Toes in the Water: A history of the Detroit Tigers and Free Agency

Clockwise from top left: Torii Hunter, Ivan Rodriguez, Darrell Evans, Magglio Ordonez, Victor Martinez, Cecil Fielder, Prince Fielder, and Dean Palmer.

This offseason the free agent market has been as slow as a Rusty Staub standup double. Most of the top free agents are still unsigned, you’d think the old Detroit boss Jim Campbell was holding the purse strings. Campbell was so cheap that instead of bringing his wife flowers, he used to bring her seeds.

The free agency era might be coming to an end as we know it. For more than forty years players have had the upper hand on the open market place. Every few years a record-breaking contract has been signed, but the last few years owners have suddenly gotten a case of financial responsibility. The changing economics of baseball are making harder for players to get tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

The free agency system began in the winter of 1975/76 when an arbitrator declared that pitchers Dace McNally and Andy Messersmith were free agents, a ruling that essentially struck down baseball’s reserve clause. Without the reserve clause, players could bargain with any team for any sum of money. The union and the owners quickly agreed on a system that made players free agents after six years of MLB service time. Within a few years teams were forking over million for the best free agents every winter. 

The big names in early free agency were players like Reggie Jackson, Joe Rudi, Don Baylor, and Nolan Ryan. But as those players and others were signing lucrative deals and helping teams like the Yankees and Angels to improve themselves quickly, the Detroit Tigers turned up their noses at the new free agent era.

“We’re not interested in making one baseball player a millionaire,” Campbell said in 1978. The Tigers were notoriously frugal, they were known to trade players if they even dared to ask for a raise.

Operating with their eye on the farm system and player development, the Tigers were rarely spenders in the first decade of free agency. What follows is a summary of every major free agent signing by the franchise.

Tito Fuentes – 1977    

A few weeks into spring training in 1977, Ralph Houk realized he didn’t have a starting second baseman.

The Tigers had three players in camp that Houk was evaluating, and none of them were appetizing. There was little Chuck Scrivener, a converted shortstop who had spent eight years in the minors for a reason: he couldn’t hit. Then there was Mark Wagner, another natural shortstop who could hit better than Scrivener, but had a rough time holding onto the baseball. The Tigers also had veteran Puerto Rican infielder Luis Alvarado in their camp. The 28-year old had played eight seasons in the majors for four different teams, and he was a very good fielder. Unlike Scrivener and Wagner, Alvarado had several years of experience playing at second. 

Across the field in Lakeland, Houk could see 19-year old Lou Whitaker, a slim second baseman with a rocket arm who dazzled Detroit coaches with his ability to turn the double play. But the consensus inside the organization was that Whitaker needed another season in the minors before he was ready for The Show.

On February 23, general manager Campbell pulled out his checkbook and paid $90,000 for free agent Tito Fuentes. It was a surprise move, but it filled a short-term hole.

Fuentes had escaped Cuba during the revolution and found his way to the Giants where played second for that club for close to a decade. He was 33 years old, a bit slower than he’d once been, but he was still had steady hands and he was a good contact hitter.

Tito had his last good season in his only year with the Tigers. The switch-hitter batted .309 in 151 games and kept second base warm for Sweet Lou. In September, Whitaker and his double play buddy Alan Trammell arrived, and Fuentes’ days were numbered.  

Darrell Evans – 1984

A lot of people forget about Fuentes, and mistakenly call Evans the first free agent signed by the Tigers. But in addition to Tito, the team also signed outfielder Jerry Turner in the spring of 1982.

But those two signings were low-level, cheap moves designed to fill gaps. Evans was a big-time free agent and a star. The Tigers surprised many in baseball when they landed Evans a week before Christmas in 1983. They inked the 36-year old Evans to a three-year deal worth $2.8 million. 

“I loved coming there,” Evans said. “I was treated like a king. There was a big press conference and they made it a big deal. I was seen as the missing piece.”

Evans hit a three-run homer in the first game of the season in Minnesota, and hit another three-run dinger in the home opener at Tiger Stadium.

This deal was beneficial for both parties: the Tigers won the World Series in 1984, and Evans had a career resurgence in a Tiger uniform. In 1985 he won the home run crown when he hit 40 home runs, becoming the oldest man to win a home run title.

The Tigers resigned Evans prior to the ’87 season when he hit the free agent market again, and he hit 34 home runs and followed it up with 22 in .88. 

Tony Phillips – 1990

Before the 1989 winter meetings, the Tigers signed free agent Tony Phillips to the largest free agent deal in franchise history thus far. The Team gave the versatile Phillips $10 million for five years.

The team was coming off a horrific 103-loss season, which signaled the end of the successful 1980s. The team was transitioning, Kirk Gibson and Lance Parrish had  left as free agents, and Jack Morris was soon going to do the same. The ripe farm system that had produced a slew of fine players in the 1970s, was running dry. Phillips, as well as free agent outfielder Lloyd Moseby, were needed to fill holes left by the loss of Chet Lemon, whose career had petered out, and for the other glaring holes in the lineup.

Phillips had the best years of his career playing in Detroit under Sparky. The switch-hitter who Ernie Harwell called “Tony The Tiger”, averaged 100 runs, 154 hits, 12 home runs, and 105 walks per season, to go along with a .395 on-base percentage. Sparky played him everywhere, infield, outfield, DH, it didn’t matter, anywhere he played, Tony got on base.

Cecil Fielder – 1990

Fielder wasn’t your typical free agent, he was an unrestricted free agent after having spent a season playing in Japan. Detroit scouts saw him play overseas and liked his bat speed. The Tigers signed him to a one-year, $1.25 million deal. It ended up being one of the best transactions the franchise ever made.

A month after they landed Tony Phillips via free agency, Detroit barely made a ripple when they landed Fielder a few weeks before spring training. But Sparky Anderson soon fell in love with the big guy.

“There are only a few special people who can hit the baseball as hard as the big guy,” Anderson told suspicious reporters in the spring. If he was so good, they wondered, why did he end up in Japan? What had this Cecil guy ever done before?

Fielder got off to a slow start, but in early May he slugged three home runs against his former team, the Blue Jays. That sparked a torrid stretch, and Fielder ended up with 11 home runs for the month. He had another three-homer game in June and made the All-Star team. He finished with a league-best 51 homers and 132 RBIs. Fielder went on to lead the league in homers in 1991 too, and he led all of baseball in RBIs in his first three seasons as a Tiger.

“Big Daddy” ended up hitting 245 home runs for Detroit in seven seasons with the club.

Rob Deer & Bill Gullickson – 1991

During the 1990/91 offseason the Tigers decided to add the power bat of Rob Deer, while also nabbing veteran righthander Bill Gullickson to replace the departing Jack Morris.

Deer was interesting to say the least. In his first season wearing the Old English D, he hit 25 home runs, but he also hit .179 and struck out 175 times. He was a master at the “three true outcomes”, either hitting a homer, walking, or striking out in half of his plate appearances with Detroit.

Gullickson won twenty games his first year in Detroit. Do you remember that? Yeah, no one else does either. He became the de facto ace for Sparky Anderson, starting on opening day three times. But after that twenty-win season, Gully was pretty awful, posting an ERA over 5.00 over his last three years.

Dan Gladden – 1992

The epitome of the non-sexy free agent the Tigers typically signed in the 1990s, Gladden was an over-the-hill veteran who wouldn’t rock the boat and didn’t cost too much. He had two “so-so” seasons in Motown, made the most bank he’d ever seen in baseball, and retired. 

Mike Moore – 1993

The Tigers gave this 33-year old pitcher $10 million over three years and he went out and posted a 5.90 ERA with a 29-34 record. But he was a professional and he never missed a start, and the team was terrible, so no one really cared.

Kirk Gibson – 1993

After injuries slowed him in his stints with the Royals and Pirates, Kirk Gibson was unsure if he wanted to put his body through the rigors of playing baseball. But when his hometown team offered him a one-year deal in early February of 1993. Given the chance to sleep in his own bed, Gibby came back to the Tigers.

Gibson ended up having a very solid season for Detroit in 1993, sparking the team to their first fun season in a long time. The Tigs were in first place as late as June, and at the All-Star break they were only 1/2 game out of first. Gibby signed another one-year deal for 1994, and had an even better season. He decided to play one more season in 1995 and was still a good player at the age of 38.   

Eric Davis – 1994

The Tigers acquired Davis in a deadline deal in 1993, and when he became a free agent after the season, he signed with the team to stay in Detroit. Davis liked playing for Sparky, enjoyed playing with Kirk Gibson, and liked Detroit. But unfortunately he was hampered by injuries and only played two games after May. The outfielder earned $3 million for 37 games in 1994, missed a year due to his battle with cancer, and came back to play very well after beating the disease, but for other teams.

Vince Coleman – 1997

General manager Randy Smith decided to give $500,000 to a 35-year old outfielder with bad legs. How did that turn out? Coleman went 1-for-14 in six games for the Tigers.

Luis Gonzalez – 1998

Gonzalez was a 30-year old outfielder who had proven two things: he could draw a few walks, and he had power against righthanded pitching. The Tigers put him in their lineup with Damion Easley, Tony Clark, and Bobby Higginson, and he hit 23 home runs. He had a nice season, so of course Randy Smith traded Gonzalez to the Diamondbacks for Karim Garcia. 

Garcia was a younger outfielder, also a lefthanded bat, and he had some pop. But, the trade proved bad when Gonzo averaged 34 homers and 115 RBIs in the five years after the Tigers dumped him. Now, Gonzalez might have been a steroid guy (there are rumors), so it could be unfair to hang this bad trade on Smith if Gonzo wasn’t juicing when he was in Detroit.

The team also signed infielder Billy Ripken and outfielder Pete Incaviglia during the 1997/98 offseason too. Neither of these deals mattered much.

Dean Palmer – 1999

The $36 million the Tigers gave Palmer was a new team record. The broad-shouldered third baseman earned that money for a few years, he smacked 38 homers in 1999 and 29 in 2000. Palmer was a great guy, a team leader, very popular with the fans.

Unfortunately, Palmer suffered a back injury which proved to be a serious condition. He played only 87 games and his just 11 home runs over the final three years of his five year contract.

Detroit also inked deals with free agents Luis Polonia and Gregg Jefferies in the 1999/2000 offseason. Polonia had a very good year in 1999 as a DH, but Jefferies basically got paid to wrap up his career.

Hideo Nomo – 2000

If you’re Hideo Nomo, former phenom and Rookie of the Year, why are you signing a free agent deal with the lowly Tigers in 2000? Well, because Detroit was the only team silly enough to offer him $1 million after two injury-plagued seasons. The Japanese righty went 8-12 and had spots of brilliance, but not nearly enough. Luckily, his contract was for only one season.

Randall Simon – 2001

A cheap free agent getting a chance to show what he could do, Simon hit .302 in two seasons with Detroit as a contact-first style first baseman/DH.

Steve Avery – 2003

Fifteen years too late.

Fernando Vina and Rondell White – 2004

Detroit signed these two on the same day during the winter meetings and later added righty Jason Johnson. This was a few months after the team had lost an embarrassing 119 games, so any player who would sign a contract with the Tigers deserved a parade when they arrived in the city.

The signings of White and Vina, two legit major leaguers (at least at one point), may have helped the team land Pudge Rodriguez a few months later. So, their performance is less important than most free agent signings. White actually put up some decent numbers (31 dingers in two seasons), but Vina was a sham. A former Gold Glove second baseman, Vina hid the extent of his knee injuries and was later implicated in having used steroids in 2003 to further mask the extent of his injuries. He played only 29 games for the Tigers in 2004 but was still paid the full $6 million due to him from the two-year contract. 

Ivan Rodriguez – 2004

Clearly the best free agent signing the franchise has ever made for two reasons: (1) he was a great player over the years he wore the Tigers’ uniform, and (2) he raised the level of the franchise from an all-time low. Simply by agreeing to go to Detroit, Pudge was pledging his belief in then franchise and the city. He was proved to be right.

The deal was a brilliant move by general manager Dave Dombrowski. Given Pudge’s recent history of injuries, the Tigers negotiated an opt-out if the catcher missed a certain number of games due to specific injuries in the first two seasons. The deal also cost just $37 million over four years with options for two more seasons. Pudge hit .334 and won the Gold Glove in his first season in Detroit and by the third year he was leading the club to the pennant.

As a direct result of Rodriguez going to Detroit, other free agents over the next few seasons also chose the Motor City.

Troy Percival & Magglio Ordonez – 2005

First the Tigers got veteran closer Percival, then a few months later, just before spring training they sent shockwaves through baseball when they signed right fielder Ordonez.

A year after getting Pudge, the Tigers snatched a slugger away from a division rival when they got Maggs. The team gave the 31-year old $75 million over five years.

At first the Ordronez contract looked like it might be a dud: Maggs missed half of his first season with back problems. But he rebounded to drive in 100 runs the next three seasons and in 2007 he had one of the best years in Detroit history when he batted .363 with 216 hits, 54 doubles, 28 home runs, and 139 RBIs. Oh, and I glossed over his most famous moment: the walkoff home run at Comerica Park that clinched the 2006 pennant. Detroit re-signed Maggs to a two-year deal in 2010.

Percival didn’t pan out: he pitched poorly, got hurt, and it cost the Tigers $12 million. 

Kenny Rogers – 2006

The Gambler proved to be another good decision by the Detroit front office. A late bloomer, Rogers kept pitching effectively as he got older and older, and his final three years came with Detroit when he was well past forty.

The Tigers paid Rogers $24 million, which works out to about $825,000 per win. But, there’s a very big but…Rogers won 17 games for the 2006 team that made the playoffs. And in the post-season, the veteran made three starts and won all three, allowing zero runs.  

A week after signing Rogers, the Tigs brought back Todd Jones via free agency. That worked out well, as Jonesy saved 37 games in 2006, 38 in 2007, and 18 more at the age of forty in 2008.

Sean Casey – 2007

The Tigers only had to pay Casey $4 million to get him to come back after having acquired him in 2006 via a trade for the stretch drive. “The Mayor” hit .296 in his one full season in Detroit and was as popular as anyone, even that time when he was thrown out at first base on a routine base hit to the outfield.

Adam Everett – 2009

Was supposed to be a defensive upgrade at shortstop with Carlos Guillen slowing down due to knee injuries. Everett wasn’t very expensive and he did okay for one season.

Jose Valverde & Johnny Damon – 2010

By this time, team owner Mike Ilitch was willing to compete with the big spenders and do one-year expensive deals to get big names into a Detroit uniform. There was enough core talent on the team by this time that the addition of a Johnny Damon was seen as the possible “over the hump” deal.

Damon was 36 years old and slowing in the outfield, so Jim Leyland gave him a lot of looks at designated hitter. He was pretty decent, smacked 36 doubles, and played a lot of games like he always did, enough to justify the $8 million price tag. But Comerica Park was too big for Johnny and his home run total plummeted to eight. He was not-resigned, the Tigers had their eyes on a bigger name for the DH spot. 

Victor Martinez, Brad Penny & Joaquin Benoit – 2011

Two out three ain’t bad. Penny was a bust, he was frequently out of shape and inconsistent. Jim Leyland so distrusted him that in the 2011 playoffs he kept Penny off the roster in the first round and used him out of the bullpen in the ALCS.

Martinez ended up being worth the $50 million the team paid him over the four years of his (first) free agent contract withe team. He missed one full season due to an injury, but he bounced back, and hit .321 while averaging 19 homers, 36 doubles, and 96 RBIs.

Benoit proved to be a cost-effective reliever, costing the team $16.5 million for three years. At first he was a setup man in front of Valverde, and a very good one. By the 2013 season, his third with the Tigs, Benoit was closing games, converting 24 saves and three more in the post-season. Benoit will always be remembered for surrendering the grand slam to David Ortiz in the ALCS in 2013, but he was a good reliever for Detroit in his time with the team.  

Prince Fielder – 2012

If you want proof that Mike Ilitch was willing to do almost anything to win a championship, look no further than the signing of Prince Fielder. A few weeks before spring training in 2012, the Tigers learned that Victor Martinez has torn his ACL while working out. When it was confirmed that Martinez would miss the entire season, Ilitch ordered Dave Dombrowski to pursue Fielder. The Tigers signed Cecil’s kid for an earth-shattering $214 million dollars, the largest deal in franchise history and one of the biggest in the history of the sport. The signing shocked most of the baseball world, the Tigers weren’t considered big movers on the free agent market after other moves in recent seasons.

Fielder was a first baseman, and the Tigers had the reigning batting champion at first base, but that didn’t matter to Ilitch. All he wanted was a big left-handed bat for the middle of his lineup. Cabrera would be moved to third base.

The gamble paid off in the short-term: Fielder had a good year in 2012 and the Tigers won the pennant. But the following season Prince wasn’t quite as good, and after some unfortunate comments to reporters after the Tigers’ loss to Boston in the ALCS that made it seem like he didn’t care if the team won, Dombrowski traded the big guy to Texas.

Ultimately, the Fielder deal worked out as a slight net positive or at least a wash. The player the Tigers got for Fielder was Ian Kinsler, who had a great four-year run in the Motor City. But, the Tigers had to eat a lot of the $214 million they guaranteed to Prince, in fact they’re still paying some of that contract off in 2019.

The team also signed lesser deals with pitcher Octavio Dotel and journeyman outfielder Quintin Berry, who had a three-week stretch where he played out of his mind for the team in 2012.

Torii Hunter – 2013

One of the better free agent deals the Tigers ever made was inking outfielder Torii Hunter to a two-year, $26 million deal that proved to be a bargain. Hunter was a team leader as well as an excellent performer on the field as the Tigers won two more division titles. Though he only played in Motown for two years, Hunter is one of the most popular Tigers of recent memory. 

The Tigers also broke out the checkbook to sign Anibal Sanchez, who they had acquired in a deadline deal the previous season.

Joe Nathan & Rajai Davis – 2014

Nathan was supposed to succeed Jose Valverde as shutdown closer, but instead he had a controversial, unsuccessful, and brief stay in Detroit. In his first season he blew seven saves, several of them early in the season. The next season, in spring training, he reacted to boos by lashing out at Detroit fans. Nathan pitched one game in 2015 before suffering a torn ulnar collateral ligament that sidelined him for the season. What did the Tigers get from Nathan for the $20 million they paid him on his two-year deal? 63 games, a 4.78 ERA, and 36 saves.

The team also acquired Joba Chamberlain in a smaller FA deal before the ’14 season. The real steal was the late spring training signing of J.D. Martinez, who became a free agent after the Astros dropped them from their roster, but that doesn’t really count as a free agent signing.

Victor Martinez II – 2015

In an enormous act of generosity, Mike Ilitch offered Martinez a four-year, $68 million deal after the 2014 season. Martinez was 35 years old and coming off the best season of his career. The designated hitter finished second in AL Most Valuable Player voting in 2014, but he was still a 35-year old designated hitter.

If it had been up to Dombrowski the Tigers wouldn’t have signed Martinez, at least not to such a gaudy contract. But Ilitch loved Victor, and he was loyal, so he wrote a big check. The deal will go down as one of the worst in team history.

VMart hit .262 and averaged 14 homers and 63 RBIs over the four years of his big fat deal. He was sidelined by back and leg injuries, and even when he was in the lineup, he was a punchless, gimpy shadow of his former self.

Jordan Zimmermann, Justin Upton & Mark Lowe – 2015

By January of 2016, most team officials were insisting the Tigers were not going to spend big in the free agent market. But Mike Ilitch, feeling the pressure of that elusive World Series trophy, approved the signing of Justin Upton to the largest free agent contract in team history: six years and $132.75 million. The Tigers ended up getting their money’s worth out of JUp for 2016, when the team nearly snatched a playoff spot. Upton hit 31 homers that season. 

For some reason the team gave reliever Mark Lowe $11 million for two years and even more ridiculously, they handed $110 million to pitcher Jordan Zimmermann. In signing Zimmermann, the Tigers overpaid, something the pitcher admitted in a remarkable press conference announcing the contract.

“One of the biggest things is that they had me as a No. 1 target,” Zimmermann said. “I was a second and a third option for others. It means a lot. For these guys to want me that much, I’m excited.”

None of the other teams looking for starting pitching had Zimmermann as highly rated as the Tigers. And there was a reason why, as Tigers’ fans would learn all too well.

At first, Zimm looked like a gem, he was 5-0 in April with a 0.55 ERA. But then he missed a start in May with a groin injury, and missed all of July. He made only one start in August and allowed six runs in less than two innings. For some reason, the front office gave Zimmermann a start in September, an important start (the team was battling for a playoff spot), and the righty allowed six runs while recording only three outs. He finished his first season 9-7 in only 18 starts.

In his second season in Detroit, Zimmermann allowed five earned runs or more in 11 starts. He was injured again in 2018 when he pitched with neck soreness and shoulder tightness. He enters 2019 in the fourth year of his contract and (apparently) healthy.

What about Lowe? He pitched 49 1/3 innings for the Tigers and had a 7.11 ERA. He was released the following season. Ouch.

The Tigers also added Mike Aviles and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, as well as starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey in the 2014/15 offseason.