Detroit — It’s a futile exercise, trying to make a prioritized list of the Tigers needs going into the 2020 season. The needs are, literally, everywhere. Tigers general manager Al Avila is essentially staring into nine empty cupboards.
There isn’t one position on the field where he can say, OK, we’re good there. He’s looking at $100 million worth of needs with maybe, optimistically, $20 million to spend.
Just go around the field. Here is the working lineup — leaving the pitching needs for another discussion — as Avila prepares for the Winter Meetings on Dec. 8-12:
► C – Grayson Greiner, Jake Rogers (likely to start at Triple-A).
► 1B – Jeimer Candelario, Brandon Dixon.
► 2B – Harold Castro, Ronny Rodriguez.
► SS – Niko Goodrum, Willi Castro (likely to start at Triple-A).
► 3B – Dawel Lugo.
► LF – Christin Stewart.
► CF – JaCoby Jones (coming off wrist surgery).
► RF – Victor Reyes, Travis Demeritte (likely to start at Triple-A).
► DH – Miguel Cabrera.
Where do you start?
During the general managers’ meetings in Scottsdale earlier this month, Avila told reporters that he has put getting a veteran slugger (first basemen-DH types like Justin Smoak, Eric Thames and Mitch Moreland have been mentioned) and a veteran catcher (Alex Avila, Welington Castillo, Austin Romine) at the top of the position-player list.
Makes sense for the worst offensive team in baseball to look to add some thump, and they learned last season the folly of trying to get through a season with two unproven and inexperienced catchers. But, plug those holes and the ship will still be taking on water. The leaks are everywhere.
This is why Avila, unlike last offseason, likely will wait to see what free agents fall into the discount bins. Maybe a bounce-back candidate like Wilmer Flores, Yolmer Sanchez or Jedd Gyorko will fall into his price range. Maybe, if the prices come down enough, he will be able to plug multiple holes.
Either way, it’s not an enviable position to be in, having more needs than means. Though certainly not atypical for a team nearing the midpoint of a massive rebuilding plan. The Tigers are at least two years away from being where the Twins and White Sox are today — graduating from rebuilding to contending.
The teardown has taken three years. The rebuild starts in earnest now. The prized pitching prospects — Matt Manning, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Alex Faedo — are a year away, though one or more could debut late in 2020.
You would’ve hoped by now there’d be a couple of solid foundation pieces around the diamond, at least a couple of dynamic, encouragingly talented players to keep people interested. But that isn’t the case and the patience of the fan base has been severely strained.
They deserve more, even in a rebuild. Getting a veteran catcher seems mandatory. Adding a proven bat, regardless of position, is also vital. But, again, $20 million doesn’t go very far on the free-agent market these days.
Certainly, Avila will look to add at least another starting pitcher and bullpen piece. A bat, a catcher and two pitchers could easily eat up the entire free agent budget — just as Matt Moore, Tyson Ross, Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison did last offseason.
You can make arguments for upgrades at every position, but the infield might be less needy. Let’s say they get a player like Smoak. That will allow manager Ron Gardenhire to platoon Lugo and Candelario at third base.
Goodrum’s play at shortstop last year, albeit a 38-game sample, was intriguing. He was a plus-3 in runs saved. If he can secure that spot, then Willi Castro and Harold Castro can share second base, with Willi spelling Goodrum at short.
Surprisingly, though, the outfield seems less stable. The combined WAR of the three projected starters — Jones, Stewart and Reyes — was 0.6. Reyes had a 1.3 WAR himself. The combined defensive WAR was minus-1.4. Those numbers drop further if you include Demeritte, who was a minus-1.1 in his September audition.
For about seven weeks, Jones was one of the hottest hitters in baseball. With his speed and athleticism, he has the tools to play center field at Comerica Park and the dynamism to be a force at the top of the lineup.
But he’s going into his age-28 season, his fifth in the big leagues. He’s struck out in 32 percent of his 982 at-bats. And he’s coming off wrist surgery. Lot of questions still to be answered.
The sample size is smaller for Stewart, whose rookie season (10 home runs, 40 RBIs, .388 slugging in 104 games) fell far short of expectations. But with his obvious defensive shortcomings, particularly his arm, can you project 30 home runs and 80 RBIs, which would be necessary to offset the defense?
Baseball Reference projects 13 homers and 46 RBIs for Stewart next season.
Reyes was the Tigers’ most consistent hitter last season, though he played in just 69 games. He hit .304 with very little power and taking very few walks, though he plays above-average defense at all three outfield spots.
Time to get creative
Not a lot there and, more disconcerting, not a lot coming.
The other outfielders on the 40-man roster — not counting utility players like Rodriguez, Dixon and Harold Castro — are Demeritte, Daz Cameron, Derek Hill and Troy Stokes, Jr.
Cameron, acquired in the Justin Verlander trade, struggled in his first season at Triple-A last year — that after a strong showing at the Arizona Fall League in 2018 and with the Tigers last spring.
Stokes, a former Brewers prospect the Tigers claimed off waivers last September, is also trying to rebuild his resume after struggling in Triple-A last year.
Hill, the former first-round pick, resurrected his career with a productive season at Double-A last year but likely will spend the season at Triple-A. Outfield prospects Jacob Robson, Jose Azocar and Danny Woodrow were left off the 40-man roster.
The likes of first-round pick Riley Greene, Brock Deatherage, Parker Meadows and Roberto Campos are still at least two or three years away.
So, instead of Smoak or another first-baseman/slugger, what if a veteran outfielder like Yasiel Puig, Corey Dickerson or Avisail Garcia could be had for a year? They paid close to $8 million for Ross and Moore last season. Would it be worth ponying up a little more for one of those players — guys, especially Puig and Garcia, that you’d figure would be much easier to deal to a contender at the trade deadline?
Or, could the Tigers make a run at 28-year-old Japanese outfielder Yoshitomo Tsutsugo? Probably out of their grasp, but he’d be an exciting addition — a power-hitting outfielder.
With so little here now and nothing coming — the Tigers need to think about going way outside the box. The grow-from-within plan isn’t working and the stain of persistent losing (310 losses over the last three years) will get harder to scrub clean.
There are some positive things happening structurally. The hiring of progressive baseball minds like Dan Hubbs to oversee the pitching program, Kenny Graham to do the same for the hitting side and quality control coach Josh Paul will help bring the Tigers up to speed in player development and in their use of analytics.
And the big boys of this rebuild — Mize, Manning, et al — should start appearing on the horizon by the end of this season. But can you rightly expect a group of rookies, however talented, to walk into a big-league clubhouse, flip a switch and automatically reverse the culture?
No. So, for that reason and to keep the fan base from total disassociation, 2020 isn’t a throwaway year. And the bar, after 114 losses, isn’t high. Ninety losses would feel like a turnaround. And that, with a few shrewd moves, is within the Tigers’ grasp.