Jhonny Peralta, Jhonny Peralta,

Previewing the Detroit Tigers’ 2014 Middle Infield Dilemma


May 16, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Detroit Tigers second baseman Omar Infante (4), first baseman Prince Fielder (28) and shortstop Jhonny Peralta (27) on the field during the game against the Texas Rangers at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. The Rangers beat the Tigers 10-4. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Jhonny Peralta, Omar Infante, and Ramon Santiago all carry contracts that are due to expire at the end of the season. That means the Tigers are currently heading into an offseason in which they’ll potentially have to replace every middle infield spot on the major league roster.

The Tigers face several dilemmas with respect to next year’s middle infield situation.

The first is that each of these three players are on the wrong side of the aging curve. Santiago really doesn’t play into the situation because there’s really no way that he will be re-signed, but Peralta and Infante will both be staring at their age 32 seasons. That’s certainly not too old to be a productive everyday big league player, but it’s old enough that one starts to worry about downward trends and when things will start to fall apart. Aging players tend to like the security of longer-term contracts — each one could be their last — but the Tigers, who already have lots of long-term money on the books for the likes of Justin Verlander and Prince Fielder, probably won’t want to commit to either Peralta or Infante for very many years or very many dollars (especially with 2012 Peralta still relatively fresh in our minds).

The second dilemma is related to the first dilemma in that that Tigers don’t even appear to have that many available dollars to spend heading into the offseason. They’ll have nearly $23 million coming off the books with the impending free agency of Peralta, Infante, Santiago, Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Don Kelly, and Brayan Pena, but they have $10 million in built-in increases due to the likes of Anibal Sanchez, Torii Hunter, Prince Fielder, and Miguel Cabrera and they need to figure for (at least) another $10 million in arbitration increases if they hope to retain Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, Austin Jackson, Alex Avila, and Andy Dirks. This is all to say that the Tigers will be dangerously close to matching their franchise record 2012 payroll before they even look at re-signing any players heading into free agency (to say nothing of the free agent market in general).

The third dilemma is that they don’t appear to have any major league caliber replacements in the system (i.e. players that would perform well and be very cheap to employ). Danny Worth could potentially take one of the everyday spots, but he’d be an obvious downgrade and would seem to be better suited for the Santiago-like utility role. Eugenio Suarez is looking like he could be (possibly maybe) an everyday player down the road — he’s hitting well as the everyday shortstop in AA right now — but he’s not likely to be ready to jump straight to the major leagues a year from now (he was just in A-ball a month ago), and there are many who aren’t sure he’ll ever become a big league regular-type player. It might not be so bad if the Tigers open the year counting on one of these guys at an everyday spot (they should have enough talent elsewhere to again be the division favorite), but counting on two such players would certainly be unacceptable.

I think the Tigers will try to explore an extension with both Infante and Peralta before they hit the open market, but the big question remains for both: how long and for how much money? Both players are (relatively) vastly underpaid on a dollars per WAR scale in their current deals. Peralta, despite his ups and downs, has basically been a three win player as a member of the Tigers, and Infante has been a solid 2-3 WAR player himself over the past three or four years. That would seem to make them both “worth” $10-15 million on a one-year contract, but that type of money would represent two to three times the current annual average values of both of their deals.

I think Detroit probably needs to agree on a two-year deal if they hope to retain either player. I have no idea what either guy would eventually sign for, but two years, $16 million seems like a reasonable neighborhood in that it simultaneously sounds like too much and too little for either guy. Then again, $8 million per year may stretch the Tigers’ budget too far to make it work.

This situation, along with what to do with either Max Scherzer or Rick Porcello — one has to imagine one of these players is traded prior to next spring — will be two of the more interesting storylines heading into the offseason. We’re a long way away from that point, I know, but it’s always fun to look ahead.