The initial weeks of Major League Baseball’s offseason featured a flurry of activity as uncertainty surrounding the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement and a lockout loomed.
Having been in a rebuild since the summer of 2017, there was significant progress made on the field during the 2021 season for the Detroit Tigers under first year manager A.J. Hinch. This, combined with uber prospects Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene banging loudly on the door to the Majors, meant the time was finally right for the Tigers to switch into a more competitive mode. While it seems more likely Greene will crack the Opening Day lineup than Torkelson at this point in time, both seem poised to make their debuts with the Tigers at some point in 2022. Due to these facts, it was clear entering the offseason that the team was going to be actively involved in free agency for the first time in a number of years.
It didn’t take long for the Tigers offseason to get underway as it was announced the team acquired Tucker Barnhart from Cincinnati on the very first day of the offseason.
Prior to the deal, the 30-year-old Barnhart had spent the entirety of his Major League career as a member of the Cincinatti Reds organization. Barnhart played in parts of 8 seasons with the Reds where he hit for a career 82 wRC+ and .301 wOBA. While Barnhart has a below-average hit tool, he has particularly struggled against breaking balls in his Major League career and has finished near the bottom of the league in average exit velocity in each season which Statcast Data is available.
While he certainly doesn’t stand out for his contributions on the offensive side of the ball, Barnhart will fill in nicely with the young pitchers on the Tigers roster due to the value he provides behind the plate. While Barnhart has always been known for this defensive value, he has also noticeably improved as a pitch framer over recent years.
While the team got a breakout performance from Eric Haase in 2021, the organization was thin at catcher following Jake Rogers Tommy John surgery in September. While it looks like Dillon Dingler is going to be the catcher of the future in Detroit, he struggled in Double-A to close out the 2021 season and isn’t yet Major League ready (I wrote in more detail about Dingler and Torkelson following some live looks last summer here). The acquisition of a two-time Gold Glove Award Winner in Barnhart will provide Detroit with a proven commodity behind the plate in the meantime.
Going back to Cincinnati in the deal was minor league third-baseman Nick Quintana. Quintana, the 2019 second round pick out of Arizona, came into the Tigers organization with some high hopes that his power bat and defense at the hot corner could make him an everyday player in the Major Leagues. Despite showing some signs of the power this past season, Quintana has struggled mightily during his time in pro-ball. The 24-year-old Quintana has hit for a .190/.299/.308 slash line over his 635 career professional plate appearances and has yet to reach the High-A level. Quintana has even struggled defensively at times in the minors and his days of being thought of as a legitimate prospect are all but over.
The second major acquisition of the offseason for the Tigers came in mid-November when they signed left-handed starter Eduardo Rodriguez to a five-year, $77 million contract.
Prior to signing with the Tigers, the 28-year-old Rodriguez had spent his entire 6-year Major League career with the Boston Red Sox. Rodriguez missed the 2020 season due to COVID-related myocarditis.
While the overall numbers from Rodriguez’ 2021 season won’t stand out at first, finishing with a 4.74 ERA over his 157.2 innings, these numbers are inflated due to some bad luck on balls in play. Rodriguez allowed an unsustainable .363 BABIP against in 2021 and is also likely to benefit from a move out of the American League East division.
The underlying numbers from 2021 look good for Rodriguez, as his FIP- was a career best 21% above league average. The defensive independent pitching statistics were solid from Rodriguez in 2021 due to the fact he was able to both strike batters out at the highest rate of his career and walk batters at the lowest rate.
In his arsenal, Rodriguez’ primary offering is a fastball that typically sits around 91-93 touching 94. Obviously, a lot of Rodriguez’ success with this pitch depends on his ability to consistently locate it and this is something he has struggled with at times in the past. With an average spin rate of 2177 RPM’s, the pitch is Rodriguez’ best at generating swing and misses and was even one of the best four-seamers in all of baseball at generating swings and misses last season. While the pitch hasn’t been particularly effective overall the past few seasons, one of the best predictors of future success for a pitch remains its ability to generate swings and misses. Rodriguez also features a sinker in a similar velocity range and a cutter in the upper 80’s.
The primary off-speed offering for Rodriguez is a mid-80’s change-up with good fading action. Rodriguez has increased the usage of the pitch over recent years and the offering works best when it is located down to the arm-side where it can be used to generate weak groundball contact working away from right-handed batters. The breaking ball for Rodriguez is a low-80’s slider that also works best located down in the zone.
While the spin rates and even overall stuff don’t particularly stand out, Rodriguez is able to be both a high strikeout pitcher and a guy who is extremely good at limiting hard contact. The addition of Rodriguez, along with Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning, gives the Tigers the makings of a very legitimate rotation in place at the Major League Level. While it would be nice to add some more depth for the back of the rotation once the offseason resumes, it is hard to not get excited about the potential for this group entering 2022 and beyond.
The most significant move of the Tigers off-season to date came in the early hours of the morning on November 30th when it was announced the team had come to an agreement with free agent Javier Báez. The deal with Báez is six-years, $140 million but includes an opt-out after two seasons.
The lack of a long-term solution at shortstop has long been discussed amongst Tigers fans and it is no question Báez immediately fills a major need for the team at the position. While he isn’t Carlos Correa, who many fans were clamoring for and who the team reportedly offered a 10-year, $275 million contract to according to Buster Olney, Baez immediately provides a major upgrade at the position for the Tigers.
After spending each of his first seven Major League seasons with the Chicago Cubs, Báez was traded to the New York Mets at last July’s trade deadline. After finishing second for the National League MVP Award in 2018, Báez has been unable to replicate that production in subsequent seasons. Overall in 2021, Báez finished with a .265/.319/.494 slash line and hit 31 homeruns over his 547 plate appearances.
Báez possesses plus in-game power and typically ranks near the top of Major League Baseball in max exit velocity. It is no question his bat will immediately provide a much-needed spark to a Tigers offense that has been among the worst in all of baseball each of the last 4 seasons.
The addition of Báez will also provide the Tigers with a significant upgrade defensively at shortstop.
While Báez is among the sport’s most entertaining players at times, there are obviously major concerns in his game. The first concern with Báez is in the plate discipline, or lack thereof. Báez has a walk rate of only 4.8% for his Major League career and has been near the top of the league in strikeout rate each of the last 2 seasons. Neither of these facts should be a surprise when you consider the rate at which Báez swings at pitches outside of the strike zone.
|Season||Javier Báez O-Swing%||Major League Average O-Swing%|
Further contributing to the swing-and-miss issues with Báez is the fact that he has started making contact on pitches inside the strike zone much less over recent years. Báez finished 2021 with a Z-Contact% of 73.4%, which was the lowest of his career and well below the league average rate of 84.6%.
While Báez has long been known for his elite bat speed, this has been on the decline in recent years. Even though the bat speed is still currently above-average, continuing declines in this area could lead to the overall decline for Báez being an ugly one.
While there are certainly the concerns present with Báez and it remains to be seen how he will do playing 81 games a year in Comerica Park, this is another deal that seems good on the surface for the Tigers. Báez provides a very clear upgrade over all the other internal options and will bring great energy and experience to a young team looking to enter into their competitive window.
While they might not be ready to compete for a championship or even a division title quite yet, it is hard to not be impressed with the progress that has been made in such a short amount of time for the Tigers organization. After winning 77 games in 2021, it seems very likely next season will be the franchise’s first winning season since 2016.
All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant