Henning: Free agency not likely to help Tigers much on mound

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Doug Fister

Investigators combing the Detroit Tigers 2017 wreckage for clues to a baseball disaster have confirmed what everyone pretty much knew.

There was a catastrophic malfunction in the team’s pitching.

It’s an area in need of major upgrades. There is only one problem as Al Avila, the Tigers general manager, and his staff scour offseason shelves for help. The Tigers are still trying to chop payroll. They have a milk-and-eggs budget when T-bones are the better answer for improving a team’s most fundamental need heading into 2018.

Fans should brace for realities here. Any offseason additions aren’t likely to thrill Comerica Park customers or threaten next year’s Cy Young Award balloting.

Jaime Garcia? Doug Fister? Brett Anderson? Chris Volstad? Anibal Sanchez?

That’s about as good as it’s likely to get, given a rebuilding team’s budget and a payroll that is still too fat for a team with skills so lean. More ominous is knowing the Tigers last year used 11 different starters and that they want at least 10 stationed between Detroit and Triple A Toledo as they march toward what could be an even more bruising 2018.

Avila isn’t detailing offseason plans until the Tigers unwrap their new manager, probably the first week of November. But everyone understands certain realities, competitive and financial, as a 2018 roster is bolted together.

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The Tigers in 2017 were last among 30 big-league teams in ERA at 5.36. They were 30th in the more revealing column known as WHIP, at 1.50. They gave up more runs (894) and hits (1,587) than any other club.

They also said goodbye on Aug. 31 to Justin Verlander, one of the people who had kept a team from even more regular annihilation.

Fifth starter?

Just what can be expected to change in 2018 isn’t clear, apart from Michael Fulmer’s recovery from nerve relocation surgery, which is on track and offering comfort to a team and to its new rotation ace.

But most of last year’s battered stable returns, including Jordan Zimmermann, Matthew Boyd and Daniel Norris. One rotation spot is wide open. The need for depth at Toledo that can be delivered to Detroit the moment a starter gets hurt, or becomes so battered a return to Triple A is the only sane option, is required as desperately as that fifth rotation piece.

Anibal Sanchez 
(Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Chad Bell, Buck Farmer, Drew VerHagen, Artie Lewicki and Miles Jaye were among last year’s frequent victims. Some of them necessarily will be options in 2018.

If times and payrolls were different, the Tigers could chase bigger free-agent pitching prey: Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Lance Lynn, Andrew Cashner, Michael Pineda, C.C. Sabathia, Jhoulys Chacin, Jason Vargas, etc.

But the Tigers will be well above $100 million in salaries in 2018, which is hardly defensible when a team could be headed for 100 or more losses.

The Tigers had 20 pitchers in 2017 with ERAs above 5.00, and a flabbergasting 16 who were north of 6.00. Many of them are all but locks to start in 2018.

Boyd (5.27) and Norris (5.31) were among the plus-5.00 pitchers but have enough talent to make the Tigers believe they’ll be better in 2018.

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There are few deep assurances beyond them, which is why Avila figures to add at least one, and more likely, two new big-league starting arms to Detroit’s 40-man roster.

Sanchez finished strong for the Tigers and would be an easy name for Avila to include in next year’s plans were it not for a sticky contractual matter.

The Tigers don’t care to absorb his $16-million option for 2018 and will instead hand him an option buyout of $5 million. It does not mean they can’t re-sign him. But, of course, so can any team bring him aboard after the Tigers have cut him a $5 million severance check. Can the Tigers then out-bid another club for a pitcher who turns 34 in February and whose ERAs the past two years have been 5.87 and 6.41? Do they even care to make an overture?

Do not rush

Avila’s need to add serviceable arms is fueled by another of the team’s core convictions. The Tigers do not want to rush farm-system arms that most likely won’t begin to be big-league ready until 2019.

That invites a certain specter to next year’s Tigers landscape. Detroit’s starter, on perhaps too many days, could be a pitcher who has no great chance at lasting even six innings or holding an enemy team to even a reasonable score.

Michael Fulmer

Those conditions were the story in far too many 2017 games once Verlander departed and Fulmer was lost to nerve surgery. For anything to change substantially in 2018, Fulmer will need to throw 200 exceptional innings, Boyd and Norris must pitch with more regular mastery than either man showed in 2017, while Zimmermann is obliged to be heal from his neck issues and become the every-five-days stalwart Avila believed he was adding two years ago.

They’ll then hope their free-agent safari paid off as productively as possible, which might be a stretch when only humble help is likely to be affordable.

They will add, also, minor-league free agents and hope one or more can morph into something useable as next season’s demands pile high.

It’s not a giddy thought for fans, nor is it going to be an exhilarating task for Avila, piecing together a rotation that can keep the Tigers from a season most appraisers view as good for one thing: delivering another first overall pick in 2019.

But there will be a starting five in place next March. And reserves at Toledo. And, no doubt, a few front-office prayers offered along the way.


The Tigers are expected to sign at least one, and more likely, two free-agent starters ahead of the 2018 season. While bigger names, with more impressive numbers, don’t fit current budget outlines, among those Tigers general manager Al Avila might consider, are these men:

Jaime Garcia, 31, left-hander: He tossed for the Twins, Braves and Yankees in 2017, rolling up a plus-1.6 WAR, 27 starts, with a 4.41 ERA and 1.41 WHIP. Hardly a shutdown pitcher, he’s been traded three times in the past year but could be on Detroit’s short list.

Doug Fister, 33, right-hander: A man whose fan-approval ratings remain cloud-high in Detroit, pitched in 18 games, with 15 starts, after the Red Sox pulled him from baseball’s unemployment line. He had a 4.88 ERA and 1.38 WHIP for the Red Sox, numbers on a par with his 2016 season in Houston.

Miguel Gonzalez, 33, right-hander: Ate his share of innings (156) for the Rangers in 2017. Had a 4.62 ERA and 1.42 WHIP. About the elevation the Tigers can afford to consider in a pitcher for 2018.

Matt Garza, 33, right-hander: Not a lot of innings for the Brewers in 2017 (114 in 22 starts) and had, at best, pedestrian numbers (4.94 ERA, 1.45 WHIP), but it always comes down to scouts’ notebooks and what they believe a pitcher might next season put together.

Brett Anderson, 29, left-hander: He has pitched 175 or more innings only twice in his nine big-league seasons, but the Tigers nearly drafted him in 2006 and probably still have a soft-spot for a pitcher who, if finally healthy, would help – at least by this staff’s current standards. Career ERA of 4.04, with a 1.35 WHIP.

Twitter @Lynn_Henning