Tigers will browse carefully for free-agent pitching help

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
The Tigers could possibly pursue Edwin Jackson on the free-agent market.

A year ago the Tigers were shopping for a couple of starting pitchers who, in automobile parlance, would be called basic transportation.

They kicked tires across the free-agent lots and came away with two dependable baseball second-cars. Mike Fiers in 21 starts for the Tigers had a 3.48 ERA and 1.23 WHIP before he was dealt in August to the A’s. Francisco Liriano had occasional trouble staying in his lane, to take the auto metaphor a bit too far, but he made 26 starts and when he wasn’t walking hitters was quite good.

The Tigers paid reasonably for each: $6 million for Fiers, $4 million for Liriano, each for a single season.

Now, they’re seeking to do something similar once free-agent shopping begins in earnest next month.

The Tigers will need help even as they plan on greeting a generally intact rotation when camp begins in February.

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Michael Fulmer should be ready to roll after a 2018 season during which he and the medical staff were a bit too chummy. Jordan Zimmermann will be back for Year 4 of his five-year tenure in Detroit. Matthew Boyd, who could today be called the staff’s ace, is expected to shine, as is Daniel Norris, who might, at long last, have escaped the handcuffs of too many past and sometimes freaky injuries.

Plug in the right-handed horse who could be a difference-maker in 2019, power-armed Spencer Turnbull, and the Tigers, at least mathematically, have their starting quintet for 2019.

Two potential problems loom.

Can you expect the above five to be healthy coming out of spring camp?

Probably not. Percentages and history imply no.

Can you exclude the possibility of a trade, which has shifted focus from Fulmer and his stretches on the disabled list, to Boyd, who in 2019 became quite the pitcher?

No again. The Tigers remain, necessarily, in the business of spinning top talent for multiple roster pieces should those deals evolve. Comerica Park is headed for another year when human sacrifices must be made to appease baseball’s rebuilding gods. The Tigers have a load of good, young starting pitching due for arrival in 2020, but 2019 isn’t going to be a great deal prettier than was 2018.

It is why Tigers general manager Al Avila happily will chat during the coming weeks about Boyd, or nearly anyone else another club might find helpful. He’ll want to know in Boyd’s case if a left-handed twirler four years from free agency might be his ticket toward adding a bat or two the Tigers reconstruction project badly needs.

This, of course, was supposed to be the scenario in which Fulmer and his big right arm played a starring role. In the Tigers’ grand vision, it was Fulmer who had the best chance to trigger one of those blockbuster deals Avila and the Tigers yet need to secure.

But only if Fulmer pitches every five days, and pitches well, minus any further dalliances with the disabled list, will he by next July be marketable, which is probably closer to his shelf life as Tigers Grade A trade material.

That leaves the Tigers to plot their 2019 rotation and to ponder free-agent help Avila almost certainly will need.

Here are seven possibilities:

►Edwin Jackson, 35, 1.6 WAR for the A’s in 2018: Jackson has played for 13 big-league teams, which leaves him with 17 more to consider as he fills his one-of-a-kind collection. Of course, nothing bars him from re-upping with one of his past suitors. That seemingly could be the Tigers. He would be sweet insurance and allow the Tigers options should the usual quota of spring-camp ills and lousy outings require Avila and manager Ron Gardenhire to revamp their earlier rotation plans.

Jackson signed with the A’s in 2018 for all of $1.5 million and awarded them these numbers: 17 starts, 3.33 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. His FIP (fielding independent ERA) was a more revealing 4.65. But this is the brand of pitcher who could fit Detroit’s 2019 strategies.

►Jeremy Hellickson, 31, 1.4 WAR for the Nationals: Hellickson sprained his wrist late in the summer and made only one start after Aug. 15. He also pitched very well in his 19 starts overall: 1.07 WHIP, 4.22 FIP, with 91.1 innings, 78 hits, 65 strikeouts and 20 walks.

Hellickson was paid $2 million in 2018 and probably has hopes of helping some playoff-bound beauty in 2019. But that always depends on the market. The Tigers can’t be excluded unless they’ve excluded Hellickson.

►Derek Holland, 32, 1.8 WAR, Giants: He signed for $1.75 million in 2018 and gave the Giants a lovely return: 36 games (30 starts), 171.1 innings, 154 hits, 169 strikeouts and 67 walks. He had a 3.57 ERA and 1.29 WHIP. Good catch, but, again, probably has mightier teams in mind.

►Tyson Ross, 31, 0.9 WAR for Padres and Cardinals: Ross went to St. Louis by way of an August waiver claim and did for the year about what the Tigers would consider passable for 2019: 31 games (23 starts), 4.15 ERA, 1.30 WHIP. He made $1.75 million after initially signing a minor-league deal with the Padres.

►Trevor Cahill, 30, 1.3 WAR for A’s: Cahill was one of those typically inexpensive ($1.5 million), typically effective pitchers the A’s reconditioned and milked for optimum performance: 21 games (20 starts), 110 innings, 3.76 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 90 hits, 100 strikeouts and 41 walks.

►Brett Anderson, 30, 0.5 WAR for the A’s: Bear in mind the Tigers back in 2006 considered drafting Anderson and likely haven’t lost total interest. The A’s signed him last March to a minor-league deal before later summoning him after which he gave them 17 starts, a 4.48 ERA, and a 1.28 WHIP. He throws left-handed and turns 31 in February.

►Marco Estrada, 35, 0.6 WAR for the Blue Jays: He had a lousy year, statistically, which might be a simple product of age. This is a man with some nice work history. He’s also durable, as 28 starts in 2018 attests. If the scouts saw enough in his pitches late in the season to suggest the numbers might have been a bit distorted, Estrada could qualify for a conversation with Detroit.

It all begins in a couple of weeks — the overtures, the discussions, the negotiations, the shaking out of a market and of offers that make sense for two parties heading into 2019.

During an offseason in which the Tigers figure to add a body or two, a hunt that could easily extend until spring camp’s waning weeks, plenty of names make sense when an organization must be as open-minded as a certain team from Detroit.


Twitter: @Lynn_Henning