Bob Wojnowski, Lynn Henning and Chris McCosky wrap up the season for the 2018 Detroit Tigers. The Detroit News, The Detroit News
Those studying the Tigers 2019 roster will note a couple of Florida-style sinkholes that have ripped open the past couple of weeks.
There is no starting shortstop. Nor is there a starting second baseman the team would prefer to anoint well ahead of 2019 spring camp.
Various names could be tied to Detroit once the World Series has ended and baseball’s offseason shopping mart formally opens doors.
Adeiny Hechavarria and Jordy Mercer make sense as the Tigers consider dual position answers. Never mind that neither is ideal, nor will either gent please fans who want Tigers general manager Al Avila to acquire roster help a good deal sturdier than the team can probably attract.
Asdrubal Cabrera, Alcides Escobar, and, in an overly broad discussion, Logan Forsythe and Daniel Murphy, could conceivably be talked about, given that the Tigers happen also to be mulling help at designated hitter and first base.
Up-the-middle talent is needed now that Jose Iglesias has departed for free agency and the Tigers hunt for a replacement who doesn’t look as if he’ll be a re-signed Iglesias.
Meanwhile, with the team preferring to use Niko Goodrum as an all-purpose super-sub, and with Dawel Lugo demonstrating that he needs time, perhaps a lot of it, at Triple A, the Tigers would welcome a safe, inexpensive, short-term answer at second base.
Or the option might be to sign one player who can play either spot and then trust the 2019 roster’s diversity to fill in based on that day’s lineup needs.
“We have to look at the whole picture,” said Avila, which was his way of saying much remains fluid in terms of player availability, signing requirements, and ultimate strategies about those middle-infield vacancies.
What is known is the Tigers will focus most directly on shortstop. The position is an infield’s hub and nerve center. It is either a pitcher’s best friend, or, if glovework isn’t up to code, it’s a pitcher’s and team’s daily defensive challenge.
The Tigers for five years could trust Iglesias’ steady hands and throws. They won’t be interested in compromising when a new shortstop arrives.
Second base offers a bit more wiggle room. Defense is important there, as well, but the Tigers have Goodrum as at least an acceptable part-time option. One guess is Avila and his lieutenants will sign a player who can handle either position and then count on various roster handymen to offer plug-in help for manager Ron Gardenhire.
Guidelines will be followed as the Tigers begin shopping:
►It’s all but certain Avila will be interested in offering only a one-year contract. Rookies (Willi Castro, Kody Clemens, perhaps Sergio Alcantara, possibly Isaac Paredes) are scheduled for arrival in 2020 and the Tigers aren’t interested in adding expensive carryover luggage past next season.
►There are few trade routes available. It’s possible the Tigers could make an inexpensive deal for short-term help, but it’s not as likely as signing relatively inexpensive people who can get them through 2019.
That leaves a handful of prime candidates who could ease Avila’s infield anxiety. Among possible, if not probable, names:
►Hechavarria, 29, Yankees: He is a free agent with a standout skill of particular appeal to the Tigers: He can pick it at shortstop. Granted, he is not much of a stick, which is why he already has played for five big-league teams. But he beats by a mile the offense Detroit would get from another slick-fielding shortstop employed the Tigers in 2018: Pete Kozma.
Consider his numbers since 2015 in Defensive Runs Saved, and Ultimate Zone Rating based on 150 games.
Iglesias, for example, has a startlingly low DRS of net-five during those four seasons, based on Fangraphs calculations. Hechavarria during the same stretch is plus-23 DRS, even as he has played fewer than 100 games each of the past two seasons.
Iglesias’ UZR/150 during those four years: 2.9, 12.2, 10.2, and 9.7. Hechavarria counters with 12.0, 7.0, 9.0, and 4.3.
Hechavarria and his reps no doubt will want a multi-year deal. The Tigers will prefer to offer a single season, although these things have a way of working out when a player’s career offensive numbers are a .254 batting average and .635 OPS, with 28 home runs in seven big-league seasons.
Fans, again, will want someone with a bigger bat. But the Tigers understand this is a short-term, defense-first decision. Hechavarria could be their most practical answer.
►Cabrera, 33 (Nov. 13), Phillies: Cabrera is a switch-hitter who would excite Comerica's customers who like hitting and recognizable names. Playing the past season for the Phillies and Mets, he had 23 homers, a .262 batting average, .774 OPS, and a WAR of 0.7.
He is a free agent who can also play second base. And he plays second base about as badly these days as he plays shortstop. He is a negative on DRS and has negative UZR/50 numbers at either position.
The Tigers during their reincarnation are emphasizing defense and, at least ostensibly, proper baseball protocol. Cabrera isn’t a player who measures up in ways Gardenhire, to name one man in charge, would appreciate.
►Mercer, 32, Pirates: Mercer is not a bad shortstop. And he carries almost a .700 career OPS, with capacity to hit an occasional home run. He also has played second base during his seven-year, big-league career. His issue, like Cabrera’s, is primarily defense: negative numbers in 2018 on DRS and on UZR/50. The Tigers likely aren’t biting.
►Escobar, 32 (Dec. 16), Royals: Same story here as with Cabrera and Mercer. He has problems in the field, not to mention at the plate, which is how you end up with a minus-0.7 WAR for 2018. The Tigers will pass, thank you.
There will be similar considerations, of course, at second base, but for the Tigers any second baseman considered probably needs to double as a shortstop.
That excludes Forsythe, not that Forsythe didn’t exclude Forsythe with a horrible 2018 season. He is a free agent and second baseman with some past quality numbers that for whatever reason didn’t transfer to the Dodgers and Twins in 2018. There will be no interest in this free agent, at least in Detroit.
Murphy? Now you’re talking. Except …
Murphy is a hitter more than a fielder, and while you can use him at first base or in the outfield, or of course as a DH, all of which would entice Detroit, second base would be his preferred position at Comerica. That simply isn’t happening, for various reasons, beginning with the reality Murphy can hit and will want to tag on almost certainly with a true contender in 2019, which doesn’t figure to be Detroit.
That leaves the front office to meet this week in Lakeland, Fla., for its annual October organizational meetings. The group will kick around names and potential targets as the Tigers prepare to add players and remedies ahead of 2019.
And, at their most private moments, it is reasonable to wonder if some of those players to be pursued leave them not a lot more excited about possibilities than fans who would just as soon get started, now, with 2020.