The Tigers announced that they have signed right-hander Jack Flaherty to a one-year, $14MM deal. He can also earn an extra $1MM in bonuses based on games started: $250K for 26 and 28 starts, then another $500K for 30. Flaherty is a client of CAA Sports.
Just 28 years old, Flaherty isn’t all that far removed from looking like one of the National League’s budding young aces. The former first-rounder was one of the sport’s top all-around prospects prior to making his big league debut, which came in 2017.
The following year saw the California native pitch to a sharp 3.34 earned run average through 151 big league innings, but Flaherty’s best work came, of all times, during the juiced-ball season in 2019. That year’s 2.75 ERA, 29.9% strikeout rate, 7.1% walk rate and 1.15 HR/9 would be strong marks in any season but were especially impressive during the highest run-scoring environment since the steroid era. Two teams broke MLB’s single-season home run record that year, and yet while many pitchers throughout the league posted career-worst marks, Flaherty shined at his absolute brightest.
Unfortunately for both Flaherty and the Cardinals, that brilliant start to his career didn’t hold up. Injuries, primarily shoulder issues, conspired to limit Flaherty to just 154 1/3 innings over the next three seasons combined. During that time, he worked with slightly lesser velocity (93.9 mph) than his 94.5 mph peak, and his walk and home-run rates trended in the wrong direction. Overall, he posted a 3.90 earned run average but was limited to 32 starts (and another three bullpen outings).
The 2023 season for Flaherty was split between the Cardinals and the Orioles, who acquired him in a trade deadline deal sending lefty Drew Rom and prospects Cesar Prieto and Zack Showalter from Baltimore back to St. Louis. It was a mixed bag of a season for the righty. On the one hand, Flaherty’s 27 starts and 144 1/3 innings clearly made for his healthiest season since that brilliant ’19 effort. On the other, his 4.99 ERA was a career-worst (outside of a 21-inning sample as a rookie in 2017). His 22.8% strikeout rate was about average, but Flaherty’s 10.6% walk rate was elevated and his 93.2 mph average heater was down even further.
Despite the poor 2023 showing, Flaherty drew interest from at least the Pirates, Royals and Tigers — though his market surely included other suitors. There’s good sense in taking a flier on Flaherty, given his age, former prospect pedigree and the heights he reached earlier in his career.
As we noted on our Top 50 Free Agent Rankings, while we predicted a three-year pact for the righty — presuming a team would extend a multi-year pact in hopes of acquiring a below-market bargain — a straight one-year pillow deal always figured to be on the table. With strong results this year Flaherty can return to the market as a 29-year-old in position for a much more lucrative deal. The downside, of course, is that with another lackluster performance, Flaherty could well hit the market with considerably less earning power and no interest on multi-year contracts. Despite that potential, he’ll bet on himself with the more traditional approach and hope to cash in a year from now.
Should things play out that way, it’ll be to the benefit of the Tigers, who’ll not only have the opportunity to help Flaherty return to something resembling his peak levels but — if things play out that way — extend a qualifying offer to the righty. There’s a long way to go before that scenario is in play, but Flaherty’s early-career performance shows that he clearly has the talent to merit that type of offer when he’s at his best.
Flaherty becomes the second free-agent addition to what will be a dramatically different Tigers rotation than the one we saw in 2023. Gone is veteran lefty Eduardo Rodriguez, who opted out of the three years and $49MM on his contract and scored a four-year, $80MM deal with the NL champion D-backs. Flaherty and righty Kenta Maeda, fresh off an excellent finish to his ’23 campaign with the division-rival Twins, will take up the mantle of veteran rotation leaders for skipper AJ Hinch.
Not only will the Tigers have that newly signed pair of arms, they’ll also welcome 2018 No. 1 overall pick Casey Mize back into the fold after a season lost to Tommy John surgery. Standout lefty Tarik Skubal returns as the team’s top starter, and the quartet of Skubal, Flaherty, Maeda and Mize will be joined by some combination of Reese Olson, Matt Manning and Sawyer Gipson-Long. Olson, in particular, had a solid rookie campaign. Manning, meanwhile, is a former first-round pick and top prospect himself — one who’ll be looking for better luck in 2024. In astonishing fashion, Manning suffered a broken left foot on two different occasions, both upon being struck by a comeback liner (once in April and again in September).
With Flaherty’s $14MM salary added to the books, the Tigers’ payroll projection climbs north of $104MM. That’s still quite a ways down from last year’s $135MM Opening Day mark — due in no small part to Miguel Cabrera’s retirement — and nowhere close to the franchise-record $200MM mark. The Tigers will surely want to leave ample playing time for young, potential core pieces like Mize, Skubal, Manning, Olson, Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson, Kerry Carpenter and prospects Colt Keith and Justyn-Henry Malloy. But there’s still enough payroll space for the team to make some further additions, perhaps in the bullpen or on the bench.