Assessing The Detroit Tigers’ Payroll Situation


Jan 26, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch talks about signing Prince Fielder at a press conference in the Tiger Club at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

A lot of us said that there would be no money last offseason to spend on big-name free agents, but the Tigers surprised everyone by raising payroll and landing one of the biggest names on the market in Prince Fielder. The conclusion here is that no one except Mike Ilitch knows what Mike Ilitch is willing to spend in pursuit of a championship team. But we can add numbers to the discussion by investigating how much money the Tigers have committed to players already under contract, estimate arbitration increase and predict which options will be picked up, and make guesses on how much it might cost to fill key holes in the roster.

Using Cots’ Baseball Contracts as a valuable resource, we can quickly see that the Tigers have seven players with contracts already negotiated for next season. Prince Fielder ($23M), Miguel Cabrera ($21M), Justin Verlander ($20.1M), Victor Martinez ($13M), Joaquin Benoit ($5.5M), Omar Infante ($4M), and Ramon Santiago ($2.1M) will combine for a total payroll hit of $88.7 million.

In addition to those seven, they hold team options on two players: Jhonny Peralta ($6M) and Octavio Dotel ($3.5). I’m fairly certain that Detroit will pick up the Peralta option (even if they’re planning on trading him), and I’m willing to bet they hang on to Dotel as well (and if not, they’ll likely be finding a similarly priced alternative). These two would add a combined $9.5 million to bring the roster total to nine players and $98.2 million.

Four players will be arbitration eligible for the first time, and MLB Trade Rumors has done us the courtesy of estimating their arbitration salaries. These players (with estimated salaries) are Doug Fister ($3.8M), Austin Jackson ($3.1M), Alex Avila ($2.5M), and Brennan Boesch ($2.1). I have no problem with the Tigers hanging on to the first three players (arbitration salaries are almost always great deals for the teams, not the players), but $2.1 million seems like an awful lot for Brennan Boesch. For now I’ll label Boesch as a non-tender candidate but perhaps add him back in at the end of this exercise. Anyway, accounting for Fister, Jackson, and Avila, the Tigers would be up to twelve players at a cost of $107.6 million.

Four Tigers will be under team control as second year arbitration eligible players. Second and third year arbitration players get higher salaries, but they’re usually still structured to give the player to the team at a discount. These players (with salary estimates) are: Max Scherzer ($7.5M), Rick Porcello ($4.7M), Phil Coke ($1.7M), and Don Kelly ($900K). I’ll again take the first three and treat Kelly as a non-tender candidate. That would bring the Tigers to 15 roster spots at a payroll total of $121.5 million.

Detroit has one third year arbitration eligible player – Ryan Raburn – but I’ll count him as a non-tender candidate against his MLB Trade Rumors projected salary of $2.1 million (rarely if ever do players get reduced salaries through arbitration, and that’s how much Raburn made in 2012). Moving on.

Four players will become free agents: Jose Valverde, Delmon Young, Anibal Sanchez, and Gerald Laird. I think Dave Dombrowski will attempt to bring back Laird at or around his 2012 salary of $1M, and I’m certain that Valverde and Young are gone, but we don’t know what will happen with Sanchez. It sounds like the Tigers are going to make a push for him, but I have a feeling he’ll be more expensive to land than many people realize. For now I’ll stick with Laird brining us to 16 spots and a total of $122.5 million.

We’re left with nine spots to fill. The Tigers had five pre-arbitration players that will almost surely be back with the big league club at (or near) league minimum rate. Al Alburquerque, Andy Dirks, Drew Smyly, Brayan Villarreal, and Danny Worth will all earn “only” about $500K each (slightly less, actually) while filling needed roles. That ups the total to 21 players at a cost of approximately $125 million.

At this point we might be well served to break down the positions that have been marked as filled.

(10) Pitchers. That’s five starters in Verlander, Scherzer, Fister, Porcello, and Smyly, and five relievers in Benoit, Dotel, Coke, Alburquerque, and Villarreal. That leaves two bullpen spots available.

(11) Hitters. That’s on DH in Martinez, two catchers in Avila and Laird, six infielders in Fielder, Infante, Peralta, Cabrera, Santiago, and Worth, and two outfielders in Jackson and Dirks. The need here would be for two more outfielders.

One of Luis Marte, Darin Downs, and Duane Below could be added to the bullpen at a league minimum rate (of the lot I’d pick Downs for the option of having a second LOOGY).  And one of Brennan Boesch, Don Kelly, and Quintin Berry could serve as a reserve outfielder. I’d pick Boesch here for his potential bat, but he’d be the most expensive option and he’s the worst fielder of the bunch. Kelly would give the ability to also play infield, and Berry would be a plus pinch-runner on the bench. None will make or break the season. Add in $2.6M for the extra bullpen arm and reserve outfielder (subtract $1M if it’s not Boesch they keep on the roster). This leaves us with a 23-man roster with $127.6 million committed.

I consider this the baseline scenario for maintaining the status quo before addressing the bullpen needs and a starting corner outfield spot. (If you’re really, really satisfied with the status quo, add in $1M-$1.5M for Marte and either Kelly or Berry and call it quits for the offseason).

Again, we don’t know where Mr. Ilitch will set the spending limit, but an appropriate starting point for the sake of discussion is probably at the “maintain” level. The opening day payroll in 2012 was $133.5 million and, with playoff revenue in toe, they should be able to hit that number again. New television contracts with Fox, Turner, and ESPN will go into effect in 2014, and promise to bring roughly $30 million in additional income to each major league club, so they may be able to stretch things even further with the knowledge that extra cash will soon be on its way. I don’t know that the club will opt to “let it ride” with all $30 million before it actually hits the books, but perhaps they can expand by $10-$15 million this offseason. Of course, it’s possible that the Prince Fielder signing already took the additional TV revenue into account which would prevent the team from increasing spending money for the next few years.

So, if the Tigers decide maintain payroll, they’ll have $6 million to spend on free agents. I think they’re likely to expand the spending limit by $10 million or so (given World Series income) which would give them approximately $16 million to spend. $16 million is perhaps enough to sign a quality bullpen arm – perhaps Tampa Bay’s Joel Peralta – and an everyday outfielder – maybe one of Melky Cabrera, Shane Victorino, or Angel Pagan – both positions of particular need, but it’s not enough to also lock down Anibal Sanchez. For that they would either need a further expansion of payroll or to move some salary off the books via trade (speculation there is that Rick Porcello and/or Jhonny Peralta could be moved).

That’s the crux of the money situation. In summary: there will be about $6 million of space to work with before they bump up against 2012’s opening day payroll. They can likely exceed that number a bit by virtue of additional monies earned in the extended playoff run and the announcement of MLB’s new TV deals. By how much they can exceed last year’s number is unknown. Detroit will likely need to trade a contract or two in order to be players in the Anibal Sanchez sweepstakes.