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Henning: Revamped Tigers rotation makes financial sense

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Some who study the Tigers ask a deliciously simple question. It has to do with Detroit's starting pitching rotation for 2015 and what it could have been had Dave Dombrowski not done some of his annual flesh-peddling.

Would it not have been better, they submit, had the Tigers hung onto Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Doug Fister, and Drew Smyly rather than have converted three of those pitchers into David Price, Shane Greene and outfielder Yoenis Cespedes?

Would not that group be more likely to deliver to a pitching-loving franchise a playoff ticket than entrusting 2015 to Price, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Greene, and Alfredo Simon?

Superficially, the answer is easy. You stick with a more muscular combination of the above. You can swap a surplus starter for Cespedes, but don't otherwise trade or forfeit to free agency three of the group (including last year's hot prospect, Willy Adames) for Price, who figures to be gone after this year, and Greene, which is what a simple comparison says happened.

Neither, critics might say, should the Tigers have been shipping Eugenio Suarez and farm pitcher Jonathon Crawford to Cincinnati for a single year of Simon, who in October is expected to gallop into free agency.

The analysis is concise and appealing and carries an obvious implication that Dombrowski, the team's front-office chief charged with building a winner in Detroit, as well as owner Mike Ilitch, blew it by saying goodbye to Scherzer and parting with Fister, Porcello, and Smyly.

But it also is a story more complicated than looking at a finite number of players within the context of a single season, 2015.

Most of the reality is about payroll.

Luxury tax lingered

Had the Tigers hung onto their elite arms (Scherzer, Fister, Porcello), they would have been looking at another $30 million or more in 2015 salaries. Tacked onto a payroll that already comes in at $170 million-plus, the Tigers would be paying $200 million in base compensation and another several million in luxury tax penalties. The numbers aren't perfect, mostly because Scherzer broke apart his seven-year, $210-million deal with the Nationals and deferred much of his pay through the year 2028.

But no matter how the bucks are parceled out, Scherzer's haul merged with the other paydays would rank as a prohibitive amount of cash for just about any team west of the Hudson River.

It also isn't clear that the Tigers could ever have gotten the outfielder they needed in 2015, which became Cespedes, had they hung onto Porcello and instead offered Smyly, which is the trade chip most Detroit analysts naturally would have preferred offering.

Other analysis is also complex. Saying goodbye to Scherzer, for example, will gain for the Tigers an extra early pick in June's draft. It will be the 34th overall, and players grabbed that early in the draft can be very good talents, as Porcello, who was snared 27th overall in 2007, confirms.

The Tigers are likely to get a similar prize next year when Price, as most anticipate, takes his own crack at free agency this autumn. Of course, had they hung onto Fister and taken advantage of his talents the past two seasons rather than trading him 15 months ago to the Nationals, they would have been staring at another draft-day bonus pick in 2016.

That's one more reason why most fans aren't pleased with having lost Fister. Even if he was dealt for a package built around Robbie Ray, who was spun off as part of another trade that brought a young gun in Greene to Detroit's rotation, Motown's crowd obviously would have opted for Fister in 2014 and '15.

But a side note here: The Tigers made two long-term contract offers to Fister and were turned down. They saw him getting expensive when payroll had to be managed and free agency was a couple of years away. Dombrowski decided to add young arms (Ray and Ian Krol) that Detroit's generally sharp scouts liked, and those arms wouldn't be staring at free agency for a half-dozen years.

This is why Brad Ausmus had to be careful Sunday when, sitting in his office, he was asked about how a manager dealt with certain realities. His job is contingent on how the Tigers play. And the Tigers, by almost any estimate, would be a better bet for October with some of the earlier cast intact.

"It's easy to make comparisons between pitchers we now have and pitchers we lost," Ausmus said, a few minutes before drills began on a warm Florida morning. "But because the dollar figures become too high, you can't fill every void on your roster (with equivalent talent).

"You can't do it. It would cost too much money. The only way it can be done is to find inexpensive players who you think can perform on a similar or higher level than the player you lost.

"We think Simon and Greene can do that for us. Are they Max and Ricky? No, they're not. Rick and Max have much more of a track record. But that's why you have scouts and you have projections."

Managing the payroll

Dombrowski talked about strategies and payrolls and how a GM, and owner, attack dual objectives. It's not an explanation designed to placate fans.

"I hear people say, 'Well, the Tigers lost Scherzer and Porcello and replaced them with Simon and Greene,' and the only thing is, that's not totally correct," Dombrowski said. "Price replaced Scherzer because we knew there was a chance he would be lost to free agency.

"So, Price replaces Scherzer, and Simon and Greene are the replacements for Porcello and Smyly. Simon won 15 games last year and was an All-Star. And both he and Porcello were a year from free agency.

"As for Greene, we felt he was at least as advanced as Smyly. And while it's not easy, and I understand how people feel, Fister brought us Robbie Ray, who our scouts liked. He wasn't quite as advanced as we had hoped, but he in turn has brought us Greene."

Factored into this chess game, Dombrowski acknowledged, is the Tigers stand to shed about $50 million in payroll at the end of 2015. The free-agent pitching crop will be among the best in memory. And, by that time, a team will have a sense for when some of its better farm-system starters — Kevin Ziomek, Austin Kubitza, Drew VerHagen, etc. — might be ready.

It's not going to make fans forget about Scherzer, Fister, Porcello, or Smyly. But in a game that doesn't afford many clubs blank checks, it's the way most teams, including one in Detroit, have been obliged to do business.