If Tigers Want To Spend In 2021, Who Could They Sign?

Just for fun, here are 10 candidates.

Will Burchfield
January 31, 2019 - 11:39 am

© Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

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At long last, Al Avila said it. Well, kind of.

For the first time since the Tigers set out on a new track in the 2016 offseason, Avila, speaking to reporters last week as the team’s winter caravan kicked off, offered the semblance of a timeframe for the rebuild. 2021 stands to be a defining year. The Tigers might not be reestablished as contenders by then, Avila cautioned, but they'll be positioned again to start spending like it.

"I can’t give you a timeframe as far as when we’re going to be in the playoffs because so much depends on health and, of course, performance is foremost. And those are hard things to predict, when everything’s going to click together. But I will say this...after 2020 our payroll will be in a lot better place for us to be aggressive going into 2021," Avila said as the Tigers winter caravan kicked off. 

"Is 2021 the time to start spending some money? I don’t know," he went on. "I do know that we will have some money by 2021 to start going out there (in free agency). I’ve talked to Chris Ilitch and I know that, whether it be 2021, 2022, at that point we will be in a place from a payroll perspective where I want to be, where I’m comfortable, where financially I know we’re in a good place."

Why 2021? Most significantly, it's when Jordan Zimmermann's $25 million salary comes off the books. By then, all that will be left of the Tigers' free-spending era -- the one that demanded this rebuild in the first place -- will be the contract of Miguel Cabrera, which runs through 2023.

Meanwhile, several of the organization's top-ranked prospects should be in position to make an impact at the big-league level. The team should be trending up. Should the roster need augmenting -- and it will -- Avila will have the wherewithal to make a splash or two in free agency. 

Which got us wondering -- who might be out there?

A couple caveats, before we go any further. 

For one, it's impossible to know for sure where the Tigers will be looking for help two years from now. But we can do our best to extrapolate based on the current roster and the prospect pool. For another, there are a few big-name free-agents-to-be who will either be extended before they hit the open market or command the kind of gargantuan contracts the Tigers will surely want to avoid. (The Cabrera deal is their very own cautionary tale.) So, sadly, cross candidates like Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and George Springer off the list.

To reiterate: young superstars rarely hit free agency. There are 260 projected unrestricted free agents in 2021, per Spotrac.com, just 15 of whom will be under 30 that season. The best of them right won't even be on the board. 

And lastly, this is for fun. We’re in the midst of a polar vortex here, baseball is a speck on the grey horizon, and the cold won’t break for the Tigers anytime soon. Before we dive into another 90-plus loss season, let’s entertain brighter days – days of star players and competitive baseball. Can we allow ourselves a little happiness?

Break out the checkbook, Al. Here are 10 free agents the Tigers could take a run at in 2021.

Jacob deGrom, SP

I know, I know. We said cross the big names off the list. deGrom just put up one of the most dominant seasons in baseball history to win the NL Cy Young. But he’ll be 33 in the 2021 season, and he doesn’t have a clean bill of health. If the generally-frugal Mets let him hit free agency, it could be the perfect time for the Tigers to strike. A rotation full of young arms will likely need an ace, and a vet like deGrom would be a stabilizing presence.

J.T. Realmuto, C

Both now and in the future, catcher is an uncertain position for the Tigers. Jake Rogers is a well-regarded prospect, but there are questions about his bat. And the Tigers have very little insurance behind him. Realmuto, one of the best all-around catchers in baseball, could fit Detroit’s needs well come 2021. He’ll turn 30 that March. Of course, with the Marlins likely to trade him before he hits free agency, an extension with his next team could take him off the market.

Yasmani Grandal, C

See above. Grandal isn’t quite the hitter that Realmuto is, and he’ll be two years older in 2021. But he has the second most home runs among catchers over the last three seasons and he’s a stud behind the plate. In regard to both Realmuto and Grandal, don’t underestimate the value of a veteran backstop for a young pitching staff. BUT GRANDAL CAN’T HIT IN THE PLAYOFFS! Ahh, the playoffs. Wouldn’t that be nice.

Joc Pederson, LF

Avila has done a fine job the past two years of restocking the farm system with position players. But the Tigers are still thin on outfielders and even thinner on power hitters. If Christin Stewart doesn’t pan out in left field the next two years, Detroit could look Pederson’s way. He’s coming off a season in which he hit 25 homers with an .843 OPS, and he looks like the odd man out in a crowded Dodgers outfield. He’ll be 29 in 2021.

Jose Quintana, SP

2021 is shaping up to be the Year of the Pitcher for the Tigers. But not all those young arms will make it, and the Tigers can’t build a rotation strictly on rookies, anyway. Michael Fulmer, Matthew Boyd and Daniel Norris are all uncertain pieces of the future. Quintana, who will be 32 in 2021, would add a durable, left-handed arm to what projects as a righty-heavy rotation.

Jackie Bradley Jr., CF

JaCoby Jones will get a shot to prove himself as Detroit’s everyday centerfielder this season. After that, the opportunity will fall to Daz Cameron. After that, it’s anybody’s job. The Tigers haven’t had an established center fielder since Austin Jackson in 2014. They’ll need one if they’re ready to contend come 2021, and Bradley Jr., who will turn 31 that season, could fit the bill. His offense has tumbled a bit since his All-Star season in 2016, but he still has elite speed and remains a solid all-around player at his position.

Blake Treinen, RP

Surprise, surprise; the Tigers are going to need help in the bullpen. 2018 All-Star Joe Jimenez is the only reliever on the current roster you can comfortably say will be here in 2021. Odds are one of the up-and-comers ends up in the bullpen as well, but who knows to what effect. For a team in need of a “fireman,” Treinen would do the trick. He was quite arguably the best reliever in baseball last season, and the thrifty A’s aren’t likely to throw money at a pitcher who turns 33 in 2021.

Trevor Rosenthal, RP

Similar to Realmuto-Grandal, with Rosenthal (likely) being a lower-cost option to Treinen. We’ll know more about his value after this season as Rosenthal missed all of last year due to Tommy John. He was dealing before he got hurt in 2017 – career-high 14.3 K/9 – and could well revive his career the next two seasons with the Nationals. If he does, the Tigers should give the flame-thrower a call in 2021. He’ll be 31 that season. By the way – unreal playoff numbers.

Matt Carpenter, 1B/3B

The Tigers are going to need someone to man first in 2021. It won’t be Cabrera, who by then will be a full-time DH. And the pipeline is dry at that position. If the team is ready to contend two years from now, Carpenter, who will be 35, could be a quality short-term add. He’s got middle-of-the-order pop and he can play all over the infield. He’s making the switch back to third this season for the Cardinals, which could actually work for the Tigers if Jeimer Candelario makes the reverse move in the years ahead.

Jake Lamb, 3B

Indeed, Candelario isn’t necessarily entrenched at third base. He certainly looks like part of the Tigers’ future, but a switch to first isn’t out of the question. (Admittedly, this is more to do with prospect Isaac Paredes than Candelario.) If the Tigers find themselves with a need at third in 2021, Lamb, who smacked 30 homers in 2017, would be a great get. He’s still just 28 and a candidate for a long-term extension with the D-backs, but keep him on the radar.

Bonus: Nelson Cruz, DH

How do you stop a noted Tiger killer from killing the Tigers?? YOU PUT HIM ON THE TIGERS.