At last month’s trade deadline, Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila publicly stated that his team was “trying to get better. We’re not rebuilding anymore. We’re building.”
Early this month, team owner Christopher Ilitch was asked about the future for his club, and whether he would open the checkbook to bring free agents to Detroit.
“I am very much supportive of approach that [Avila has] taken of building a young core of talent,” Ilitch said. “[And] now having the desire to bring in high-impact players to fill that out. I’m very supportive of that.”
Does that mean Ilitch would pursue top name free agent players this off-season? Even if he does, how much would that improve the team’s chances to compete for a playoff spot in 2022?
A Brief Primer On The Tigers History in Free Agency
The last time the Tigers spent money to get themselves out of a losing cycle was in 2004-05. That’s when Ilitch’s father romanced Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez and convinced the future Hall of Fame catcher to come to the Motor City. The following off-season in 2005, almost a year to the day that Pudge signed with the Tigers, the team inked a deal with free agent outfielder Magglio Ordóñez.
With those two signings and the rapid-fire development of a few young players, the Tigers shot to contention in 2006, making the playoffs and shocking the baseball world by advancing to the World Series. Thus began the longest sustained stretch of success in franchise history.
But it’s important to note that the teams that won the 2006 pennant, and went to an extra game to decide a division title in 2009, and won four straight division crowns from 2011-14, were also sculpted through clever trades and roster management. Yes, Mike Ilitch opened his vault and signed some free agents, but that wasn’t the primary way the team enjoyed success. It required a melding of signings, waiver pickups, trades, and player development. That period was orchestrated by Dave Dombrowski, a brilliant front office figure who guided the franchise to one-third of their post-season appearances during his successful tenure in Detroit.
Current World Series Odds for the Detroit Tigers
If you’re reading this article, you already know the Tigers are not going to make the playoffs this season. While they are improved over the previous four years of horrid play, the team is headed for their fifth consecutive losing season. Dress it up nice all you want and talk about young prospects, but the Tigers have few high-caliber major leaguers on their roster, and given a reliance on “the kids” in ’22, they would be assured of another season with more L’s than W’s.
Odds for the 2022 World Series won’t come out until the completion of this year’s playoffs, but we can learn a lot about how the sportsbooks see the Tigers by looking at the ’21 odds:
Players The Tigers Could Pursue To Become a Playoff Contender in 2022
According to Spotrac, the Tigers team payroll ranks 23rd in MLB for 2021, with a total somewhere around $85 million. This off-season they should shed about $16 million from expiring contracts, but they will add at least that much in pay increases to arbitration eligible players. The team will have about $85 million allocated for the ’22 season, leaving no savings to go on a spending spree.
But the franchise is still well below previous spending levels. In 2016 they had a payroll over $210 million, and as recently as 2020 they were still above the $100 million mark. Ilitch The Younger could conceivably spend $50 million (in annual salary) to add new players this off-season and still be far below the spending levels of his old man.
Where might the Tigers spend $50 million this winter?
Carlos Correa, Shortstop (age 26)
The Tigers need an upgrade at nearly every lineup position other than second base, where they re-signed Jonathan Schoop to a very affordable two-year, $15 million contract. Schoop is not a star, but he’s a solid big leaguer who gives A.J. Hinch the luxury of using him at multiple positions, which is key today’s game.
The Tigers could make a splash by signing one of the top free agent shortstops. Correa, who played for Hinch in Houston, will be testing the market for the first time. He’s putting together another fine year, with an OPS+ of 131 and Gold Glove quality defense. He rejected a five-year deal from Houston during spring training that would have paid him about $21 million per year. Last season, Fernando Tatis Jr. inked a 10-year deal to stay in San Diego that will pay him an average annual salary of $34 million. Correa won’t quite command Tatis money, but he should fetch somewhere around $28-30 million per with probably five years minimum. The Tigers wouldn’t be crazy to come in with a longer guaranteed deal with an annual average salary of $28 million (say $225 million for eight years).
Correa would be a franchise cornerstone, much like Pudge and Miguel Cabrera were. With him in tow, the Tigers could start building a winner, and attract marquee free agents in the future.
Other options at shortstop: Corey Seager, Trevor Story, Marus Semien. Because they are older than Correa and Seager, the other two shortstops could be had for less money overall.
Jonathan Villar, OF/IF (age 30)
Villar would come fairly cheaply. He’s earning about $3.5 million in 2021, and having a fine season for the Mets. There are a lot of things to like about him: he is a switch-hitter, he can play the outfield, shortstop, third, and second base, and he has speed and decent power. He’s a nice Swiss Army Knife type player. He’s been a bright spot as a jack-of-all trades in ’21, and will get a pay raise in the free agent market, but could be had for close to or maybe even less than the Tigers paid Schoop ($7.5 million).
Wade Miley, Starting Pitcher (age 35)
Miley can opt-out of his contract with the Reds, and he might because he’s having a career year (2.88 ERA in 23 starts). Because of his age and inconsistent results, he won’t get top-dollar as a free agent, but will still fetch somewhere in the $13-15 million range. He may be willing to accept a two-year deal with a club option for a third. He’d give the Tigers a veteran lefty in a rotation that’s sure to be very inexperienced in 2022.
Other pitching options: Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer. Sound familiar? Both former Tigers will be on the market this off-season. For different reasons, they will not get the type of money they once earned in their prime. Verlander missed all but one start in 2020, and has missed the entire ’21 season with Tommy John surgery. His future is uncertain, but given his reputation as a tireless competitor, I would be willing to wager that JV will return to status as one of the most dependable pitchers in the game. Scherzer is younger than Verlander, but he has a lot of mileage on his arm. He is having a great season as a late-season ace for the Dodgers, so his price might be too steep for the Tigers. Ultimately, while fans may dream of a reunion in Detroit with Mad Max and JV, it’s not very likely the team will pay for the latter stages of their careers.
For somewhere just over $50 million per year, the Tigers could probably make a run at Correa, Villar, and Miley. Or Seager in place of Correa, and another second tier starting pitcher. If they did, the lineup and infield defense would be improved, and the team would be making a point that they were ready to grab a playoff spot.
But even with those additions, the Tigers still have a young starting rotation and several lineup pieces still percolating in the farm system. It would be no guarantee that they could jump to the 88-92 wins it would take to fight for a playoff slot.