The Tigers continue to cast a wide net in free agency as they attempt to build off an encouraging 2021 season. MLB Network’s Jon Morosi reports that the team has already spoken to representatives for six of this winter’s premier middle infielders (Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Trevor Story, Javier Báez, and Chris Taylor). Morosi notes in a separate tweet that there’s some industry uncertainty over whether the Tigers would sign a player in the $250MM range, but that may have less to do with the team’s regard for the free agent shortstops and more to do with Detroit’s rotation needs.
It’s commonplace for teams to perform due diligence checks with agents in the offseason, even if the team isn’t optimistic about its chances to sign a certain player. Still, there is a perception among some in the sport that a few teams could be aggressive and move quickly in their pursuit of high-end free agents. The Tigers were among the teams listed as candidates to sign prominent players before the current CBA expires.
Detroit can afford to be opportunistic in the very literal sense that they have a ton of open payroll space. Even after extending Jonathan Schoop and their recent acquisition of Tucker Barnhart, the team has a projected 2022 payroll of just $93MM per Roster Resource. Non-tenders would shrink that estimate even further, and Detroit has a few prominent non-tender candidates (most notably Matthew Boyd) on large projected arb salaries. Given that the Tigers ran out a $200MM roster as recently as 2017, it’s easy to see the current payroll swelling in order to fling open the team’s competitive window.
Owing to this financial flexibility and a middle-infield that collectively posted a sub-.700 OPS last season, it’s understandable why the team would zero in on the solutions presented on the open market. Complicating this approach, however, is that Detroit has a very young rotation that posted middling run-prevention numbers last year.
The high-upside group of starters is likely to tap into some of its potential with more experience, but there’s validity in surrounding this pitching core with more proven commodities. After all, even if the team is hopeful each of Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Matt Manning take a step forward, certain rotation-wide stats like a 4.66 FIP (4.17 ERA) and a low 18.8% strikeout rate portray a staff that is very much headed for regression.
Those three youngsters, of course, were not the only members of this past season’s rotation. Both Boyd and Spencer Turnbull soaked up innings for Detroit in 2021, providing some of the best numbers the pitching staff had to offer. Unfortunately, both players saw their productive seasons end prematurely. Boyd pitched to a personal-best 3.89 ERA across 15 starts for the team before being shut down to undergo forearm surgery that looks likely to lead to him being let go.
The 29-year-old Turnbull was amidst an even stronger season. Through eight starts and 50 innings, the right-hander posted a 2.88 ERA with superb command and ground-ball tendencies, to say nothing of the no-hitter he twirled against Seattle in May. News broke that Turnbull would require Tommy John surgery in July and, similar to Boyd, will likely miss the majority of the 2022 season. While the injury-created voids in next year’s rotation are far from ideal, one silver lining is that Detroit will at least maintain control of Turnbull through the 2024 season (barring changes to the service time structure in the next CBA).
Taking a two-pronged approach to the free agent market makes perfect sense then, since the Tigers can invest just about any level of resources to upgrade their middle infield and then use another chunk of their payroll to buttress their rotation. Detroit has already been linked to a number of mid-rotation starters, giving them multiple avenues to make a splash this offseason.