Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer's 21-win season will likely cast his case in a favorable light if it goes before an arbitrator. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)
Detroit — The baseball season begins with the first game.
But the baseball year, once the Hall of Fame results have been announced, begins with arbitration-filing day.
That means Tuesday was the first key date for the 2014 Tigers — with six arbitration-eligible players filing, including American League Cy Young winner Max Scherzer. Other Tigers filing were pitchers Rick Porcello and Al Alburquerque, outfielders Austin Jackson and Andy Dirks, and catcher Alex Avila.
The players who filed will exchange salary numbers with the Tigers on Friday, unless they settle before the exchanged numbers become public.
Players and teams can, of course, settle after numbers are exchanged and before scheduled hearings — which has been the case in the past for the Tigers. Since Dave Dombrowski became president of the team, with vice-president John Westhoff in charge of negotiating, no Tiger has gone to a hearing.
But each year presents its own challenges — and the big one this year will be to reach a settlement, if possible, with Scherzer, who is a candidate to double his 2013 salary of $6.725 million.
According to MLB Trade Rumors, which annually projects salaries of arbitration-eligible players, Scherzer could make $13.6 million in 2014. Scherzer is coming off his best season — a stellar year of 21 wins.
Some other players on the Tigers’ list didn’t come close to having their best season — and with a combination of rising income but decreasing productivity, their futures aren’t as clear as they once were. In other words, the Tigers might be reluctant to keep paying them more for diminished returns.
Porcello, Jackson and Avila, to be exact, could find themselves in that category — meaning they might become trade candidates after the 2014 season, or even during it, if they are not proving to be worth their climbing income.
Porcello, for instance, is projected to make $7.7 million — up from $5.1 million in 2013 — and while there were signs last year that he’s on the brink of becoming a better pitcher than he ever has been (such as a 9-2 record with a 3.47 ERA after July 5), this will be a pivotal season for him in terms of proof. He must build upon the second-half strides.
Jackson is different in that he didn’t make those strides. His fourth year as a Tiger was only his third-best. His batting average went down from .300 in 2012 to .272 — and his OPS dropped from 856 to .745, just nine points higher than it was in 2010, his rookie season.
Speed, meanwhile, has become almost a non-factor in Jackson’s offensive repertoire, what with only eight stolen bases in 2013 after 27 as a rookie. The number of Jackson’s thefts have dropped every year he’s been a Tiger. Projected to make $5.3 million, it’ll be essential for Jackson to steer his stats in a more impressive direction.
Avila needs a comeback, as well, because his offensive numbers have tumbled the last two years, but at least his .303 second-half batting average in 2013 — after .177 in the first half — was a good sign.
The pressure on Dirks, in terms of production vs. salary, is less pronounced because his arbitration projection is a more manageable $1.7 million. Even at that, Dirks needs to reverse the direction his career took last year when his batting average dropped to .256 from .322 and his OPS went from .857 to 686.
Dirks, projected to platoon in left field with newcomer Rajai Davis, didn’t leave 2013 behind as unblemished, certainly, as he did 2012.
That’s how the baseball year always begins, though — not the season, but the year.
With talk of arbitration and salaries, instead of who’s doing what in spring training.