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Goodbye Payroll Flexibility, Hello Red Ink

Much has been made of the length of the Prince Fielder contract and the likelihood (or lack thereof) that Fielder will still be an MVP-caliber hitter into his mid-30s. I don’t think that matters much. The Tigers will be limited in some ways in 2018 by the money they owe Fielder, but he is (of course) the only Tiger currently under contract for that year. The bigger questions are: what will be the impact on Tigers’ personnel decisions over the next 3 years when Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Fielder AND Victor Martinez are under contract and whether the presence of Fielder’s contract will impact the Tigers desire or ability to extend Verlander or Cabrera when their current contracts expire.

It seems to have become much more difficult in recent years to move a player – even a productive one – who is owed a sizeable amount of money. Cabrera or Verlander could, no doubt, be shipped off (not that we could stomach something like that) and get a decent prospect haul in return. I doubt that the same is true for Victor Martinez. If, following the 2012 season, the Tigers were to decide that there was no room for him at the inn they would probably have to eat a big chunk of salary and accept a couple of marginal prospects in return. That isn’t going to help much as far as keeping the team winning and keeping the team in the black. We’re more likely to see the Tigers try to squeeze Fielder, Cabrera and Martinez in the same lineup for better or worse – even if that means that Martinez does some catching and Cabrera mans the hot corner. So what we’re really looking at as far as how this signing is going to affect personnel decisions over the next 3 years is how Dombrowski and Illitch are going to fill out a competitive roster around those 4 big-money contracts as in 2013 the Tigers will be paying those four between $75 and $80 million. If we assume that the Tigers would still like to keep payroll for the next 3 years at around $120 million (which could still mean lots of red ink if they don’t make the World Series) that definitely limits their options for the remaining spots on the roster.

The model for a roster in a situation like this is what is often dubbed a ‘stars and scrubs’ lineup, like the ones that the St. Louis Cardinals had so much success with in the Pujols/Carpenter era. The basic idea is to keep your overall payroll in the upper middle despite paying a handful of guys a lot of money by trying to get as much production as you possibly can out of cheap players for the rest of the roster. As anyone familiar with these issues is already aware, the most effective way to do this is to have a good farm system that generates productive youngsters to fill roles on the team. Eventually those guys are going to need to be paid something commensurate to their production, so you won’t be able to hold onto them forever (potentially even into their arbitration years) but if you can replace them with equally talented youngsters team quality need not slip. The key – though obviously it’s a great thing to have an MVP candidate earning $500,000 – is to have enough solid talent that you never need pay free agent prices for a guy to give you league average production.

Unfortunately, the Tigers roster as it exists today isn’t built that way. The Tigers do have a lot of positions filled by guys who are or were expected to be ‘average’ or a little bit above and paid market rates. IF you have $75 million plus committed to 4 guys and need to fill a lot of roster spots with well-paid veterans you may have a team that’s quite good but it will be extremely expensive. Maybe not Yankee expensive, but expensive enough to push the luxury tax boundary. It appears that the Tigers payroll will be about $135 million this year with lots of arb raises coming in 2013. That said, the Tigers made this deal to win now and they aren’t likely to make any moves in the near term just to cut payroll for that reason alone. That and, as I mentioned earlier, it’s difficult to find any takers for a guy who’s getting paid as much as or more than he’s worth. Inge could be cut, but you won’t be able to free up any cash by doing that. The same is true for Delmon Young. The rest of the Tigers well-paid vets are genuinely necessary if not downright irreplaceable.

I’m going to assume (since I am filled to the brim with post-signing optimism) that there is no chance of a Chicago-style implosion leading to a mid-season drive to dump salaries, so if the Tigers are in it to win it all the way through this season the action will start next November. Scherzer, Coke and Porcello (and Kelly, I suppose) will be in their second arbitration years and expecting a raise, as will Boesch, Jackson, Avila and Fister in their first years of arb. Balester and Schlereth will also be first-year eligibles and Kelly will be in his second, for what that’s worth. That’s a fairly sizeable chunk of the roster. Inge and Delmon Young will be free agents and with or without Fielder those are two guys that the Tigers shouldn’t have been interested in extending – at least at anything close to what they’re being paid now. With the elimination of Type-B free agency, they’re probably not worth offering arbitration to (even as a high-risk gamble) either. Ryan Raburn and Jose Valverde will be free agents as well and those decisions may be impacted by this new salary pressure. Octavio Dotel and Jhonny Peralta both have club options for 2013, their salaries are fair and if Peralta hits like he did last year downright club-favorable. Still, if money is tight one or both might see their option declined for fiscal reasons alone. Joaquin Benoit and Ramon Santiago are under contract through 2013, but will be free agents after.

The big problem for the Tigers in building a competitive team around the four horsemen without winding up with a $150 million payroll that even Illitch can’t fund is the lack of positional talent in the minors that is ready or nearly ready to contribute. The Tigers have exactly one blue chipper, Castellanos, and chances are we’ll see him occupying either third base or a corner outfield spot in 2013 or 2014 whether or not he is really ready for it. Retaining Inge, Young or Raburn won’t be much of a possibility following this season – especially if any of them actually play well – nor will we likely see any free agents signed to fill those positions. However much Leyland may love him, it’s hard to imagine Don Kelly not becoming a salary casualty with cheaper utility options available. After 2012 we may see Cabrera at third, Santiago full-time at second and Andy Dirks getting the majority of the starts in left with low-ceiling youngsters like Justin Henry and Ben Guez as backups. For 2014 it’s anyone’s guess how those vacancies in the middle infield will be filled.

The only way for the Tigers to really cut payroll for positional players would be to decline Peralta’s option – but unless they would be content with Santiago and Henry et al. there aren’t a lot of options there. Peralta is a cog. Where the team can and probably will look at cutting payroll – or at the very least restraining it’s growth – is on the pitching staff. While the team has an empty cupboard in the farm system as far as position players are concerned, they have an abundance of pitching talent. Perhaps some will be dealt for bats, I don’t know and can’t predict. If we assume that the Tigers attempt to make do with what they have – if possible – while shunning free agents, I can forecast a likely scenario.

Valverde is going to walk: closers are always overpaid, even when they are great, and the easiest way for a team on a budget to cut payroll is by turning a non-closer (with a non-closer salary) into a closer. Since Benoit is on the record not wanting to close, ever, who will actually do it come 2013 is an open question. Dan Shlereth and Phil Coke should be non-tendered or traded to avoid paying those arbitration raises – not because they won’t be worth the money but because the Tigers have many in-house options to fill those left-handed relief vacancies. [Personally I'm picturing Andy Oliver and Austin Wood.] Whether or not the team can or should exercise Dotel’s option will depend on a number of factors including Brayan Villarreal‘s and Casey Crosby‘s development and Al Alburquerque‘s health. Dotel might even be kept and then used as a budget closer.

In the rotation, we’re likely to see a prospect in the 5 spot. The big questions will surround arbitration-eligible Porcello, Scherzer and Fister. All three could become quite expensive following a good 2012 and all could have real value in trade next offseason, should management want to make a move. Again, the Tigers do have an abundance of pitching prospects in the upper majors. We don’t know how exactly those guys will develop this season, or what how they would ultimately fare in the bigs, but they are there. If things go poorly, the Tigers will have difficulty finding a decent fifth starter for 2012 and 2013 from within the organization, but if things go well they could potentially replace all three of their arbitration-eligibles with guys earning the league minimum for real production and get a decent return in trade. That (and probably only that) could allow the Tigers to maintain a playoff-caliber team with a salary in the top 10 but not the top 5 for 2013 and 2014.

As for what happens when Verlander’s and Cabrera’s contracts expire? That’s an equally interesting vein of speculation at the moment, but to be frank I don’t have a clue. I would have to imagine that the single most important factor would be whether or not Mike Illitch is still with us in the winter of 2014 – and let’s all drink to his health.

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