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Detroit — Aside from hiring the new manager to replace the retiring Jim Leyland, a situation that should be resolved in relatively short order, the Tigers’ needs aren’t exactly plentiful, but they’re there — as showcased in a thrilling American League Championship Series with the Red Sox.
Namely, they need to upgrade two areas.
Somehow, someway, the Tigers must get faster. Jose Iglesias helps, but they need more, if they’re to become a team that better manufactures runs — rather than sitting around waiting for somebody to hit the three-run home run.
And, of course, there’s the darned bullpen. A sore spot from Day 1 to Game 6, it’s the chief reason the Tigers weren’t opening the World Series on Wednesday against the Cardinals.
No doubt, Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski already is racking his brain trying to figure out the best possible ways to address these two critical areas.
But it won’t necessarily be as simple as signing the two free agents at each position, like he’s been lucky enough to be able to do in recent years.
For starters, there’s a serious money issue.
The Tigers payroll in 2013, according to number-crunching by Baseball-Reference.com as well as Cot’s Baseball Contracts, topped $150 million when all was said and done, impressively stretching to the limits a budget that more resembles a big-market’s – not the mid-market that Detroit, most certainly, is.
But, eventually, there figures to come a time when Mike Ilitch finally will cease to throw piles of cash at the issue — like he’s done time and again, only to see his Tigers fail to deliver that long-elusive World Series championship.
The question: Has that time finally come?
Breaking it down
As always, there is money coming off the Tigers’ books. A substantial amount, actually.
But here’s the kicker: Those savings quickly will be accounted for, in due raises and arbitration filings — one, the case of Max Scherzer, which could break the bank.
Coming off the docket are the following salaries: $6 million (Jhonny Peralta), $5.5 million (Joaquin Benoit), $4 million (Omar Infante), $3.5 million (Octavio Dotel), $2.1 million (Ramon Santiago), $875,000 (Brayan Pena) and $525,000 (Matt Tuiasosopo).
The Tigers, in all likelihood, will say farewell to Peralta, with Iglesias in place as their shortstop of the future. Peralta did fine in his left-field cameo, but the Tigers need more speed — and that’s the only open position they have open in which to add it. Dotel, with a bad elbow, might be retiring. Santiago’s tenure likely has run its course.
Dombrowski, meanwhile, would love to bring back Benoit, who morphed into one of the game’s closers — when the Tigers absolutely had no other options. Similarly, Infante is a huge part of the Tigers’ plans.
But conservatively, it’ll take $13 million to bring them both back for 2014 — and that’s to say nothing of future years. Both will demand — and receive — multiyear deals on the open market.
The Tigers, very well, could decide that cheaper, in-house solutions will be the way to go. In the bullpen, Bruce Rondon made great strides late this year, and if his balky elbow heals – no guarantee — he could finally seize the closer gig. Corey Knebel, a high draft pick in 2013, is progressing quickly and impressively, and could factor into next year’s plans, as well. That they sent him to the Arizona Fall League was telling. And at second base, Hernan Perez is an interesting option, with some speed — there’s that word again — but questionable offensive skills.
It’s risk. So why go that route?
Well, it’s simple. In expiring contracts, the Tigers stand to save about $22.5 million. But all that will be eaten up as quickly as it takes a Scherzer fastball to blow away a hitter. Just consider this: Anibal Sanchez’s salary increases $7 million (to $15.8M), Torii Hunter’s rises $2 million (to $14M), and Prince Fielder (to $24M) and Miguel Cabrera (to $22M) each get a $1 million raise. That’s $10 million, or nearly half the projected savings, when you consider Victor Martinez’s salary goes down $1 million (to $12M).
Still good, sure. Until you start talking arbitration — and that figures to be, perhaps, the biggest story line of the Tigers’ offseason, outside of who succeeds Leyland.
Scherzer, who went 21-3 and almost certainly will win the Cy Young award next month, is in line for a massive raise. He’s arbitration-eligible, ahead of becoming a free agent next winter. This year, he made $6.725 million — and that figures to double, at least. Just how high will he go? A good benchmark to look at: Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum, in 2009, won a second straight Cy Young, and the following offseason his salary spiked from $650,000 to $9 million — a nearly 14-fold increase.
Scherzer, 29, of course, won’t do that well — percentage-wise, anyway. But he’ll surely get more money than Lincecum received. A $14 million salary for the Tigers right-hander in 2014 is very possible.
This case, by the way, could threaten Dombrowski’s perfect streak. Since he took over the Tigers in November 2001, he has yet to go to an arbitration hearing with any player. He’s smart about it. He knows that going to before a neutral panel means preparing and showing evidence that puts down a player’s value. And that’s been known to cause hurt feelings and strain relationships.
But given the Tigers’ budget parameters — and Scherzer’s background in finance — Dombrowski might have no choice, this time.
So let’s, for the sake of argument, award him that $14 million. There’s $17.275 million of the Tigers’ “savings” gone. And that’s before getting to the other arbitration cases, for Rick Porcello ($5.1 million in 2013), Doug Fister ($4M), Austin Jackson ($3.5M), Alex Avila ($2.95), Phil Coke ($1.85M), Don Kelly ($900,000), Andy Dirks ($505K), Al Alburquerque ($500K) and Danny Worth (near the league minimum, or $490,000 in 2013 – and rising to $500,000 for 2014).
Porcello, Fister, Jackson, Avila and Alburquerque are due raises. Combined with the Scherzer saga, that already could take the Tigers over the $22.5 million coming off the books.
The Tigers then must decide if they want to tender contract offers to Coke, Dirks and Worth. The way arbitration works, it’s not just the last season that is taken under consideration. If it was, the Tigers would be sitting pretty with those two. But Coke and Dirks, while not in 2013, have had good seasons in recent years. For this reason, Detroit may decide to simply cut bait.
The Tigers might determine, instead, they’re perfectly fine with outfield prospect Nick Castellenos (league minimum) and left-handed reliever Darin Downs (same).
The Tigers, meanwhile, also have a bevy of players who fall under the “tender” category — these players are not yet eligible for arbitration, so their salaries really are at the mercy of the clubs. But you can’t just go around slashing their pay, either. Iglesias ($2.06 million), Drew Smyly ($498K) and Downs ($494K) will be back at a price the Tigers deem fair for both parties.
Other tenders expected back: Jose Alvarez, Castellanos, Bryan Holaday, Luis Marte, Jose Ortega, Perez, Luke Putkonen, Evan Reed and Rondon.
The Tigers’ 2014 payroll, again, will be eaten up by a bevy of superstars — there’s a combined $105.8 million due Fielder, Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Sanchez, Hunter and Martinez. Then there’s $3.25M for Jose Veras, assuming the Tigers pick up the veteran reliever’s reasonable option.
So there’s just not a ton of wiggle room to go spending on the open market, as Ilitch and Dombrowski have done so impressively over the years.
Sure, they’d love to add a Jacoby Ellsbury or a Shin-Soo Choo to solve the left-field and speed issue. But those contracts are going to be, at least, nine figures.
Now there is one wrinkle worth noting here. The Tigers do stand to receive a substantial windfall, from Major League Baseball’s renewed television deals with ESPN, Fox and TBS — something in the neighborhood of an additional $25 million, or maybe even more, according to various estimates. The problem: All other 29 teams are getting that, too, so everybody’s pockets will be lined with some extra spending money. That’s great news for one party: the players, who should greatly reap the benefits. Lincecum wisely struck first, signing a two-year deal Tuesday worth an eye-opening $35 million, after going 20-29 with a 4.76 ERA over the last two seasons.
There are other options
It’s so unlike them, yes, but the Tigers might actually have to think smaller, much smaller — more in line with, maybe, West Michigan native Nate McLouth, or the like. The corner outfielder did steal 30 bases in 2013, but doesn’t exactly boast a great on-base percentage. Then maybe they can chase a modest-earning reliever, or one that won’t require a big commitment — maybe somebody like Joe Nathan, who’ll be 39 in November, or Jesse Crain, whose 2013 shoulder injury could put him in line for an incentive-laden contract.
Of course, the Tigers also could find some payroll flexibility if they swing a trade or two — something you never rule out with Dealin’ Dave Dombrowski.
Expect Porcello’s name to come up again, with his stock at its peak after a breakout year. Fister, two years from free-agency, is another one to watch.=
Let’s get this out of the way, though: The Scherzer rumblings probably are just plain silly. For starters, the Tigers need him to make a serious World Series run in 2014. Second, few teams will wish to part with a huge package of talent for a man who, with Scott Boras his agent, could wind up being just a one-year rental. (The compensation should he leave as a free agent is a prime draft pick, which could prove more appealing to the Tigers.) Unless the no-budget Dodgers come calling, this is fairytale. Postseason flop Fielder won’t go anywhere, either. The Tigers probably would be open to moving him, but they’d have to eat nearly $100 million to make it happen, so that’s not happening.
Castellanos, though, could very well be traded — Dombrowski never has been married to the prospects, a philosophy very much behind the team’s success — but even if the Tigers can get a big piece in return, they’ll still have to find the salary space.
And that, again, could be the problem they face.
Now Ilitch, we’ve learned over and over, is not against losing money on the Tigers. Forbes estimates the team still operates at a loss, despite perennial deep playoff runs. Then again, when you annually draw more than 3 million fans — many of whom enjoy patronizing his Hockeytown Café, or your wife’s Motor City Casino — it all tends to work out. Forbes also has estimated the Tigers’ value has never been higher — up to $643 million. Ilitch bought the team from Tom Monaghan in the early 1990s for around $80 million.
Here’s another big unknown, though: While Ilitch has spent big on this team as recently as last winter, when he brought aboard Hunter and re-upped with Sanchez, and last spring, when he extended Verlander, the reality is he’s 84. While Dombrowski said this week the owner’s health situation is “fine,” he wasn’t visible during the postseason, and his day-to-day involvement with the team, at this point, remains unclear.
So, all that said, just how will this Tigers’ offseason — sure to be fascinating, if not frustrating for ballclub brass — work itself out?
With free-agency starting five days after the conclusion of the Red Sox-Cardinals World Series, we’ll all know soon enough.
But be warned, Tigers, fans: It might not be to your liking, or what you’ve come to expect.