August 1, 2014 at 1:44 pm

Lynn Henning

Tigers likely want David Price for long haul, at the risk of bloated payroll

New Tigers pitcher David Price owes one more year to the Tigers before he hits free agency. (Patric Schneider / Associated Press)

No baseball trade ever is made, in Detroit, or elsewhere, without thoughts about contracts and money.

The Tigers understood two realities Thursday when they replaced the Richter scale with the Dombrowski scale as a new means for measuring seismic activity, at least in terms of big-league baseball transactions.

Pitcher David Price has one more year under “club control,” as they call it, before he hits free agency. He makes $14 million this season and will be due a nice raise in 2015, either from the Tigers or from an arbitrator who decides salary disputes, should one exist. That isn’t likely as the Tigers and Price are certain to maintain their honeymoon after he came aboard from Tampa Bay in Thursday’s earth-rocking, three-team swap.

The Tigers 17 months ago signed pitcher Justin Verlander to a deal that between existing and extended money touched $200 million.

Five months ago they offered $144 million to pitcher Max Scherzer, who decided in concert with his negotiator, Scott Boras, they could do better 90 days from now when Scherzer is a free agent.

And so it leads to a natural conclusion that if Price is healthy and pitching with the polish anticipated, the Tigers will want him in Detroit for the long term. And when you’re talking long-term with a 29-year-old past Cy Young Award winner, the Tigers will probably offer at least what they offered Scherzer and Boras in March.

Maintaining flexibility

Are the Tigers smart to be stuck with a half-billion dollars in contracts to three players: Verlander, Miguel Cabrera ($300 million), and potentially, Price? Did they make Thursday’s expensive deal with any pretense of not extending Price?

It’s hard to fathom otherwise. You don’t trade away long-term assets — Drew Smyly and prospect Willy Adames were bare-bones cheap, and Austin Jackson was affordable — for 15 months of David Price.

But does a front office, or even its fans, want three players owed a half-billion bucks through the remainder of this decade and beyond? How will that amount of debt affect the Tigers’ future ability to acquire pieces as necessary as the Tigers have viewed their past acquisitions: Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Anibal Sanchez, Torii Hunter, Joe Nathan, etc.?

It’s something to think about, particularly as a chill sets in over the Verlander extension, which at the moment is emblematic of the risk teams take when extending pitchers in their 30s.

Jackson’s contract situation no doubt played into Thursday’s commotion as well, for two reasons. He is set to become a free agent at the end of next season. He also belongs to the Boras tribe, which means extensions can be difficult when Boras and his clients share a common lust for the free-agent auction block.

It is impossible to forecast how the Tigers might have resolved Jackson’s situation had he remained here through 2015. But a probable scenario is they would have been on the hook next season for an arbitration-eligible raise a good bit heftier than the $6 million handed Jackson for 2014.

That’s an easily digestible number in any event. The hang-up might arrive at the end of next year when the Tigers would have been faced with one of two realities: Either make Jackson a one-season qualifying offer of $15 million or so to keep him in Detroit for another year, or lose him to free agency, which would bring a potential draft pick if the Tigers made the qualifying offer and he signed elsewhere.

That’s a situation the Tigers could have dealt with, either way. But their zeal to get Price and their resignation to Jackson’s in-and-out-ways made next year’s contractual deliberations unnecessary and, it could be argued, something of a relief. They would need at some point in the next couple of years to get on with their lives in center field and concluded that time was now when it helped deliver Price.

If no title next two years, then what?

But back to that possible, if not probable, long-term offer they will want to make Price, which is in keeping with owner Mike Ilitch’s past habits.

Price next August turns 30, which is the same age at which Verlander was extended. Scherzer, for that matter, turned 30 last month. How far do you go in locking up a pitcher, even a Cy Young Award winner, as all three have been, when you are talking hundreds of millions of dollars in debt that inevitably will affect the freedom with which a front office can make preferred moves?

If future contracts are secondary to the primary reason Price was acquired — winning this year’s World Series — then money is no issue.

But if that World Series doesn’t arrive this or next season — and percentages say it won’t — then what?

This team might be built to win a championship, now. But the Tigers will be asked to play baseball each and every year for the foreseeable future. Having the dollars to contend annually, minus constraining contracts, always helps.

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