Bonine, Ni Caught in Numbers Games


Every spring, every team has the same problem; what do you do with players who might be good enough to make the team when you have older players already under contract? When the season ended for the Tigers last October, two pitchers had worked themselves into vital roles for Detroit, and now both men face stiff competition for their major league jobs.

For right hander Eddie Bonine, this isn’t a new situation. A year ago, Bonine was an unproven minor league arm in the Tigers camp. There was a battle taking place for the Tigers’ rotation and Bonine was quietly pitching effectively. By the end of camp in 2009, Detroit had made some tough decisions. The disabled list welcomed Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Wills, Nate Robertson was shifted to relief work, and Zach Miner has inserted into a starting spot, along with 20 year old Rick Porcello. Bonine broke camp with the big club in a long relief role.

Though he didn’t stick in the majors for long, Bonine would return to Detroit later last summer and eventually joined the starting rotation, pitching fairly well down the stretch and doing his best to keep the Tigers in the lead in the Central. Still, when camp opened this year, Bonine was no higher than fourth on a list of five possible starters to fill the final two spots in the rotation.

Fu-Te Ni was a newcomer to both the Tigers and the United States when he arrived in Lakeland last spring as a non-roster invitee. Ni pitched well enough, but started the season in Toledo. When Robertson went down with an elbow problem, Ni was called up to take over as the second left hander in Jim Leyland’s bullpen. Ni was dazzling in his initial stint in the majors and eventually took over as the number one lefty when Bobby Seay came up injured late in the year.

But Dave Dombrowski spent the offseason acquiring as many left handed relievers as he could, and now Ni is left staring up at a list of pitchers with bigger salaries than his. And make no mistake, salary does play a part in deciding who makes the team.

To hear Lynn Henning tell the story, you would think the Tigers make a habit out of releasing big salaries, but that’s just not the case. It’s true, Mike Ilitch did okay the release of Damion Easley and his $12.7MM deal back in 2003, and he did swallow better than $13MM just last year when Detroit cut ties with Gary Sheffield. But, you don’t make money by giving it away, which is something a shrewd business man like Ilitch knows quite well.

Last year, the Tigersphere was filled with talk of sunk costs. It was thought by many that if the Tigers are getting no return on their investments in several players, that some of those players should simply be released to allow for other players to take their roster spots and hopefully improve the team. To a point, I can agree with that line of thinking, but only if there truly is zero return on the investment. Otherwise, you are throwing money away when you don’t have to.

Anyone with a working knowledge of Cot’s Contracts can see that the Tigers have an enormous amount of money coming off the books after the 2010 season. If you haven’t seen it for yourself, Henning and others like to pen columns about it every week or so. Knowing the situation, it would be downright foolish to eat the contacts of any player who can be a help to this team, this year. Especially if the potential replacement players aren’t overwhelming in their push to make the team.

In Henning’s article the other day, he wrote that if Bonine pitched his way into the rotation, the Tigers would eat as many as two of the three “big contracts” held by Bonderman, Robertson, and Willis. It’s true that Leyland has said that no failed starter is guaranteed a bullpen job, but he didn’t rule it out, either. You just don’t absorb bad contracts until you are quite sure that the team is better if you do. If there is another way out, you explore those routes first.

And here’s the other way out for the Tigers: option years.

Any player with under five years of major league service time can be placed on minor league assignment in three seasons. He can be shuttled back and forth between the majors and minors as many times as needed in each season and still use only one option. Once a player has amassed five years of service time, he gains the right to refuse an assignment, regardless of whether or not he has burned through all of his option years.

Minor league options are greatly beneficial to teams in spots like the Tigers are in this spring. When it comes to finalizing the roster for Opening Day, the Tigers will certainly do their best to identify the team that gives them the best chance to win, but they won’t jettison a player if they don’t have to.

Look at the bullpen situation. If the Tigers feel the difference between Ni and Seay, for example, is not significant, Seay will be with the Tigers and Ni will go to Toledo. Seay has no options left and Ni does. If Ni were to make the club ahead of Seay, Seay would have to clear waivers to be sent down and likely be lost to another team. Keeping Ni in the minors allows the Tigers to have depth. If there is an injury to Phil Coke, for example, Ni could then be called up to replace him. On the other hand, If Ni makes the team and then gets hurt, Seay is no longer with the team, and you have to look to a much more inexperienced pitcher to fill the role.

The same applies to the rotation/long relievers. Eddie Bonine has an option left, so does Armando Galarraga. Bonderman, Willis, and Robertson all have better than five years service time, and Zach Miner is out of options. The Tigers can open the season with Bonderman and Willis in the rotation, use Robertson in the bullpen along with Miner, and send Bonine and Galarraga to AAA, spending no more money than is already planned.

If they really like Bonine versus another pitcher, say Miner or Willis, that pitcher would have to be designated for assignment. In that process, the player would go through the waiver process. If unclaimed, he could be traded, released, or sent to the minors with permission of the player. If the player were to refuse assignment (and he would), he becomes a free agent and the team is on the hook for his salary.

Henning’s article talks about Bonine winning a job in the rotation as if all things are equal. Quite simply, they are not. I do agree that it is very possible the Tigers do release one of their big contracts before camp breaks, but they’ll not release two, which is what Bonine would need them to do in order to make the rotation. He could still make the club, but it would be as a reliever, and only if Miner is moved, either via trade or release.

The difference in releasing Miner versus Robertson, for example, is $9MM. Miner earns less than $1MM this year, Nate will make $10MM. Willis earns $12MM. For that kind of money, you can bet the Tigers will exhaust every available outlet before they eat another contract. If they do, it will be because they feel the player absolutely is a sunk cost. If they have any doubts about that, they keep the player and ride out the contract.

Which is exactly what they should do. After all, salary relief is only a season away.