Mike Ilitch has shown a willingness that most owners do not, to run the team in such a way that the business breaks even if everything goes well and loses tens of millions if the team scuffles. Nonetheless, you’d have to imagine that the Tigers current payroll – estimated at about $148.7 million – is close to (if not past) the most optimistic break-even point for the franchise. 6 veterans will be eating up $107.8 million in 2014. Austin Jackson, Alex Avila, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello are due arbitration raises from a combined salary of $22.3 million. For Jackson and Scherzer in particular, those raises could be large. Andy Dirks and Al Alburquerque will be first time arb-eligible. Those 7, in addition to the 6 vets under contract, will probably give the Tigers a payroll almost exactly equal to what it is today IF the remaining 12 roster spots go to guys earning close to league minimum.
This poses some uncomfortable questions and uncomfortable realities. The Tigers are going to have holes next year. The Tigers have holes now. But… the Tigers are either going to have to fill those holes on the cheap, dump salaries or raise payroll significantly to $160 million or so. I don’t want the Tigers to dump salaries, neither do you. The smartest way to do that would have been to deal Justin Verlander prior to the 2013 season, but when I made that suggestion the only reactions I got were negative to the point of hostility and tended to involve questions about my sanity. The smartest way to do that in November will probably be to trade Max Scherzer.I have assumed in the past that the Tigers couldn’t possible raise payroll any more, but they have done so repeatedly. Maybe they will do so again. But… I still doubt it – unless Mike Ilitch becomes convinced that there is no other way to compete (and if his $148 million dollar team doesn’t compete in 2014, he will lose piles of money anyway).
What I will be discussing is what it would likely take for the Tigers to follow the first strategy: to field a playoff-worthy team in 2014 (and 2015) without breaking the $150 million mark.
A few things are obvious: the Tigers cannot afford to pay somebody like Jonathan Papelbon. The Tigers cannot afford to sign all of their own free agents, and it might take some creative moves to free up enough money to be able to afford to sign even one. The Tigers are going to need to fill some roster spots with guys that are cheap and productive.
The Tigers will have three valuable free agents after this year: Joaquin Benoit, Omar Infante and Jhonny Peralta. To sign one of these three, remaining “revenue neutral”, one of the Tigers starting pitchers would have to be dealt to free up money and Drew Smyly would have to be moved into the starting rotation.
The Tigers definitely could go with a cheap bullpen in 2013 – there have an abundance of guys in the upper minors (or on the big league club) who might do well. I assume that Phil Coke will be gone, and I’d think that it’s likely that Smyly will be a starter (more on that later) but they could probably get by with Darin Downs and Matt Hoffman as the two lefties in the ‘pen.
Bruce Rondon could be named official closer, come hell or high water, and Al Alburquerque, Brayan Villarreal, Jose Ortega and Luke Putkonen certainly have the stuff to fill out a major league bullpen. As could Casey Crosby if the Tigers were to give up on him as a starter once and for all. A good major league bullpen? Probably not. But a bullpen nonetheless.
Aside from relievers, the only Tiger prospects really knocking on the door for a shot at a role in 2013 are Nick Castellanos, Avisail Garcia and maybe Bryan Holaday. Holaday could replace Brayan Pena, but the money that saves is chump change. Castellanos and Garcia would be competing for playing time either with cheap reserves Don Kelly and Matt Tuiasosopo, expensive veterans with immovable contracts in Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez or Andy Dirks. Dirks hasn’t been great, but he’s still going to be relatively cheap next year and would make a good platoon partner for either Castellanos or Garcia.Basically, the Tigers don’t have much of a need for Avisail Garcia or Nick Castellanos until 2015 when Hunter and Martinez will be gone. In 2015? We could happily put Garcia in RF and make Castellanos a part-time LF and part time DH. That would go a long way toward fixing the Tigers financial issues for 2015-2017 (if they performed well), but it wouldn’t help for 2014.
The issue for 2014 is that the Tigers have no good options in the minors in the middle infield, at least none that are close. They will be losing Jhonny Peralta, Omar Infante and even backup Ramon Santiago. What’s worse (from a financial perspective), Peralta and Infante are actually hitting really well in their walk year which should make them harder to sign. Add on top of all that the fact that the free agent class looks to be pretty weak when it comes to middle infielders…
If we want to rely on the middle infielders that we currently have in the system (no free agents, no trades) we might be able to get replacement level production out of Danny Worth at short and a platoon of Argenis Diaz and Brandon Douglas at second. If the Tigers were in the Astros position, I might even say that it would be interesting to see what those guys could do. But if the Tigers were jockeying with Cleveland and Kansas City at the top of the division, I would say that. It might also be interesting to see what Hernan Perez could do, were the Tigers to rush him to the majors, but only if your primary interest wasn’t in winning games in the present.
As for the free agent market? Unless you think the Tigers should go after Robinson Cano (or maybe Chase Utley), the best players are almost certainly Omar Infante and Jhonny Peralta. If you want cheap – but maybe not “invite to camp” cheap – glove-man Brendan Ryan will be available, and what is shaping up to be a bad 2013 season should depress his value (and your desire to nab him). Alexi Casilla would be an interesting option, should the Orioles decline his $3 million option (but I figure they’ll probably hold onto him). But really the options are fairly grim, and unless something unexpected happens the best free agent options will be to re-sign our own guys before they hit the open market.
I’ll go on the record that what the Tigers should do here is to resign Omar Infante and let Jhonny Peralta walk, though they could consider having Infante move to short if it proved easier to find another second baseman than another shortstop. I’ll also go on the record that they should let Joaquin Benoit walk and try to cobble together a bullpen full of prospects and non-roster invitees. But finding that replacement for Jhonny Peralta is going to be tough, and the Tigers are going to have to make a trade to do it.
The guys who could be on the block would be Scherzer, Fister and Porcello. Which would you trade? Ideally what the Tigers would need is a shortstop who’ll be ready for 2014 and a starter who would be ready in 2015. The Tigers could also try a less obvious route and trade either Garcia or Castellanos for a middle infield prospect with an equivalent ceiling and ETA. There is a reason why the Tigers might not want to wait until November for this – assuming that they have already made the decision. The Biogenesis investigation makes it much more likely that the Tigers could lose Jhonny Peralta (like the Giants lost Melky Cabrera) than any of their other important regulars down the stretch. If, and that’s a big if, a deal had already been made to store the “shortstop of the future” in AAA that would soften the blow significantly.