Tigers decision to sit out free-agent spending spree —  cautious or strategic?

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — Trying to make sense out of what we just witnessed over the last two days and what it may or may not portend for the Tigers.

More than $977 million in salary commitments were distributed among free-agent players Sunday and Monday. So far this offseason, teams, mostly non-playoff teams, have committed some $1.7 billion to free agents.

Tigers general manager Al Avila.

The Texas Rangers, who lost 102 games last season, spent a half a billion dollars on two middle infielders — committing seven years and $175 million to Marcus Semien and 10 years and $325 million to Corey Seager.

The Rangers total payroll the last four seasons was just a bit over $400 million.

The Mets, who signed three players on Sunday including Starling Marte for a total of $124.5 million, gave 37-year-old Max Scherzer a three-year deal worth $130 million. The $43 million annual value is the highest ever bestowed on a player.

More: Tigers not expected to tender a contract to Matthew Boyd

After the 2014 season, Scherzer enraged late Tigers owner Mike Ilitch by turning up his nose at a contract offer of $120 million. He has since made $287,750,658, including the Mets’ deal.

It was a dizzying 48 hours. Mind-boggling when you realize the spending frenzy was fueled by a quasi-fake deadline. Important to note, especially for the non-participants the last couple of days (like the Tigers), that Wednesday is not end of the free-agent signing period.

It only felt like it.

Wednesday, at 11:59 p.m. to be precise, is when the current collective bargaining agreement expires. Teams and the representative of top-tier free agent players were certainly motivated to do deals now and avoid having to deal with whatever uncertainties a new CBA might bring. But the fact is, there will be a new CBA and there will be another free-agent signing period.

Whether that’s in a month or two, whether that’s with a higher competitive balance tax threshold, or no threshold at all, there is going to be another flurry of these signings. And, with all the activity of this past month, some parameters have been established (years and dollar amounts) and some teams may have spent themselves out of the market (Mets, Rangers, Blue Jays and Mariners).

The Tigers, who fired the first shot of the Hot Stove season signing lefty starter Eduardo Rodriguez for $77 million, sat out the madness of the last couple of days. Maybe the terms (seven years for 31-year-old Semien, 10 years for Seager) were more than they could stomach for a player who wasn’t their top choice at shortstop.

Maybe they will still get something done ahead of the lockout, though the clock is ticking loudly.  

Or maybe the retreat was strategic. Maybe they played a little rope-a-dope, letting other teams punch themselves out.

The Rangers took two of the top five free-agent shortstops off the board. That leaves Carlos Correa and Javier Baez, believed to be the Tigers’ top two targets, and Trevor Story on the market. And with the Rangers sated and the Mariners not likely to pony up another $30 million a year for a second baseman (Baez) after giving lefty pitcher Robbie Ray five years and $115 million, the suitor pool might be down to three teams — the Tigers, Yankees and Astros.

Of course other teams could enter the fray. No doubt. But by waiting, the Tigers have at least allowed the herd to thin while their top target remains on the table.

The Tigers were interested in Ray and lefty starter Steven Matz (who signed for four years and $44 million with the Cardinals), but they pulled back. They aren’t going to tender a contract to veteran lefty Matthew Boyd. It was an unsentimental decision by general manager Al Avila, but it put another $7 million or more into the shortstop fund.

He might save another $2 million by not tendering contracts to back-up catchers Grayson Greiner (who cleared waivers and opted for free agency Monday) and Dustin Garneau. He could save another $2 million roughly by not tendering a contract to reliever Joe Jimenez.

Avila said he wasn’t going to put all his eggs in one player’s basket. He said he was going to take a measured approach. But it sure feels like he’s stockpiling eggs for what may have been his top prize all along — Correa. He’s flirted with all the top free-agent shortstops, but he’s never really taken his eyes off Correa.

The Yankees have acted like they aren’t shopping in Correa’s aisle. They’ve made overtures to Andrelton Simmons. But, seeing the buzz the Mets have created in their market, it wouldn’t shock anyone in the industry if they start getting more aggressive. They can certainly afford the 10-year, $330-$350 million commitment.

The Astros still have a part of Correa’s heart. He grew up in that organization and won a World Series with them. They, too, could meet his asking price and convince him to return home.

Who’s going to pony up?  

What the Rangers did Monday was crazy. But, with a new ballpark, a larger and wealthier market and a hungry fan base, their ownership group decided, “Screw it, let’s create some excitement, let’s go buy a competitive team.”

That is the antithesis of the Tigers’ plan, of course. The Tigers aren’t looking for flash. They’re looking for sustainable success, not just to be good immediately, but over a long period of time. That’s been the refrain.   

Who’s to say which is right? Spending nearly $600 million on free agents in a couple of days doesn’t necessarily preclude long-term success, just as the Tigers’ methodical, build-from-within approach doesn’t guarantee sustained success.

It’s a crap shoot. The Rangers had the guts to go all in. For better or worse. They identified Seager and Semien as the players they wanted to build a new culture around and did whatever it took to sign them.

Maybe Avila will go to chairman and CEO Christopher Ilitch and say Correa is our guy. He’s the player who transforms us into a contender. Let’s make it happen. Maybe that conversation already took place. We will see, either in a day or in a couple of months, what that answer was.


Twitter: @cmccosky