Tigers' free-agent pursuit will be robust, expensive

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Two months after he installed Al Avila as captain of a newer-version Tigers team, owner Mike Ilitch is expected to soon sit with his general manager and decide how the Tigers will attack 2016.

No one knows to what extent the team will invest, or divest, in putting together a roster. But all indications point to Ilitch making a full-throttle push for the playoffs and a shot at the World Series his team has yet to win.

What is known is this:

Any attempt to make a last-place Tigers team playoff-grade in 2016 will be enormously expensive. It could bring a payroll already in the $150-million range to something near $200 million. It could mean the Tigers will eclipse big-league baseball's luxury-tax ceiling of $189 million and face a 17.5 percent penalty on every dollar paid beyond $189 million.

Figures stand to soar all because the Tigers' shopping list is heavy.

Two starting pitchers. A bullpen closer. At least one other reliever. An option in left field. All would be among Avila's autumn targets once a market loaded with free agents and potential trades begins to bubble following the World Series wrap-up.

The Tigers no doubt would love to add a pair of starters (left-handed and right-handed) in, for example, Mike Leake and Scott Kazmir. They would welcome a closer, even if it means an expensive trade for Aroldis Chapman or Craig Kimbrel. They would feel very good about their 2016 lineup if Alex Gordon or even Ben Zobrist could be lured to Detroit.

But how to get there.

Salaries have their limits, even in Ilitch's generous world. Trades require attractive players a club can afford to offer. The Tigers will face realities as well as constraints.

"We're still looking at going into the offseason and filling our pitching needs — starting pitching more than anything," said Avila, who replaced Dave Dombrowski after Ilitch announced Aug. 4 he was changing GMs.

"Again, if you're a rebuilding team, it's a whole different story. But we're looking at 2016 as trying to get back into the playoffs and shoot for a World Series."

There is no indication the Tigers will sell inventory, as they did dramatically at July's trade deadline. And that is all because circumstances then were different.

Ilitch wanted the Tigers last summer to add a starter, a reliever, and whatever personnel might salvage Detroit's fading playoff dream. But a starved farm system meant there was little to bring to July's trade mart.

The Tigers instead faced facts and turned sellers, fetching a fat batch of prospects for David Price, Yoenis Cespedes, and Joakim Soria, all of whom were headed for this fall's free-agent auction.

Now, of course, the Tigers are trying to "reboot," as Dombrowski famously wrote in a trade-deadline memo. And that means replenishing the very regions that were diminished by July's deals.

What is not known is how much the Tigers can realistically budget when their 2015 Opening Day payroll already ranked as the fifth-highest among 30 teams.

The Tigers will shed about $64 million in salaries thanks to players either traded or destined for free agency. The problem is they have $104 million committed to five star players (Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Victor Martinez, Anibal Sanchez, and Ian Kinsler) and tens of millions more due in raises for 2016.

Any expensive free-agent shopping almost certainly will cost the Tigers in two ways.

They would be expected to pay anywhere from $150 million-$200 million for a starter on the level of Price, which isn't the way Ilitch and his front office have preferred to go since making Max Scherzer a $144 million bid early in 2014.

Rather than push for a franchise starter, the Tigers more likely will shoot for older, more affordable options — perhaps pitchers more in line with right-hander Isashi Iwakuma, who is 34, or Mike Pelfrey, who is 31 and who doesn't carry the cachet — or the price tag — of the elite crowd.

Jeff Samardzija, 30, is another possibility, all because his second-half tumble with the White Sox might have lowered his retail price to a height the Tigers could at least approach.

Aroldis Chapman

A trade, too, could happen, should the Padres want to unload James Shields and his expensive contract on a Tigers team that could, conceivably, scrape together something agreeable.

One near-certainty is that Ilitch and Avila are mutually fed up with annual bullpen issues and will work to fix the Tigers' back-end relief cast. The operative word there: work.

Baseball's closers market is tight this autumn. It means the Tigers could opt for more of a quasi ninth-inning choice such as Darren O'Day, Ryan Madson, or Tyler Clippard. Or, they could at least talk about Chapman or Kimbrel and see if the Reds or Padres found anything on Detroit's shelves worth swapping.

The Tigers, though, will be hunting multiple relievers this autumn. Ilitch made clear with his July-August moves that he wanted changes there, and no one understands the mandate more than Avila.

A new GM will also be on safari for an outfield bat. The Tigers need a left-fielder to replace Cespedes and another right-handed hitting free agent, Rajai Davis.

Zobrist would be helpful, particularly when he can play multiple positions. So, too, would Gordon, especially when he bats left-handed and carries a Gold Glove.

But the line will be long for each. Hitters have become even more of a premium as the game has moved to a pitching-heavy phase and no one expects that Cespedes, Gordon, or even Zobrist will be signed affordably.

The Tigers had hoped rookie Steven Moya would be ready to take Cespedes' turn in left field in 2016. That isn't happening, not in the team's view today. And when Tyler Collins is pegged more as a platoon answer in left, the Tigers and Avila aren't staring at any easy fixes.

But all of this was known in August when Avila and Ilitch decided to work in tandem. They also decided, in principle, to make the Tigers' 2015 playoff vacation a one-year sabbatical.

They'll work it out this autumn, this quest for 2016 and a return to the postseason, however a new roster shapes up. And, it appears, whatever that pursuit might cost.

POTENTIAL TIGERS FREE-AGENT TARGETS 

STARTING PITCHERS

Player, Team, Age*, ERA

Scott Kazmir, Astros, 32, 4.17

Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners, 34, 3.54

J.A. Happ, Pirates, 33, 3.74

Marco Estrada, Blue Jays, 32, 3.13

Brett Anderson, Dodgers, 28, 3.69

Wei-Yin Chen, Orioles, 30, 3.34

Mike Leake, Giants, 28, 3.70

Doug Fister, Nationals, 32, 4.19

Yovani Gallardo, Rangers, 30, 3.42

Mike Pelfrey , Twins, 32, 4.26

Ian Kennedy, Padres, 31, 4.28

Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals, 29, 3.66

RIGHT-HANDED RELIEVERS

Darren O'Day, Orioles, 33, 1.54

Joakim Soria, Pirates, 31, 2.57

Shawn Kelley, Padres, 31, 2.45

Mark Lowe, Blue Jays, 32, 1.96,

Tyler Clippard, Mets, 31, 2.96

Ryan Madson, Royals, 35, 2.13

Tommy Hunter, Cubs, 29, 4.18

Ryan Webb, Indians, 30, 3.20

David Hernandez, Diamondbacks, 30, 4.28

Edward Mujica, Athletics, 31, 4.75

LEFT-HANDED RELIEVERS

Antonio Bastardo, Pirates, 30, 2.98

Neal Cotts, Twins, 36, 3.41

Manny Parra, Reds, 33, 3.90

Tony Sipp, Astros, 32, 2.01

Matt Thornton, Nationals, 39, 2.18

Joe Beimel, Mariners, 39, 3.99

OUTFIELDERS

Name, Team, Age*, Average

Yoenis Cespedes, Mets, 30, .290

Alex Gordon, Royals, 32, .271

Rajai Davis, Tigers, 35, .258

Gerardo Parra, Orioles, 28, .289

Colby Rasmus, Astros, 29, .240

Chris Young, Yankees, 32, .252

Ben Zobrist, Royals, 34, .276

* - age on Opening Day 2016