On Jonathan Papelbon and the Detroit Tigers’ Payroll Situation


May 14, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Jonathan Papelbon (58) delivers to the plate during the ninth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies defeated the Indians 6-2. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since Jose Valverde’s most recent blown save – this one Tuesday afternoon at the hands of the Kansas City Royals – a segment of Tigers fans have been calling for the team to look outside the organization for bullpen (and, more specifically, closer) help. And when it comes to trade scenarios, the most interesting case for many people is to dream about the best player that will possibly be available. In this we’re obviously talking about Philadelphia Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon.

First things first: Papelbon, the player, would be a perfect fit for this team. He’d be a perfect fit for just about any team because he’s an excellent reliever who has succeeded in the closer’s role for a number of years. The question isn’t whether or not Papelbon, the player, would fit into the team, the question is whether or not Papelbon, the cost (i.e. contract plus whatever they’d have to give up) would fit into the team’s plans.

Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit news has been cheerleading the Papelbon movement on Twitter all day. A reader responded to him expressing concern for the size of Papelbon’s contract and Wojo responded with this:

Wojo, who is clearly being ironic, isn’t necessarily wrong. The Tigers pulled the trigger on the massive $214 million deal for Prince Fielder and recently extended Justin Verlander with a contract that could reach up to $202 million. So no, big contracts themselves don’t scare the Tigers, but the size of Papelbon’s current contract in conjuntion with the other contracts on the books – and possible future plans for a Miguel Cabrera extension – may scare them off, and so I absolutely agree with @kohnto1’s sentiment.

Here’s what I mean. The Tigers opened the season with a franchise record payroll just shy of $149 million (according to Cot’s Contracts). We know that owner Mike Ilitch has deep pockets and a willingness to spend in order to chase that elusive World Series ring, but we also know that he can’t have infinitely deep pockets. I think we have to assume that $149 million is somewhat close to the budget that Ilitch has handed down to Dave Dombrowski. Let’s play the payroll game:

Fielder, Cabrera, Verlander, Victor Martinez, Torii Hunter, and Anibal Sanchez are the six players who have guaranteed contracts on the books for next season. The Tigers are on the hook for just about $108 million for these six players. Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Doug Fister, Austin Jackson, Alex Avila, and Andy Dirks (as a Super Two) will all be arbitration eligible in the offseason (I’m currently pegging Phil Coke as a non-tender candidate). I’d estimate the group to earn a total increase of $10.5 million through the arbitration process (I feel like this is quite conservative), taking them up to a total of about $35 million. That makes twelve players earning a total of $143 million heading into 2014. This total would not include a starting second baseman, a starting shortstop, any bench players, or any bullpen pitchers.

Now, obviously, many of these spots could be filled by pre-arb players making the league minimum (around $500 thousand). Bryan Holaday (or you could probably re-sign Brayan Pena for about $1 million), Matt Tuiasosopo, Danny Worth, Jose Ortega, Al Alburquerque, Darin Downs, Drew Smyly, Brayan Villarreal, Luke Putkonen, Bruce Rondon, and Luis Marte all have legitimate shots at making the team and serving in these bench roles, but the Tigers would still be looking for a second baseman and a shotstop (or one of the two plus a reserve if Danny Worth is to be an everyday starter), and they’d have to be comfortable with an all pre-arb bullpen (no Joaquin Benoit). Even if they filled the entire remaining roster with league minimum earners, they’d still be bumping up against the $150 million mark.

Sure, Detroit could always (and might have to) trade one of Scherzer, Fister, or Porcello to free up funds (between probably $6 and $12 million depending on the player). This brings us back to Papelbon. He’s slated to earn $13 million each of the next two years (plus a vesting option for the same amount in 2016), which means the Tigers would have to trade a starting pitcher (and probably Scherzer at that) if they had any hopes of keeping the payroll below $160 million. That is, unless their plan at shorstop and second base is to pray that a combination of Worth, Eugenio Suarez, and Hernan Perez would work in the middle infield.

This all comes down to guessing where next year’s payroll ceiling lies – an impossibly difficult task – but the qustion is: how much of next year are you, as a fan, are you willing to concede for a small (very, very small) uptick in World Series probability this year? Let’s suppose the Tigers have an 11% chance of winning a ring this year (I think that’s what the last Vegas odds update suggested). Adding Papelbon might improve those odds to 12% – a good thing – but it might also decrease their odds of winning at least one over these next three seasons (from, say, 28% to 24%). Is that an acceptable tradeoff?

Papelbon’s contract would hamper the Tigers’ inability to field a more complete team in the coming years. In exchange for one Papelbon, the Tigers could instead sign two solid bullpen arms and a starting second baseman. Or they could retain Scherzer and sign a bullpen arm. They could do any number of things with that $13 million otherwise spent on the (admittedly ‘elite’) closer.

The Tigers would get better this year if Papelbon joined the staff – that is a near certainty – but it might be better for their total chances over the next two or three years if they instead installed Smyly and Benoit as the new primary setup man and closer for the remainder of the sesaon while retaining what little payroll flexibility they have heading into the offseson.