For Tigers, big salaries mean tough decisions

Tom Gage
The Detroit News

Detroit — Is there a way for the Tigers to sign Max Scherzer and Victor Martinez as free agents and not break the bank?

There is. But it will stretch the bank.

If the core of any team is considered those players making $10 million or more, the Tigers came out of this season with a core of eight.

It can be considered 10, however, because Joe Nathan will make $10 million next season and Rick Porcello, through arbitration, no doubt will be bumped to more than $10 million.

The 10 core players earned nearly $147 million this season.

Five of them — Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Ian Kinsler, Anibal Sanchez and Nathan — already are on the 2015 books for nearly $93 million.

That leaves a base of $54 million to work from for the rest of the core.

It also leaves this question: How do the Tigers sign the five for that amount?

The solution begins with wiggle room, depending on whether owner Mike Ilitch allows the payroll to climb.

It's not a reach to think he will.

The last two years, the payroll increased by $15 million to the more than $163 million it was at this season. Those payroll increases followed one of $27 million from 2011 to 2012.

So, Ilitch has given his blessing to immense additions the last three years, which probably can't continue at the same rate.

But the owner likes his stars, and knows the value of stars, so it's not out of the question he'll permit the payroll to climb to $170 million.

If the extra $7 million is allocated to the five core players still to be signed for 2015, the nest egg climbs to $61 million for the five.

Still a difficult assignment, though.

Complicating the situation are the mid-range salaries of Joakim Soria, a club option for $7 million in 2015, and Alex Avila, a club option for $5.4 million. But there aren't so many of those salaries on the team as to divert the focus from the core.

Bottom line: How do the Tigers sign five premium players, but limit 2015 salaries of the five to $61 million?

The answer is, of course, that they can't. Someone has to go.

Plus if the Tigers opt to renew their pursuit of Scherzer, they'll no doubt do so with the understanding if they sign him, they probably won't be in a position to keep Porcello and David Price as free agents after 2015.

Then again, there's no guarantee either pitcher, in free agency, would opt to stay beyond 2015 even if the Tigers let Scherzer walk.

But if Scherzer would accept $23 million for 2015, backloading the rest of his new contract of more than $165 million, and if Martinez would do the same at $15 million, that would leave $23 million to divide among Price, Porcello and Torii Hunter.

Keeping Hunter, whether the Tigers want him back or not, is simply not practical within the parameters of this plan. The math involved does not allow the Tigers to re-sign him.

So now the Tigers would be down to finding a way of signing Price and Porcello for $23 million.

Both pitchers are arbitration eligible. Both will receive raises from what they made in 2014 — $14 million for Price, $8.5 million for Porcello. So it will be a tight squeeze if, indeed, it's possible at all.

Not picking up Soria's option, however, would help. But the Tigers will have to act on their options long before they know the outcome of Scherzer and Martinez as free agents, so the decisions can't be linked.

The net effect, if it all falls into place, would be the retention of Scherzer and Martinez with backloading cooperation from them for 2015; the awareness they are keeping Scherzer at the cost of not being able to re-sign Porcello or Price beyond 2015; plus the subtractions of Hunter and Soria.

Would you do it? Some would.

But it does light the way to maintaining the core of the team for another pennant run in 2015, if that's what the Tigers believe they need to do.