Now for a little offseason thought experiment: where would the Tigers franchise be if it were not for owner Mike Ilitch? This isn’t an issue of deep pockets, simply that Mike Ilitch the super-fan views the Tigers as a toy rather than an investment and doesn’t require the franchise to pay it’s own way, much less print money for him. I cannot say enough times how glad I am – as a Tiger fan – that Mike Ilitch owns this franchise and not somebody like Jeff Loria.
If a “normal” owner was calling the shots, the Tigers – as a mid-market team – could afford a middling payroll of maybe $90 million, provided the team was winning games and drawing fans. NOT a payroll of $130 million in the upper echelons of baseball. What would this team have to do to get there? Obviously the team would not be re-signing Anibal Sanchez or any of their other free agents, that’s a given. It is unlikely that the new ownership would have wanted to pick up the options on Jhonny Peralta or Octavio Dotel. That would still leave $90 million of existing contractual obligations in 2012 plus $28.4 million in projected arbitration salaries and $3-$4 million in salaries due for guys earning close to league minimum. $5 million of those arbitration salaries are for Ryan Raburn, Brennan Boesch and Don Kelly – 3 players who were expected to be non-tendered in the real world. But in this dystopian fantasy offseason that could change. Any way you cut it – if Dombrowski were given a mission to somehow pare payroll down to $90 million while keeping a competitive product on the field, some guys that nobody wants to see dealt would have to be dealt.
First – who is untouchable? Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit are probably if not immovable then immovable without eating salary. Everyone else is definitely tradeable and would have definite value. The only other Tigers that are under contract for 2013 already are Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Ramon Santiago and Omar Infante. Infante is making a whopping $4 million. Realistically the Tigers could not get payroll under $100 million much less $90 million without trading Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera or both since the only way to do it would be to trade away Omar Infante and every single arbitration-eligible player and fill their roles with guys earning the league minimum.
Allow me to paint you a grim picture: when the other Ilitchs (the ones that don’t care that much whether the team wins or loses) give the directive to pare payroll to $90 million (and start fishing for potential buyers) Dave Dombrowski announces that no one is off-limits and begins taking offers. Assuming this happens after options are picked up for Jhonny Peralta and Octavio Dotel, I’d assume that these decent complementary pieces (which salaries that match their values) are the first to be dealt – for single-A prospects in some team’s top 20 but not their top 10. Miguel Cabrera – after winning the first triple crown in 45-years – goes to the Texas Rangers to play first base in exchange for Mike Olt (the Tigers new 3rd baseman) and Jurickson Profar (the Tigers new shortstop). Payroll still comes in at $96 million – higher than the new owners think the market can support. Tigers fans are rioting in the streets and season ticket sales have plummeted to 2005 levels, so Dombrowski is told to announce that Justin Verlander is off limits and that the team is trying to get younger but but without sacrificing quality.
Moving Max Scherzer and his $7.5 million arbitration salary seems to be just what the doctor ordered to get down to a sustainable payroll. The Blue Jays want Scherzer baaaad, but they don’t have any AAA pitchers to offer in return. Not a problem for wheeler-dealer Dombrowski who snags AAA catcher Travis D’Arnaud together with Lansing left-hander Noah Snydergaard for Scherzer. With Alex Avila now superfluous (and a void in the starting rotation) Dombrowski calls up Sandy Alderson to work out a deal. The Mets are willing to part with top prospect Zack Wheeler to improve a catching position that gave them below-replacement level production in 2012 so long as the Tigers throw in marginal prospects Adam Wilk and Ben Guez.
Now I don’t know if all this is even plausible – though it sure sounds plausible to me. Without Mike Ilitch we could be looking at an opening day lineup of:
1. Austin Jackson (CF)
2. Andy Dirks (LF)
3. Jurickson Profar (SS)
4. Prince Fielder (1B)
5. Victor Martinez (DH)
6. Mike Olt (3B)
7. Travis D’Arnaud (C)
8. Omar Infante (2B)
9. Avisail Garcia (RF)
With a rotation of Verlander, Fister, Porcello, Smyly and Zack Wheeler. A closer named Phil Coke with Joaquin Benoit, Brayan Villarreal, Al Alburquerque, Luis Marte, Casey Crosby and Duane Below rounding out the bullpen.
Strangely, that does seem like a team that could still contend for the AL Central title in 2013 and 2014 – if a few things broke their way. It’s also possible that I overestimate what Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer and Alex Avila would bring on the trade market – though I doubt that. Not sure that it’s something that I’d like to find out, though.