The ill-fated Miguel Cabrera extension is off the books in Detroit, leading to the most payroll flexibility the team has had in quite some time. As it stands, the only three players on guaranteed contracts for the 2024 season are Javier Baez, Mark Canha and Carson Kelly. That trio combines for $40MM in guaranteed salary. Only Baez is signed beyond the 2024 season. Detroit also has a small arbitration class. Left-hander Tarik Skubal, righty Casey Mize, catcher Jake Rogers and outfielder Akil Baddoo project to earn a combined $7.5MM, per MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz.
Suffice it to say, there’s ample payroll space available in the Motor City. Detroit trotted out a payroll as high as $200MM back in 2017, albeit under the ownership of the late Mike Ilitch. Since his son, Chris, took over as the team’s control person, the Tigers haven’t fielded an Opening Day payroll north of $135MM. Then again, the Tigers have been rebuilding for much of Chris’ time in charge of the club, so aggressive spending hasn’t typically on the radar.
Many Tigers fans entered the current offseason expecting some degree of change in that regard, however. The AL Central is perhaps the sport’s weakest division, and the Tigers have some interesting young players emerging to form a core group. Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene both took big steps forward in 2023. Skubal returned from flexor surgery and pitched like a genuine top-of-the-rotation arm. Reese Olson looks like a mid-rotation piece. Kerry Carpenter has swatted 26 homers and hit .277/.334/.473 in his first 149 big league games. Former No. 1 overall pick Casey Mize will come back from Tommy John surgery in 2024. Jason Foley, Will Vest, Tyler Holton and Alex Lange all had nice years in the bullpen (Lange’s command issues notwithstanding). It’s easy to see the reasons for optimism.
At the same time, that doesn’t necessarily portend a return to the Tigers’ former status as one of the league’s most aggressive offseason spenders. For one thing, the now-former front office regime helmed by Al Avila attempted to reestablish the Tigers as just that when signing Baez and Eduardo Rodriguez. The former hasn’t worked out at all and now stands as one of baseball’s most immovable/undesirable contracts. The latter performed well enough to opt out of the remaining three years and $49MM after an uneven tenure in Detroit.
New president of baseball operations Scott Harris will surely be wary of further saddling the team with unwanted contracts. His most recent organization — the Giants, where he was GM — has a recent track record of clearly preferring shorter-term, manageable commitments in free agency. They haven’t inked a free agent for more than three years under Farhan Zaidi’s watch as president of baseball operations. That doesn’t mean Harris will operate from the exact same playbook, but it’s notable context nonetheless.
To that end, the general expectation surrounding the Tigers this winter has been that the team will at least one, if not two arms in free agency. Adding a bat to the middle of the lineup also seems like a sensible enough fit. The question is: to what extent are the Tigers willing to spend?
Recent reports have indicated that the Tigers have interest in both Seth Lugo and Kenta Maeda, for instance, but Evan Petzold of the Detroit Free Press wrote this morning that the Tigers prefer Lugo on a one-year deal. He’s understandably seeking a three-year pact after a breakout 2023 campaign. Petzold also reports that rebound candidate Luis Severino is on the Tigers’ radar. He’s likely to sign a one-year deal this winter. Maeda is generally expected to sign for no more than two years. Between those three targets, a preference for shorter-term additions seems to be on the table for the Tigers.
Cody Stavenhagen of The Athletic frames things similarly in his latest mailbag, writing that the Tigers seem likelier to dish out multiple short-term deals — similar to last year’s one-year pact with Michael Lorenzen — than they are to ink a notable arm on a heftier deal. The Tigers reportedly checked in on Lance Lynn before he signed a one-year, $11MM deal with the Cardinals. Stavenhagen suggests that contracts of that nature (and the Cardinals’ one-year, $12MM deal with Kyle Gibson) are roughly what one could expect the Tigers to offer in free agency. Similarly, he writes that Canha could be the team’s most significant position-player acquisition this winter.
There’s no firm indication that the Tigers won’t be a bit more aggressive in free agency and pursue some notable names on multi-year deals. Unexpected market circumstances can always emerge, perhaps leading a team to land a major free agent they never expected early in the winter. The Twins surely didn’t enter the 2021-22 offseason expecting to sign Carlos Correa, for instance, and the Tigers’ ample flexibility leaves them open for opportunistic adds of that nature, should they arise.
The trade market also can’t be discounted as a means of adding some notable talent. Harris and his staff proved over the past year that they’re plenty willing to make deals with other clubs. Since the beginning of last offseason, Detroit has traded Joe Jimenez to Atlanta and Gregory Soto and Michael Lorenzen to Philadelphia (in separate swaps). The Tigers picked up Zach McKinstry in a spring trade with the Cubs earlier this year and added Canha in a deal with Milwaukee just a few weeks ago. It’s perfectly reasonable to think they might be more active in trades than in free agency; some combination of both avenues is likely at the end of the day.
However, those hoping for a bigger splash may want to look back to Harris’ comments earlier this month when asked about having sufficient resources to sign a premier free agent (link via Chris McCosky of the Detroit News): “If we feel like we are close enough to where a big free agent pushes us over the edge, sure, we have an ownership that’s going to support us to be able to do that. But, as this game has taught us time and time again, sometimes, teams over-estimate their proximity to being a team that’s right on the verge of the playoffs, and they spend a lot of money and it doesn’t push them forward. It pushes them back. We have to be really careful.”