Don’t worry, the scorn is on the way – but for now lets heap some praise. Dave Dombrowski has fairly strongly hinted that this offseason is – for all intents and purposes – over. The Tigers 2014 roster is basically set, unless (I suppose) Mike Ilitch gets a call from Scott Boras in late January or someone makes an offer on Scherzer that DD would be silly to refuse. As such – it’s time to evaluate this Tigers offseason as a whole.
One thing we’re all noticing is that free agent prices are going through the roof. A lot of national writers have made a note of this and it’s not really in dispute. This year, a dollar doesn’t seem to be buying all that much on the free agent market. Part of that is, no doubt, due to economic recovery (since the recession did hurt free agents a few years back) but a potentially much larger part is due to the new national TV money flowing to every team from top to bottom – and the fact that it is no longer possible to plow that money back into amateur signing bonuses. I’m not entirely sure that Dombrowski saw this coming in it’s full extent – if he did he might have made Jhonny Peralta a qualifying offer (which Jhonny Peralta, not seeing this coming, probably would have enthusiastically accepted) – but it’s easy to see how this sea change has affected the Tigers offseason strategy and when put in this light Dombrowski’s moves seem a little cannier.
Looking at the market for relievers specifically: the rumor today (from John Heyman of CBS Sports) is that Fernando Rodney is demanding a 2-year, $20 million deal. We saw Boone Logan sign for 3 years and $15 million and Joe Smith sign for 3 years and $15.75 million (among many other lucrative deals). If this particular free agent class was to be considered “deep” anywhere, it was undoubtedly deep in bullpen arms, but nonetheless.. Jim Johnson‘s estimated $11 million arbitration salary was no barrier to trading him to the usually penny-pinching Oakland A’s. Dave Dombrowski struck early and signed the guy (Joe Nathan) that most considered to be the best reliever on the market to a deal that was below his projection and now appears well below market. That’s worthy of commendation.
The Coke deal – coming in at a little less than $2 million plus incentives – seems a little less foolhardy when viewed in this context: in a world where Boone Logan is worth $15 million over three years, Phil Coke might have a market value greater than $2 million over 1 year. In other years, Phil Coke might have been left fishing for a minor-league deal but this is not such a year and the big reason would appear to be that everyone is spending. I don’t mean this to sound as though I’m shocked by the Logan deal or that I don’t think Logan is any good but you have to at least remember that Logan has a career 4.39 ERA and has been worth 1.5 WAR over the past 3 years. If the Rockies expect Logan to pitch like he has pitched over the past 3, they’re paying $10 million per win. Coke averaged 0.4 WAR over the past 2 years (which weren’t very good years) and if the Tigers expect him to do exactly that next year then they’re paying him a hair under $5 million per win. That’s more like last year’s market rate and apparently well below this year’s market rate.
Basically, this is a terrible time to try to improve your club on the free agent market. It’s like going Christmas shopping in Switzerland (things are really expensive in Switzerland). The Joba Chamberlain deal makes a similar sort of sense to the Coke contract – it’s about the closest thing to a bargain you’re going to find right now, even if he comes with a lot of command risk. We even hear that Chamberlain had a better offer on the table but chose to come to Detroit for less, and a better chance at the postseason. The difference would be that Chamberlain pitched so poorly last year, and so little in 2011-2012, that he has been below replacement level overall for the past 3 years. If you go a little farther back (gambling on his health and control returning to ‘normal’) Chamberlain has been worth 6 WAR over the past 6 years – so the Tigers got him for $2.5 million per win. So, they’re getting a 50% off discount for the risk involved relative to last year’s prices – or apparently 75% off relative to this year’s prices. Not a bad deal. If Dombrowski’s mission has been to get talented veterans at bargain prices for the ‘pen, he’s done well. We all have our list of relievers we would have liked to see him sign, but chances are they would have cost a fair bit more.
This salary inflation probably factored into the Tigers two big trades this offseason: the Prince Fielder-Ian Kinsler swap and the Doug Fister markdown sale. Fielder’s contract seems a little more fair relative to the offers some other guys are seeing, as frankly does Kinsler’s. As far as Doug Fister goes – bear in mind that arbitration salaries do track free agent contracts. If free agent contracts are rising, so ultimately will arbitration awards. That’s not the important thing, though – the important thing is that cost-controlled talent gets more valuable the more expensive free agents become. In Ian Krol the Tigers may be getting a Boone Logan for $500K per year. In Steve Lombardozzi they may be getting a $2.5 million utility guy. In Robbie Ray, the centerpiece of the deal, they’re hoping to get a $10 million + per year pitcher for pennies. Dombrowski may have been absolutely correct about finding no better offers for Fister and it may be that, rather than GMs all over undervaluing Fister, GMs all over are extraordinarily tight-fisted with their prospects right now.
More than simply explaining why Dombrowski’s moves this offseason may be better than they have appeared at first glance, salary inflation also makes Dombrowski’s strategy a year ago look awfully canny. Remember – a year ago the Tigers spent money no one figured that they had to bring in Torii Hunter and particularly to sign Anibal Sanchez to a 5-year deal. I have made the case before that the Tigers were spending the $25 million national TV windfall early on Sanchez – and in that light Sanchez looks like the best use anyone has put that money to yet. Not only did he have a phenomenal 2013, were he a free agent today I think he’d be looking for significantly more than what he got from Detroit. Waiting to spend that extra money until now, when they actually had it in pocket, would have meant joining the horde pursuing (for example) Matt Garza. The same goes for Hunter, believe it or not. Had Dombrowski elected to go with a cheaper stopgap in right (and either hand the job over to a prospect or a free agent for the 2014 offseason) a player of equivalent talent to Hunter (like Carlos Beltran) would have cost more and almost certainly cost a draft pick in this market. Looking back, the only regret would be that Dombrowski didn’t take advantage of the relatively low prices a year ago to lock down another setup man at a bargain price (like Koji Uehara‘s deal for example).