Draft rules favor Tigers in pursuit of free agent outfielders

Gold Glove Award winning left fielder Alex Gordon is an attractive option for the Tigers this offseason.

Gold Glove Award winning left fielder Alex Gordon is an attractive option for the Tigers this offseason.

Under Dave Dombrowski, the Detroit Tigers were apt to make a headline-grabbing deal at least once every off-season—and frequently also around the trading deadline. Trader Dave’s splashy moves, overall, added up to some big gains for Mike Ilitch’s club. Most notable, of course, was his stunning heist of Miguel Cabrera. There were some clunkers along the way, too, but Dombrowski ‘s bold moves  established the Tigers as a perennial contender over the last decade. They also catapulted Detroit into the top five in MLB in payroll.

Under new general manager Al Avila, however, so far there has been a notably more low-key approach. Instead of monster moves, the new regime has taken a quieter, more incremental approach, adding needed pieces while bypassing the biggest names on the market. The Tigers needed a closer, quite obviously, but Avila opted for Francisco Rodriguez—not the biggest name out there, but perhaps a shrewd move. They needed other help in the bullpen, so Avila acquired Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson, who are hardly household names but who might fill the bill perfectly—a reliable right-handed set-up man and a solid young lefty. Avila went a similar route in bypassing David Price and Zack Greinke and bagging Jordan Zimmerman.

Avila also acquired catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, whose switch-hitting bat might play very well on the squad, and nabbed onetime uber-prospect Cameron Maybin.

The Tigers still could use a left fielder, but to do so they might have to go over the luxury tax threshold. Based on his comments at a presser welcoming Zimmerman earlier this offseason, Ilitch appears OK with that. And while Yoenis Cespedes is the top name out there, the wiser choice might be Alex Gordon. While Gordon is not as flashy as Cespedes and his ceiling may not be quite as high, he is a more reliable option—and his left-handed bat and stellar defense would both be very valuable in the Tigers’ everyday lineup. Imagine slotting Gordon into the number two spot in the order behind Ian Kinsler and using Anthony Gose as a weapon off the bench to pinch-run and provide a late-inning defensive sub for Maybin or J.D. Martinez.

As Dan O’Dowd recently reported, the Tigers are at a real advantage in this sweepstakes because of their position in the draft. Detroit has the ninth pick of the first round, and under the current rules any pick in the top ten is protected. Teams who have a top-ten pick have to give up a first-round draft pick if they sign a player who has a qualifying offer from his current team. That meant the Tigers only had to give up a second-round pick for Zimmerman. And if they sign Cespedes or Gordon or Justin Upton, they’d have to give up only a third-round pick. That gives them a bargaining advantage over a team that would lose a first-round pick for the same free agent.

If Avila completed his off-season shopping by signing Gordon (whose loss harms division rival Kansas City), the Tigers would be back in contention while still keeping a valuable draft pick that will help them rebuild for the future. That might put the club on a better long-term track than they were under Trader Dave, who sometimes mortgaged the future for the immediate big bang. In today’s environment, it’s a gamble for a team to cash in all its chips in a desperate bid for a World Series ring, Under the current playoff format, no matter how good a team you have, the post-season is a crapshoot.