The Tigers are slated to enter the 2022 campaign with more hope than they’ve had in a long while. Detroit’s rebuild has begun to bear fruit, with the team’s above .500 showing from May 1 onwards suggesting the roster has at least progressed to respectable after a four-season stretch in which the Tigers were among the worst teams in the league.
Detroit dipped into free agency a bit last offseason, picking up Robbie Grossman and bringing back Jonathan Schoop. Those low-cost additions paid off, and both Grossman and Schoop will return in 2022 (the latter on a midseason, two-year extension). Owner Christopher Illitch suggested in August the club could make some “high-impact” additions to the roster this winter. Speaking with reporters (including Evan Woodbery of MLive, Chris McCosky of the Detroit News and Evan Petzold of the Detroit Free-Press) this afternoon, general manager Al Avila shined some light on more specific target areas for the club.
Bolstering the starting pitching is a primary goal, with Avila bluntly noting that “an established starter would be a necessity, yes. … If you can add an established starter that can give you those type of innings, that’ll be a big plus for us. If we can’t, for whatever reason, then again, we’re going to have to mix and match more often. If we could come in and sign a good, established starter to be part of that rotation, it’s a big plus. We can’t guarantee that, because I don’t know how the market is going to play out.”
Detroit has broken in young pitchers like Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning over the past couple years, but they’re lacking in veteran certainty at the moment. Excepting Mize, Spencer Turnbull and Matthew Boyd were the Tigers’ best starters this past season. Turnbull will miss most or all of next season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in July, and Boyd himself underwent a late-season elbow procedure that puts his future with the organization in question.
Boyd is expected to pitch at some point in 2022, but it’s not clear that’ll be in Detroit. The southpaw is entering his final season of arbitration eligibility and would be entitled to a raise on this year’s $6.5MM salary if tendered a contract. It’s possible Detroit non-tenders Boyd in hopes of re-signing him to a lesser salary. Doing that would give Boyd an opportunity to hear from other clubs, though, and Avila acknowledged such a scenario would involve “a decision to be made on his part, if it gets to that point.”
Regardless of whether the club tenders Boyd a contract, the season-opening rotation needs to be addressed. Manning himself struggled and could require some additional Triple-A time. Tyler Alexander had a nice season but has worked in a swing capacity throughout his career. Last offseason’s José Ureña pickup didn’t work out, while Wily Peralta quietly posted a 3.12 ERA over 92 1/3 innings but only struck out 14.4% of opposing hitters. Both Ureña and Peralta are slated to reach free agency this offseason. Reuniting with either player wouldn’t be costly, but both hurlers are better fits for the back-end of a rotation anyhow.
As always, free agency offers a wide variety of starting pitchers. Robbie Ray, Kevin Gausman, Marcus Stroman and former Tiger Max Scherzer are top-of-the-rotation arms who’ll land significant deals this winter. Jon Gray and Steven Matz are among the mid-rotation options, while there are a host of veteran innings-eater types who figure to land lower-cost one or two-year deals. Given the Tigers’ needs throughout the rotation, it seems likely Avila and his staff will try to land multiple additions, perhaps one higher-tier option and a more affordable back-end piece.
On the position player side, Avila pointed to shortstop and catcher as the most likely target areas. Niko Goodrum and Willi Castro are each coming off disappointing years, contributing to the Tigers’ cumulative .201/.275/.321 line from the shortstop position. The upcoming free agent class is loaded, and there’s already been speculation about the possibility of Astros star Carlos Correa reuniting with former Houston skipper A.J. Hinch in the Motor City. Correa’s just one of numerous options who’ll be available.
Any investment in the top of the shortstop market would certainly count as “high-impact,” but it’d require a significant expenditure. Avila didn’t rule out that possibility, telling reporters he’d have “no fear factor in signing a big contract” but cautioning that the front office doesn’t feel obligated to land a superstar in free agency.
The Tigers’ payroll outlook could certainly support such an investment, should Avila and his group zero in on Correa or any other top-of-the-market player. Detroit has just under $45MM on the books in guaranteed money for next season, in the estimation of Roster Resource’s Jason Martinez. That’s before accounting for an arbitration class that includes Turnbull, Michael Fulmer and Jeimer Candelario, but there’ll still be plenty of room if Illitch is willing to sign off on a payroll anywhere near the $160+MM range at which the franchise perennially spent before embarking on the rebuild.
With the rotation, shortstop and catching situation taking precedence, Avila downplayed the possibility of making significant alterations in the outfield. Grossman will return in a corner spot, while Akil Baddoo earned a season-opening job with an impressive performance as a Rule 5 draftee. Avila suggested top prospect Riley Greene could make an impact at some point, not surprising considering he’s begun his Triple-A career with a .308/.400/.553 line over 185 plate appearances. And the club still has Víctor Reyes and Derek Hill as in-house options capable of manning center field.
Hill, whose season ended early because of a meniscus tear in his left knee, will undergo surgery in the coming days, Hinch informed reporters. The manager downplayed the severity of the procedure, and it seems he’s expected to be ready for Spring Training. Hill’s one of numerous young players likely to take on key roles with next year’s club, but Avila’s comments unsurprisingly suggest the franchise anticipates taking further steps towards contention this winter.