Tigers facing even higher payroll possibilities

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Tap at a calculator for a few revealing moments and anyone can see the Tigers are colliding with significant and potentially daunting 2015 payroll realities.

Even with the possible loss of free agents Max Scherzer, Victor Martinez, and Torii Hunter and the combined $41.2 million they drew this season, the Tigers are staring at a guaranteed range of $150 million for contracts already on the books and likely to be renewed ahead of next season. Five star players, alone, will earn about $100 million.

The specific figure is difficult to peg because of arbitration status for several key performers (David Price, Rick Porcello, J.D. Martinez, and others). But the obligations already owed to players considered — at least for now — vital to 2015 are heavy and could easily exceed 2014's Opening Day payroll of $163 million-plus, which was the fourth-highest salary figure in the big leagues.

That number could be crushed if the Tigers sign any of their high-profile free agents, with Victor Martinez perhaps the most likely to be pursued. And even if Martinez, 35, returns following a career season, the Tigers will be left to replace Scherzer and his top-shelf rotation spot, as they also seek help in two areas that in 2014 were weak links — outfield and bullpen.

The choices for the Tigers appear to be inescapable.

They can bump payroll well beyond $170 million in 2015 and sign players on the level of the free agents they might or might not attempt to reclaim. They can trade existing salaries for lower-price options that perhaps enable them to affordably address multiple roster needs. Or, they can blend less expensive acquisitions with existing personnel and younger prospects, which could represent a heavy risk for a team hoping to win its fifth consecutive American League Central Division title.

Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers president and general manager whose payroll contours are determined by his boss, owner Mike Ilitch, would not speak in specific terms about the salary plans or limits ahead of 2015.

"We just don't discuss our payroll, publicly," Dombrowski said this week. "It's always a consideration to some extent, but it's not something we talk about openly."

Luxury tax bite possible

Any payday pressure ahead of 2015 is the natural consequence of having assembled a roster heavy with stars and corresponding salaries.

Miguel Cabrera will earn $22.5 million in 2015, while Justin Verlander, who had a bumpy 2014, will pull $28.5 million as part of a grandiose contract extension he signed in 2013.

Ian Kinsler and Anibal Sanchez each will make $16 million in 2015, while two starting pitchers are eligible for arbitration. Those pitchers are Price and Rick Porcello and each is certain to pull a salary more meaningful than their 2014 numbers ($14 million for Price, $8.5 million for Porcello).

It is possible the Tigers, should they make bold bids to sign Martinez, replace Scherzer, and patch their outfield and bullpen holes, could even pay a luxury tax to the commissioner's office — if 2015 payroll reaches or exceeds $189 million, an altitude that would seem unlikely but can't be ruled out.

The Tigers are one of five teams to ever have paid a luxury tax since it was installed in 2003. They paid $1.3 million — 17 percent of their overrun — in 2008 when they eclipsed that year's ceiling of $155 million.

Martinez due a raise

Simple market math, as it applies to this autumn's free-agent crop, makes clear the challenge.

Martinez, who hit 32 home runs in 2014 and contended for a batting championship, gave the Tigers ideal offense as a cleanup hitter who followed Cabrera and helped protect him from a parade of intentional walks.

The Tigers paid Martinez a relatively bargain salary of $12 million in 2014. His agents are known to be seeking a four-year deal that, regardless of length, probably will earn Martinez in the vicinity of $15 million-$18 million per season.

Such a salary by itself would push the Tigers past their 2014 mark. But extending his time in Detroit as a superstar designated hitter — Dombrowski has made plain the club's affection for Martinez — is hardly the team's only shopping assignment.

Scherzer must be replaced and by no means is it known if the Tigers have young pitchers ready to handle rotation responsibilities when Scherzer, who already turned down $144 million from Detroit, signs elsewhere.

Any veteran pitcher the Tigers would be inclined to view as insurance for 2015 is unlikely to come cheaply. Likewise, Dombrowski's expressed search for a new center fielder figures to be expensive, with free agent Colby Rasmus (28, $7 million in 2014 salary from the Blue Jays) but one example of the price range Dombrowski and the Tigers will confront.

Hunter would require something similar if the Tigers have thoughts of bringing him back for another season. Dombrowski and his lieutenants have grand plans at some point of stationing rookie Steven Moya in right field. But at 23, and having played no higher than at Double A — except for a September call-up to the Tigers — Moya is no sure thing for 2015.

Solid reliever will cost

Then, of course, there is Detroit's annual safari to find solid relief pitchers. The brand of help Dombrowski ideally would seek is embodied by Andrew Miller, who helped the Orioles sweep the Tigers in the American League Division Series.

Miller is a brilliant left-hander who figures to pull a long-term deal to match his skills: something in the vicinity of $8 million-10 million per year.

Determining if the Tigers can seriously consider any of the above likely might depend on how much salary the Tigers can shed in trades or in declining option-year contracts, with Joakim Soria a possible candidate there.

Soria will make $7 million in 2015 — if the Tigers accept his contract option. Otherwise, they can buy him out for $500,000 and make him a free agent. Should they turn him loose — he was injured but also mystifyingly erratic after the Tigers traded for him in July — Soria will be viewed as one of the most expensive player rentals in recent Tigers history given the two top-drawer pitching prospects they lost in July's deadline deal.

Kinsler could be dealt

Even bigger concessions could be part of Detroit's 2015 strategy. The Tigers might be all but forced to trade Kinsler, assuming a well-heeled team such as the Yankees, in need of a second baseman, would absorb Kinsler and the $16 million he is owed in 2015 as part of a long-term deal that guarantees him at least $46 million.

Parting with Kinsler would enable the Tigers to go with a low-cost option at second base, probably Hernan Perez or Eugenio Suarez, rookies who would neither promise a brand of defense Kinsler brought or provide the offense Kinsler added, at least before he dealt in 2014 with a second-half fade.

Neither can Price be ignored as a trade chip, although a year before he hits free agency, any club trading for him would seemingly need to satisfy two needs: reasonable assurance the trading club (the Dodgers are considered a potential stop) would be able to extend Price, as well as meeting the Tigers need for a starting pitcher who could at least make Price's exit tolerable.

That's a complicated and improbable scenario. But neither will Dombrowski's ventures likely be easy or ideal as he attacks the Tigers various payroll and personnel issues ahead of 2015.

If any offseason has required Dombrowski to be part GM and part magician, it's the autumn and winter of 2014-15. The paychecks a supposed contender is obligated to sign next season makes a front-office general's task rather transparent.