The Detroit Tigers are a team in transition, but I’m not expecting a massive fire sale, or having to pay the piper so to speak. Instead, I’m looking for a series of smaller moves that reduces payroll while allowing the team to get younger, while staying reasonably competitive. The first shoe fell when the Tigers traded Cameron Maybin before exercising his $9 million option. In return they got a hard-throwing right-handed reliever in Victor Alcantara from the Los Angeles Angels. I don’t pretend to think that the return is so fantastic that the Tigers couldn’t resist dealing off their 2016 spark plug; this was about money. Now one can sit back and lament the loss of Maybin, or speculate on future losses to the lineup (I have), but this is a fantasy site, so let’s look at the opportunities that might arise given the current situation.
Someone has to play center field for the Tigers in 2017 – that much is certain, and that person will have at least some fantasy value, particularly in deeper leagues. The lineup is likely to lose a piece or two from Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, or (gasp) Miguel Cabrera, but it will still be a lineup that scores runs. If you’re in that lineup full-time there will be runs and RBIs aplenty to be had. The situation may not be clear now, but it’s always best to be in early than it is late.
There are endless candidates to fill the spot, but I’m going to look at my top six possibilities. I am looking at low-cost options primarily because reducing payroll is their mandate. Again, plenty of things could change between now and then. The Tigers could very well get a young center fielder back in a trade, but I don’t see a ton of options there. As of now, these are my top candidates for the 2017 Tigers center field position:
Jones was picked up by the Tigers from the Pirates in 2015 as the return for reliever Joakim Soria. He is a versatile player, spending time at third base, second base, and the outfield in 2016. He has a nice little speed/power combination going and could see 10 home runs and 15 stolen bases down the road if given the opportunity. The problem is the strikeouts. Jones posted a 26% K rate in AA last year and a 30% rate in AAA. In his brief September big league call-up, he struck out 12 times in just 28 at bats. The Tigers sent him to the Arizona Fall League to focus on center field (and hitting), and he is performing spectacularly, hitting .333/.406/.433.
He had some struggles in AAA against right-handed pitching, but he doesn’t have a history of any kind of split issue. In fact, he went 4-11 against RHP in his debut with the Tigers. Jones is the most intriguing name of the bunch, but I think he’ll need to have a great spring to have a shot at this job. If he gets the position, he’s immediately worth owning in 15-team leagues or deeper for his potential to help in at least runs and stolen bases. He will always be an average drain, but his youth and versatility will make him an interesting player for the Tigers – and thus for fantasy leagues.
Collins is a 26-year-old left-handed hitter who can play all three outfield positions. He’s played in the majors briefly over the past three years, hitting a combined .253/.309/.401 in 352 total at bats. He has nine home runs to show for himself and three stolen bases thrown in for good measure. He is young enough (read:cheap), and his bat should play in center field, but he has major platoon problems. The Tigers have given him just 46 at bats against LHP and he’s hit .174/.224/.196. He is not a full-time option for the Tigers in my opinion, but could be a useful bat if he ends up on the strong side of a platoon. AL-Only leagues need to take notice as do really deep leagues, but standard leagues and those up to 15 teams can ignore for now.
Gose has more than a few things working against him, but Collins is his biggest roadblock. Both players are left-handed and both are out of options; the Tigers are unlikely to carry both. Gose is just as bad, if not worse, against left-handed pitching, and he has a negative history with new Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McLendon. On the positive side, the 26-year-old is just a year removed from a season where he stole 23 bases and scored 73 runs for Detroit. It just seems like an awful lot has happened since then. I really don’t think this is a serious option right now for the Tigers.
Free Agent Options
Jackson makes a lot of sense to me for a couple of reasons. One is the Tigers’ familiarity with him, and the other is his right-handed bat. I mean it’s possible someone might sign him with the intention of playing him 150 games next year, but I think 120 games is a better fit. Jackson missed the last 100 plus games last season with a torn meniscus, and I think he would complement Collins well as the Tigers center fielder for 2017. His best days were as a Tiger and he should come cheap after signing last year for just $5 million. It would be a cost-saving move for Detroit and at the same time provide some solid defense. As for fantasy, he scored nearly 100 runs every year from 2011-2014 with Detroit and could be a cheap source of the same in 2017. If the Tigers aren’t in on Jackson, I am going to be sorely disappointed.
Even though Jackson has nearly double the big league games as he does, Jennings is actually a little bit older. After being released by the Rays last summer, Jennings is looking for a home in 2017. The trouble here is a litany of leg injuries over the years that have sapped any value from the athletic center fielder. If he can show himself to be healthy I suspect plenty of teams will look at him as a fourth outfielder over the winter. The Tigers could play him less than how I suggested Austin Jackson be used, allowing him plenty of rest. He did hit seven home runs in 200 at bats last year, so while his stolen base numbers will never be the what they were a couple of years ago, he no doubt can offer some offense.
Jennings is going to be a nice cheap option, but there is no reason to get excited from a fantasy perspective. His last full-time season was in 2014 where he hit 10 home runs and stole 15 bases, but even that came with just a .244 average. With the stolen bases gone, he would need to get 400 at bats to be considered in the deepest of leagues. While I wouldn’t mind a part-time role for him with the Tigers, I don’t want him on my fantasy roster.
Rajai Davis/Coco Crisp
These two veteran guys are the next tier up as far as free agent options that the Tigers could pursue. Davis signed for just $5.2 million last year, but will likely get a raise after a fantastic season in 2016. Crisp just finished up a 2 year, $22 million dollar deal but may find himself on a one-year deal for less than or similar to Davis. Both of these guys would represent a significant signing at a notch above the earlier mentioned players. The trouble is that there won’t be a real cash savings for Detroit versus what they had with Cameron Maybin. It is also a sacrifice of youth, if that is where the organization is heading. However, the Tigers are still committed to being competitive and Avila is looking at a three-year plan. These players would almost certainly sign a one-year deal, allowing JaCoby Jones to develop further in AAA. Collins could be the 4th outfielder and Gose could be moved or released. Both of these players would deserve immediate fantasy attention for leagues of 15 teams or deeper.
There are no doubt going to be interesting days ahead for the Detroit Tigers. I suspect we will see some big names moved, but whenever someone leaves, an opening is always left. The shrewd fantasy owner is ready to pounce on such opportunities. The race to fill the center field position for a still-dynamic lineup is certainly one worth paying attention to.
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