Detroit Tigers 2021 Free Agency Fits: Infielders

By William Gregory

(Photo: Evan Woodbery/MLive)

The Detroit Tigers surpassed expectations this season with a 77-85 record, and many now expect owner Chris Ilitch to start writing some sizable checks in free agency this year. With the team’s payroll sitting around $85 million, it’s perfectly reasonable to think the Tigers could get that figure up above $125 million this offseason. 

The Tigers’ infield this season was a mixed bag. Jonathan Schoop and Jeimer Candelario each followed up their resurgent 2020 seasons with great numbers in a full-season sample size this year, cementing their status as Tigers regulars for the near future. Schoop and his 110 OPS+ were rewarded with a two-year, $15 million extension. Jeimer Candelario’s 122 OPS+ was a career season, and he finished tied for the American League doubles crown. A shortcoming of his is his third base defense, which may foreshadow a move to first base. Miguel Cabrera is still on the books through 2023, and Spencer Torkelson will also be threatening for first base playing time after an electric season in Toledo. Schoop is a barely above-average defensive second baseman, so he can stick there if Willi Castro remains inconsistent. Don’t expect the front office to commit to anything at first, second, or third other than minor league deals for relatively younger guys with some pop this offseason. 

Shortstop is the glaring need in the Detroit infield, and really in the clubhouse as a whole. If the Tigers wish to keep exceeding expectations, Zack Short and Niko Goodrum won’t cut it any longer. Detroit has no real shortstop prospects currently above rookie ball, which means that they need one of the marquee guys. Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, Corey Seager, Javier Báez. Make it happen. If they don’t spend north of $20 million at the position, consider it a disappointment.

First Base – Greg Bird – Albuquerque Isotopes (COL – AAA)

Greg Bird has not played in the Major Leagues since 2019. He played in the Dominican Winter League in 2019-20 before the pandemic and he spent 2020 at the Texas Rangers alternate site. Bird has had good minor league seasons throughout his career, maintaining an .895 OPS at the AAA level over parts of 4 seasons. However, in an article with the Albuquerque Journal after the Isotopes season wrapped up, Bird said he considered this year “the best minor league season I’ve had.” He had an OPS of .894 in 2021, almost exactly his career AAA average. Given that, you wouldn’t think Bird would have been so glowing in his end of season report. The hidden factor was Bird’s emergence as the leader in the clubhouse. Manager Warren Schaeffer said, “Those guys feed off of Bird Man’s knowledge and just his promotion of everybody else.” Even after a couple injury-plagued years with the Yankees, his career is far from over.

Bird’s fit on the Tigers is clear. If he plays well in Spring, he can platoon as a left-handed first baseman and DH. Tigers at these positions, including Miguel Cabrera, Jonathan Schoop, Eric Haase, and prospect Spencer Torkelson, are all right-handed hitters. If the Tigers can pry Bird away from the Rockies organization, he could play his way onto the Major League roster rather easily. Although he struck out at a relatively high 23% clip, he walked 12.6 percent of the time and hit for big power, as evidenced by his .265 ISO. Power hitting is something the Tigers need. Given the money committed to Cabrera and Schoop, the Tigers won’t spend much at first base this offseason. Bird won’t cost much in salary, and is a decent player who has proven himself this minor league season to warrant a spot on a Spring Training roster.

Second Base – Jurickson Profar – San Diego Padres

Before his last year as a Texas Ranger, Jurickson Profar’s growth seemed to have been stunted by the mid-2010’s Rangers’ adherence to prematurely calling up many of their top prospects. Profar saw his first action at age 19. After playing either full seasons in AAA or part-time with Texas from 2012-2017, Profar emerged as a legitimate full time player in 2018, posting 2.8 WAR. He showed an ability to hit for decent power while walking and striking out in about 9% and 15% of his plate appearances, respectively. Profar had another 20 home run season in 2019 after being traded to Oakland. Although his rate stats fell considerably and he was limited to a platoon role, the primary second baseman still posted 1.3 WAR. Traded again in 2020, this time to San Diego, Profar had what could be considered a career year in the shortened season. He again posted 1.3 WAR, but in less than half the games of 2019. Moreover, with an ability to be moved all over the diamond due to the Padres’ crowded lineup, Profar provided exceptional versatility as a switch hitter.

This has all been an exercise to qualify Profar as a good major league player with prior sustained success. However, Jurickson Profar had an abysmal 2021 season. One can only speculate what would precipitate such a brutal fall. It could have been a lack of a true positional home or consistent playing time. He had both a -9.6 offensive rating and a -11.4 defensive rating, per Fangraphs. He finished with -7 Statcast Outs Above Average at a smattering of positions. Previously in his career, Profar had been able to excel at one aspect of the game while letting the other lag behind a bit, but in 2021 he was truly bad both offensively and defensively. The only solace was his career high 11.9% walk rate, which is in the 86th percentile of hitters. His low batting average is a product of Profar being a victim of a chronically low BABIP across his career. A low batting average can be okay with good power, but Profar’s isolated power and barrel rate have been declining since 2018, while his hard-hit rate has stayed relatively stagnant. 

Jonathan Schoop and Willi Castro are the Tigers in-house options at second base. Jonathan Schoop will see time at second, but the majority of his playing time will likely be at first base. Castro’s youth should allow him another chance at the keystone this year after an awful 2021. Like Profar, Castro is a switch hitter. Both would compete for a platoon role at second, and both are able to play the corner outfield. Bringing in Profar on a cheap, prove-it deal could serve the Tigers well in either reviving Profar’s career, or lighting a fire under Willi Castro to improve. If it works out well for either player, they could end up both sticking around for the full rebuild with their ability to play a handful of positions. With Jurickson entering only his age-29 season, hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh could attempt to fix his swing mechanics to get him to hit the ball harder and more consistently. The contact he makes inside the zone has good launch angles, but his swings seem to be too short, leading to low exit velocity. The chart above is his 2021 season. His 2018 exit velocities are almost all in the low 90s inside the strike zone, with some decent velocity outside the zone as well. His plate discipline and vision are strong assets already, which makes him worth a shot to work on fully unlocking his potential.

Third Base – Maikel Franco – Baltimore Orioles / Gwinnett Braves (ATL – AAA)

Jeimer Candelario solidified himself as the third baseman for this team through at least arbitration after finally breaking out in a full time 2021 season, following a great 2020. With free agent targets at the position slim this offseason, the emergence of the aforementioned Candelario, as well as a couple of promising corner infielders in Toledo, it’s safe to say that the Tigers won’t spend here in the offseason. A budget option with a bit of pop is a former Philly, Maikel Franco. Franco had a disappointing 2021 season. His walk and strikeout rates went in opposite, negative directions from his career averages, and he had problems showcasing his power even in the homer-friendly confines of Camden Yards. Career-low barrel and hard-hit rates will do that to a player. He has the ability to hit 110+ MPH missiles, but he was not able to consistently string hits like that together while in Baltimore. 

There are a couple interesting things about Franco for the Tigers to sign him to a minor league contract. For his career, the right-handed hitting Franco hits for a much better average against right-handed pitchers than lefties. Even though Jeimer Candelario is a switch hitter, he hits the ball much better against lefties. With his solid reverse splits, Franco would be able to platoon at first and third base as a pseudo-lefty. When Franco hits for anything close to a league-average BABIP, he is an above league average hitter. He has alternated positive and negative WAR seasons since 2016, with the common denominator being a positively correlated BABIP. In any given year if he’s lucky, he will end up being pretty good, as illustrated by his career numbers below. 

Lastly, Franco is a plus-defender at third base, as shown by his 2.0 UZR in 2021. In contrast, Candelario was the worst cumulative defender on the team at his primary position with -6.1 UZR. Franco most likely will not be a gamechanger, but he provides some tools that incumbent players don’t. He should be able to be signed to a cheaper deal, and hopefully his alternating WAR trend continues with a good 2022 season.

Shortstop – Trevor Story – Colorado Rockies

If there is one free agent signing that happens this offseason for the Detroit Tigers, it needs to be at shortstop. Not only is this year’s free agency class stacked with premium options, this is a position of need for which the Tigers possess absolutely no realistic organizational depth past the rookie leagues. Ryan Kreidler played a great offensive shortstop with an .803 OPS and 22 homers in Erie and Toledo this year, but he profiles as more of a backup middle infielder.

Carlos Correa would be the ideal player to become the first good shortstop for the Tigers since Jose Iglesias. However, putting Correa on the same level as Iglesias would be an immense discredit to a player who was one of the best players in baseball this year. He finished with 7.2 WAR, posting a 131 OPS+ and 12 Statcast OOA at shortstop. He ranks in the 84th and 72nd percentile for walks and strikeouts, respectively. He would certainly mesh well with former Astros and current Tigers manager AJ Hinch. With Detroit’s payroll currently so low and with Miguel Cabrera’s contract soon to be off the books, Al Avila should be inclined to give Correa a long-term deal with an average annual value surpassing $30 million dollars. 

However, Correa will most likely stay in Houston or sign elsewhere. Correa is the marquee free agent in this year’s class, so his suitors will be numerous. The expected frontrunner should be his current team, the Houston Astros, which will shed $23 million of Zach Grienke’s deal from their payroll. Correa was arguably the Most Valuable Astro this year, so it will be tough to pry him away from his current contending, large-market club. Baseball factors don’t speak to Correa’s personal life. He has been in the Houston organization for his entire professional career. He was recently married in 2019, and his wife gave birth to their first child this summer. He would be hesitant to leave Houston given these circumstances. In terms of Correa’s outside suitors, the Yankees need a shortstop after finally moving Gleyber Torres away from the position. They have in-house options to address it, but general manager Brian Cashman’s job has been threatened after another disappointing postseason. They are liable to give Correa a blank check, and it’s near impossible for the Tigers to outbid them.

Colorado Rockies shortstop Trevor Story would be the remaining free agent that fits the Tigers’ needs and future plans the most. He will demand close to what will be given out to Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, and even Javier Baez. Seager isn’t the pick because of his defensive shortcomings, and Baez’s batting profile should scare off some teams. Story provides a rare blend of power, speed, and fielding prowess that would prevent a long-term contract from becoming an albatross. The problem is that Story’s 2021 season was lackluster. 

No one can know if the tumult surrounding the Colorado Rockies franchise after the Nolan Arenado trade had any effect on Story’s play this year. It would be wrong to speculate, but the numbers he posted represent a sharp decline from what we are used to seeing. Story posted his lowest OPS+ since his first full-time season in 2017. Other than those outliers, he’s remained at least a consistent 20% above league average with the bat. It seems he was a victim of bad BABIP luck at Coors Field, with his .293 average being a career low and major departure from his career BABIP of .336. This seems to be the most reasonable explanation for his offensive struggles. His barrel rate was his highest since 2018, his average exit velocity and launch remained stagnant, and his hard-hit percentage was roughly his career average. His sweet spot percentage is the only noticeable decline, with him having 34.2% compared to 37.9% for his career. A great advantage to adding Trevor Story to a Tiger lineup is that Comerica Park would be a very welcoming home for him. 2022 would see many more dingers land in the sun-baked left field porch of Comerica Park if Story, who has always hit for power at a defense-focused position, chooses to sign with Detroit. Baseball Savant had the shortstop, who finished the year with 24 home runs, hitting 30 homers in his home stadium if they were all hit in Detroit. Compared to only the 19 he hit in Colorado, this marks a massive improvement. Story was offensively unlucky in 2021, and his career pedigree is evidence toward a bounce back in 2022. 

Story’s defensive struggles were not about bad luck, though. He finished with negative 6 Statcast Outs Above Average in 2021, equal to his career low in 2018. The good news is that Story followed up a poor defensive 2018 with 18 OOA in 2019. However, the 0 OOA Story recorded in the shortened 2020 season gives pause. 2020 and 2021 were the first consecutive non-above average seasons for Story in his career. Story did have nine Fangraphs defensive runs saved, so it remains to be seen if this is a fluke or a career trend. It is still something the Tigers should be worried about.

Every free agent signing comes with an inherent risk that it won’t work out. The consequences of that risk are more than a player making the minimum salary flaming out, owing to the money tied up by a multi-year contract. However, the Tigers avoiding free agency risk entirely would be a death sentence to this rebuild. They need a shortstop now, and waiting until the team’s young players establish themselves and hopefully sign long-term contracts would both slow the rebuild down and unnecessarily eat up payroll in the process. They need a cornerstone franchise player to take pressure off the young guys coming up. They need a player who can provide veteran leadership throughout the duration of their upcoming playoff window. These are all things that Trevor Story will provide.

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