club could strike if it sees good value in a free agent who falls through the cracks a bit, with DJ LeMahieu seemingly an interesting hypothetical possibility as the market gets underway.
Goodrum did spend the bulk of his time at second base last year and the Tigers are likelier to just stick with him at the position, though his versatility makes him a nice asset for Detroit to utilize as they figure out the remainder of their roster. For instance, Goodrum could see some more time in right field should the Tigers take the leap on dealing Nicholas Castellanos. After three years of .285/.336/.495 production, Castellanos offers a lot of hitting prowess to any team looking for some short-term pop, as Castellanos is only under contract through the 2018 season. On the down side, the 26-year-old is due for a big raise in his final year of arbitration (a projected $11.3MM), and Castellanos hasn’t provided any defensive value whatsoever, either as a right fielder or at his old third base spot. Unsurprisingly, his poor glovework has reputedly limited his trade value before and will continue to do so.
The Tigers have resisted the idea of using Castellanos as a first baseman in the past, due in large part to other roster considerations. Now that Victor Martinez’s retirement has opened up the designated hitter spot, it might be time for Detroit to consider deploying Castellanos and Miguel Cabrera in a timeshare between the first base and DH spots. (Anthony Fenech recently explored the possibility in a piece for the Detroit Free Press.) Castellanos has never played first base as a pro ballplayer, though it would help his trade value — and perhaps also his future free agent value — if he could demonstrate at least passable glovework at even the least-demanding position on the field, rather than being a major negative in right field.
Stewart also isn’t much of a defender, so it would be a big help to Detroit’s pitching staff if the spacious Comerica Park outfield didn’t have Stewart and Castellanos both regularly manning the corner positions. Granted, the Tigers aren’t prioritizing winning in 2019, but it doesn’t help a young pitcher’s development if flyouts and singles are being turned into singles or extra-base hits due to poor outfield defense. While the Tigers have talked to Castellanos about an extension in the past, such a contract might only happen if the team is really intent on sticking with him as a right fielder. A move to first base might signal that Castellanos’ time in Detroit is nearing an end, as the Tigers certainly don’t want to clog up both the first base and DH spots with he and Cabrera for the foreseeable future.
Cabrera, of course, is still set to earn at least $162MM through the 2023 season, making him one of more untradeable players in baseball due to his age (36 in April) and an increasing number of injuries over the last two seasons. Jordan Zimmermann’s contract also makes him too hefty to be dealt, even if he did slightly rebound to post the best of his three seasons in Detroit.
With those two veterans unlikely to be discussed in any realistic trade discussions, that leaves Castellanos, Michael Fulmer, Shane Greene and Alex Wilson as possible candidates to be dealt before Opening Day. Greene had a brief DL stint in July that may have scuttled his chances at a midseason trade, and while the Tigers would be selling low in the wake of an inconsistent season from the closer, his peripherals indicated a much more solid performance than Greene’s 5.12 ERA would indicate.
The Tigers received a lot of calls Fulmer last winter and even throughout the year, and the 2016 AL Rookie Of The Year will still get interest given his four remaining years of team control as a Super Two player. Fulmer didn’t do much to help his value, however, after posting a 4.69 ERA over 132 1/3 innings and allowing a lot of hard contact along with spikes in his home run and walk rates. Barring a blow-away offer from another team, I wouldn’t expect Fulmer to be traded this offseason while his stock is at its lowest, as it makes more sense for Detroit to hope for a bounce-back performance in 2019.
Besides Fulmer and Zimmermann, the Tigers project to have Matthew Boyd, Daniel Norris, and Blaine Hardy rounding out their starting five. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see teams ask about the latter three in trade discussions, and could at least be considered as trade pieces by the Detroit brass. Boyd was solid last year and could draw some interest from teams looking for controllable starting pitching, though he hasn’t yet shown a lofty ceiling in the big leagues. Norris has long been seen as a talented pitcher, but has yet to harness his promise. Hardy, meanwhile, is already 31 and did show some unexpected potential as a starting pitcher last year. It’s arguable he’s the likeliest trade candidate of the bunch, though interest isn’t likely to be too intense. He could be a versatile piece for the right organization, but the Tigers might simply prefer to keep him themselves.
Whether or not any existing options are removed from the mix, there’ll be a need for some innings. The Tigers signed Mike Fiers and Francisco Liriano as low-cost rotation help last offseason, with Fiers eventually netting Detroit two pitching prospects after the right-hander was dealt to the A’s in August. Expect the Tigers to make at least a couple of veteran signings for the rotation and bullpen in this same vein, and a reunion with Liriano wouldn’t be out of the question, even if he seems more like a LOOGY at this point than a starting pitcher. Getting through games may require some creativity for skipper Ron Gardenhire. Using an opener for at least one of the rotation spots would be an interesting way of keeping Norris and Hardy fresh, and of breaking prospects Beau Burrows and Matt Manning into the majors if they’re ready for a late-season promotion.
All things considered, despite having some obvious needs, it’s hard to know whether the Tigers will fulfill them with significant MLB acquisitions. The payroll is well below its recent high-point, when it sat just below $200MM to open the 2017 season. But the club hardly seems ready to begin adding veteran pieces for the future, so any larger expenditures would likely occur only if there’s a sterling opportunity to achieve value. On the potential sell side, Fulmer, Greene, and perhaps Castellanos all may be better candidates to be dealt after (hopefully) building up value during the course of the season. Suffice to say, it could end up being another relatively quiet offseason in the Motor City.