The Tigers Sign Two Veterans

The Detroit Tigers were a bad baseball team last year. No one’s arguing that. But you could make an argument that production in the infield is what sunk their offense from bad to catastrophic. Tigers outfielders weren’t the absolute pits — they slashed .255/.311/.410, good for an 87 wRC+ after accounting for Comerica’s spacious dimensions, which was 25th in baseball.

In comparison, the infield — even including DHs — hit .233/.285/.377, a 71 wRC+ that was worst in baseball. They struck out much more than league average, walked much less than league average, and didn’t hit for power. That’s not quite an infield full of Billy Hamiltons, but it’s awful. The league as a whole batted .256/.326/.441, which means that the Tigers infield wasn’t within driving distance of decent.

With two signings this week, however, the Tigers put a dent in their former ineptitude. The team inked Jonathan Schoop and C.J. Cron to two identical deals — $6.1 million over a single year — to provide a solid dose of “not that bad” to a team sorely lacking in that particular medicine.

On the surface, these contracts are about making the Tigers only really bad instead of unbelievably bad. Schoop isn’t a top tier second baseman, but he’s competent — he had a 100 wRC+ in 2019, sports a 97 wRC+ for his career, and is projected by Steamer for a 101 wRC+ in 2020. In other words, he’s just fine! At a position that collectively recorded a 92 wRC+ in 2019, you could even argue he’s above average with the stick, though he gives most of that back with his glove.

Is his game well-suited to Comerica? Not particularly. Schoop has always relied on results on contact to get to his offense, and 2019 was no exception. That’s not to say he doesn’t hit the ball hard — in 2019, he barreled up 8.8% of the balls he put in play and 15.3% of balls he put in the air, both better than league average. But he got production by hitting the ball hard in a stadium that rewards righty power, and Detroit isn’t quite that — just ask Nicholas Castellanos.

His once and future teammate, Cron, is a different story altogether. He’s always danced around the edge of acceptable, getting playing time somewhere between platoon bat and everyday regular since 2015. After a shiny 2018 season with the Rays, 2019 was a return to mediocrity — he hit for less power despite playing in a friendlier stadium, and will face a tougher road in Detroit.

Cron isn’t quite the middle-of-the-order thumper you’d ideally plant at first base, but then the Tigers aren’t exactly the team you’d ideally build. He’s probably best suited as the skinny side of a platoon, but no one on the Tigers could cover the other half — Jeimer Candelario and Niko Goodrum, the two options who can bat lefty, are both switch hitters who the Tigers hope to play nearly every day next year.

In fact, Goodrum is the most interesting name to me in this deal, though he isn’t the one signing. Take a look at where he stood in the field last year:

Goodrum is All Around Us
Position Games Innings
1B 18 152
2B 22 184.2
3B 1 9
SS 38 326.2
LF 18 154.2
CF 7 53.2
RF 5 45
DH 4

No word on if he can catch, but he seems to be able to do pretty much everything else. He was even an above average defender, albeit in a minuscule sample, across second, third, and short.

I’m a fan of Goodrum — I was maybe a little too bought in on his breakout in 2019. Even if you think he’s more his full season line, though, than his standout first few months, there’s a lot to like there for a rebuilding team. He hits a ton of line drives, pulls the ball in the air, and walks a lot, though he also strikes out a lot in the bargain. Oh yeah, and he might be a good defender, and he’s still only 27. A great guy to challenge at his highest possible defensive level in 2020, in other words. Goodrum is the kind of player who, if he hits his 90th or 95th percentile outcome, could be a serious contributor to a contending team.

The Tigers were always going to give Goodrum a ton of run in 2020. But by signing Schoop and Cron, they’ve essentially declared that they’ll use him at shortstop. They could, in theory, send him out to the outfield. After all, he was part of that unit’s performance in 2019 — remove him and Castellanos from the group, and they look a lot worse.

But the Tigers have a ton of interesting players to give outfield looks to in 2020. Victor Reyes looks exciting in center — he has the straight-line speed to be a great defender, and while he probably won’t bat .384 on balls in play again, he’s worth taking a gamble on. JaCoby Jones still holds some intrigue as well, despite already being 27. He hasn’t lived up to his early minor league promise, but if everything clicks, he’s a power and speed threat. Christin Stewart was awful in the big leagues, but he’s been good in the minors, and deserves a longer look.

Finally, the minor league system might exert pressure on the major league outfield this year. The team already used Travis Demeritte extensively in 2019, and while he struggled, he’ll get more shots in 2020. Daz Cameron didn’t tear the cover off the ball in Triple-A, but if he starts 2020 off well, it will be hard to keep him down for too long. And while it’s a bit of a long shot, I’m a fan of Cam Gibson. His blend of contact and patience supports a good overall offensive profile, and he’s continued to hold his own as the Tigers move him up the minor league ranks. He’s old for Double-A, but he’ll likely hit Triple-A in 2020, and if nothing else, gives the team a few more bites at a competent outfield apple.

That’s not to say there are no complications. Willi Castro was terrible in the majors last year, but so were many of the names I listed in the outfield section, and he’s above average in the field. He’ll probably start at shortstop at points in the 2020 season in addition to getting further minor league seasoning. The team has other minor leaguers at the position, and they might be good on a timeline that better fits Detroit’s contention. Heck, Goodrum might be bad in the field, and he might be bad at the plate! He’s hardly the uncontested shortstop of the future.

But despite all that hedging, I think the Tigers are right to shoot for the moon with Goodrum. Signing Schoop, and to a lesser extent Cron, locks them in; they won’t be playing Goodrum on the right side of the infield anymore, so they might as well try him on the left. They’re taking a calculated risk on the future while also making their lineup more respectable in 2020.

If the experiment doesn’t work out, who cares? They can ship off Schoop and Cron for a bag of baseballs, or let them walk after 2020, and move Goodrum back to second. He could end up in the outfield either way. Heck, maybe Kody Clemens will absolutely shove in 2020 and force Schoop out, or Isaac Paredes will displace Candelario to first base. There’s a lot of room for weird things to happen when you’re treating your major league team as a testing ground. Might as well lean into the weirdness and put your most interesting player in the defensive position with the most upside.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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David Klein
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They would have been better off trading for Villar a few weeks ago as he’d have more trade value at the deadline. Schoop is a league average and sometimes better player so this is a solid move. Cron I don’t hold out much hope for as he’s not close to anything all that good as a first baseman with the bat or glove and is not a good obp guy, but maybe they can get something out of him (and for him), and it’s a one year deal and there’s no such of a thing as a bad one year deal.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Maybe I’m getting my timeline mixed up but I think Cron was hurt for a good chunk of last year. And unlike Castro in the middle infield, they really don’t have anyone of interest to play at first base except for maybe Dawel Lugo. So unless you’re committed to seeing what Lugo does at first (which is a defensible position), it’s hard to see who else they’d be better off signing. Wilmer Flores, maybe? Eric Thames? Greg Bird?

David Klein
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Cron had 499 plate appearances in 125 games so I guess he had a stint on the injured list. I would definitely take Thames or Flores or even Bird over Cron. I could see Thames landing with the Nats as a platoon player and so Flores and Bird I think would be better pickups than Cron and Flores gives you more versatility though his defense is not good at other positions.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Yeah, he apparently hurt his thumb in early July and he never really recovered. I don’t know if that’s enough to make a difference.

I, too, would think that the Tigers were the perfect team to Greg Bird a shot. I was convinced he was going to be the best hitter out of the Bird/Judge/Sanchez trio, and while that ship has sailed he could potentially still be a good hitter.

More generally, I think it’s a good idea for teams like the Tigers, Orioles, and Marlins to give opportunities to guys who have shown some skill and production but are too inconsistent for contenders to give opportunities. It’s the same reason why they should keep running Christin Stewart out there, and why the Marlins made a good move signing Aguilar (who also would have been a fit here). The guy both them and the Marlins should be in on is Domingo Santana, who has frustrating focus issues but when he’s dialed in he’s great.