It has become something of a tradition for Dave Dombrowski and the Tigers organization to pounce once the free agency period begins. It hasn’t always been that way, though, and there’s nothing to say that it should stay that way. Before 2006 the Tigers – if you recall – had a pretty tough time attracting free agents. The Motor City isn’t exactly the most desirable place to relocate one’s family and the team hadn’t shown much to give hope of contention. So… the Tigers settled for the guys no one else wanted to pay, like Magglio Ordonez and Ivan Rodriguez, and sometimes those paid off pretty well – despite the need to pay that “Detroit Premium”. Once the Tigers started looking more attractive Dombrowski started snapping up the guys he wanted most at market rates, like Victor Martinez and Octavio Dotel.
Moving fast helps you to get what you want – especially if that commodity is scarce – but you’ll often overpay. Take the Phillies last offseason as an example: they wanted the best closer on the market and they got him in Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon did good, with 38 saves and a 2.44 ERA, while many other free agent closers did not (like Heath Bell or Ryan Madson). But to do it they had to give him $50 million over 4 years plus a $13 million vesting option. Late-inning relievers weren’t scarce last season – they rarely are – and the best one turned out to be Fernando Rodney (with one of the best seasons by a reliever, ever) who signed with the Rays for pennies on the Papelbon dollar.
Often the “best guy” is the most likely to excel – but he’s far from a sure thing. You might do as well or better on the cheap. That is not why I suggest the Tigers may want to wait when it comes to their hole in right field, though it is worth keeping in mind. This year’s outfield class is deep and probably the only deep area in this season’s free agent market. When you add to that stars or near stars available in trade like Justin Upton and Shin-Soo Choo – no team should really worry about “missing out”.
We’re also seeing something of a slow moving free agent market, at least in terms of public statements about anything, this year. The outfielders that seem to be drawing the most attention are the guys with lower price tags – like Torii Hunter. I have explained already why Hunter isn’t the guy that I would target – but he’s a fine player and much better than what the Tigers got in right field last season. That’s the kicker – there are an awful lot of guys out there who would offer an improvement over Boesch and the one thing I would really prefer that the Tigers not do is settle for Boesch and friends again going into spring training.
The impression of this market that I am getting so far is that there just isn’t as much cash floating around or willingness to spend it as it would take to get all of these fine free agents the kind of contracts that they are expecting. The losers are going to wind up being the teams that go after bargains early – assuming excessive price tags for better options – and that means Hunter first and foremost. It also means Cody Ross, Melky Cabrera and the teams that go after the relatively more affordable (from a monetary perspective) Justin Upton and Shin-Soo Choo in trades. I’d be surprised if we don’t see the gap in terms of salary narrow between those guys and the rest of the outfield field narrow as the winter wears on. In my mind the winners are going to be the handful of teams with cash to burn that would ordinarily need to overpay (like Seattle) and potentially teams like the Tigers that have shown the willingness to grab a guy that doesn’t fit in the budget (Jose Valverde) if they smell a deal. That deal this year could be Josh Hamilton.