What the Tigers know, for certain, 10 days before baseball’s Winter Meetings convene at Disney World, are their shopping specifics.
Although general manager Al Avila isn’t offering details, a person familiar with their business agenda, and who asked not to be identified, said the Tigers are following these generally acknowledged offseason outlines:
They want to sign ahead of 2018’s spring camp two lost-cost starting pitchers. And, perhaps, a reliever.
They are looking hard for a left-handed hitting outfielder.
They will be waiting Friday to see which players are “non-tendered” by their clubs, the formal term for a team not offering a 2018 contract to a player. This most often happens because of potential salary arbitration costs that a team views as not worthwhile.
The Tigers, meanwhile, are burrowing into their minor-league scouting reports in a bid to grab, for a mere $100,000, a player they might poach from another club in the Dec. 14 Rule 5 draft, which traditionally wraps up the Winter Meetings.
The Tigers have the first pick in this year’s Rule 5 draft and are almost certain to snatch a pitcher or position player who must be carried next season on their 25-man active roster. Players eligible for the Rule 5 draft have, in most cases, spent four or more seasons in the minors and haven’t been retained on a team’s 40-man roster.
One potential pick could be Travis Demeritte, 23, a second baseman and right-handed hitter who couldn’t be squeezed onto a loaded Braves team’s 40-man list. Demeritte has power and would make sense if the Tigers, as anticipated, trade Ian Kinsler, who has been part of conversations between the Tigers and multiple teams.
Another possibility: pitcher Kohl Stewart, 23, a right-handed starter and former first-round Twins pick who had knee tendinitis in 2017 and who pitched in only 17 games. He could tempt the Tigers, given their pressing rotation needs. Stewart, who is 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, has a five-season farm ERA of 3.10 and a 1.33 WHIP spanning 90 games and 462 innings.
A first priority Friday is to check baseball’s bulletin board for non-tendered players who essentially have been cut by their clubs and now rank as free agents.
The Astros were expected to non-tender starter Mike Fiers, 32, who last season had a 5.22 ERA and 1.43 WHIP in 29 games (28 starts). He could be another version of Mike Pelfrey, which appears to have been the Astros’ conclusion. Or, it’s possible the Tigers believe he could be the Fiers of 2014-15 when he had fine numbers for the Brewers and, later, Astros.
More likely, the Tigers might chomp onto Hector Rondon, a right-handed reliever who appeared this week to be out of roster room with the Cubs. It was anticipated, however, that Rondon would be an easy trade chip for Cubs GM Theo Epstein rather than a pitcher simply turned loose.
Rondon pitched in 61 games for the Cubs in 2017 and had a 4.24 ERA, although he struck out 69 batters in 57 innings. Rondon turns 30 in February.
The Tigers are being watched closely, as well, all because the team had considered non-tendering shortstop Jose Iglesias rather than pay him the $6 million-plus he stands to make in 2018 salary arbitration.
But with Kinsler a percentage bet to be dealt, the Tigers, for now, are hanging onto their middle infielders. They have Dixon Machado as insurance at short, and, potentially, as a fill-in for Kinsler. Their preference is to keep Machado as at least a back-up at shortstop, and to either sign or trade for a more mainstream second baseman should Kinsler move to a team with friendlier playoff odds than the Tigers likely can offer in 2018.
While offseason business moves at an astonishingly slow pace compared with past years, the Tigers’ heavy need remains pitching.
It is not a comforting marketplace for a team aching to sign serviceable, low-cost starters.
Those familiar with their current thinking say the Tigers more likely will wait until deep into the winter, when the free-agent market is expected to loosen, before making any major moves.
That could change if deals begin to bubble and the usual personnel rush follows. But the absence of deals late in November suggests this will be an uncommonly slow, tight-fisted offseason as teams hold onto their dollars, as well as their young talent, a trend that a year ago became more of a habit for big-league clubs.
The Tigers are trying to have it both ways. Necessarily.
They want to add serious roster help, particularly on the pitching side. But they are dealing yet with a 2018 payroll closer to $200 million than $100 million and realize salaries of that elevation are out of proportion for a rebuilding team that could lose 100 games in 2018.
The Tigers understand, also, that any players likely to be non-tendered are still being offered for trade ahead of Friday’s deadline. And they understand any player they might be targeting probably has at least minimal trade value, which is why no firm plans can be made ahead of Friday.
Teams interested in Tigers talent are, of course, welcome to stop by the store and shop in earnest. Avila is not offering discounts, but, as was made clear to 29 big-league clubs during the past year, the Tigers are happy to discuss any mutually pleasing deal, particularly if it fits with Avila’s roster re-design plans.