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Sixth in a series, featuring high-profile Tigers free agent signings of the past.
If not for a bad trade, Dean Palmer likely would never have been a Detroit Tiger.
Travis Fryman appeared to be the third baseman forever for the Tigers once he sank his meat hooks into the position in the early 1990s.
Fryman could field, he had power, he drove in runs and he was a favorite of manager Sparky Anderson’s. Fryman, a natural third baseman, endeared himself to Sparky by switching to shortstop in 1992 while Alan Trammell recovered from an injury.
But Anderson retired after the 1995 season (not without some acrimony) and the old guard of Sparky, Bill Lajoie and Bo Schembechler wasn’t around in the 1997 offseason, when GM Randy Smith traded Fryman to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Joe Randa.
It wasn’t the greatest of trades.
Randa spent one uninspired season in Detroit before being traded to the New York Mets, while Fryman ended up in the Tigers’ division in Cleveland, where he had a few more productive years.
All this meant that the Tigers needed a third baseman, badly.
Dean Palmer was available.
Palmer, a native of Florida, broke into the big leagues with the Texas Rangers in 1989 and he could do two things as a hitter: wallop the ball out of the park or create a wind tunnel with his proclivity to strike out.
Palmer’s big year for Texas was in 1996, when he slammed 38 homers, drove in 107 runs and batted .280.
Palmer was, in many ways, more like Fryman than Randa proved to be in his one season as a Tiger.
In the middle of the 1997 season, Palmer was dealt to Kansas City. In 1998, Palmer had another big year for the Royals. He hit 34 home runs, drove in 119 runs, and batted .278/.333/.510.
He picked a good year to go into free agency.
The Tigers’ need and Palmer’s availability proved too much to resist for both parties, and on November 13, 1998, the soon-to-be 30 year-old Palmer signed a multi-year contract with Detroit.
Palmer was the Tigers’ first high-profile, non-pitcher free agent signee since Rob Deer was inked prior to the 1991 season.
Palmer’s signing paid dividends immediately.
Though Palmer got off to a slow start with the Tigers in 1999, a two-homer game against Boston on April 21 got him going. In June, Palmer hit a home run in four consecutive games.
The numbers after Year One as a Tiger were impressive: 38 homers, 100 RBI and a .263 average. He won a Silver Slugger Award. His defense at third wasn’t quite the caliber of Fryman’s, but there was no question that Palmer was an upgrade from Joe Randa.
It wasn’t long before Palmer became a fixture at third and a key cog in the Tigers lineup. In 2000, the Tigers made a brief run at Wild Card contention in August and Palmer was in the middle of it, with 29 homers and 102 RBI.
Then, suddenly, it all went kaput.
Over the next three years, Palmer had a total of 314 at-bats. A degenerative neck injury that wouldn’t get better kept him off the field. He retired after the 2003 season.
In February 2005, Palmer showed up to spring training in Lakeland, FL. He tried to give it another shot but he was done. The Tigers and Palmer parted ways before the season, this time for good.
It didn’t end well for Dean Palmer in Detroit, which was disappointing based on how the first two years went. But despite the sudden end to his career as a Tiger, it would be unfair to say that Palmer was a free agent bust. His body betrayed him and there’s no crime in that.
Meanwhile, third base became a black hole for the Tigers while Palmer tried to come back from his injuries. They played the likes of Jose Macias, Chris Truby and Eric Munson at the hot corner, with little success.
It wasn’t until Brandon Inge finally laid claim to the job in 2005, that the Tigers found a competent replacement for Dean Palmer.
Palmer managed to slug 275 home runs in his 15-year career, but he probably would have threatened the 400 mark had he been able to stay healthy as a Tiger.
Today, Palmer is an assistant high school baseball coach in his hometown of Tallahassee, FL.