Detroit Tigers May Need Financial Engineering

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On Tuesday, MLBTradeRumors published their “long-awaited” offseason outlook for the Detroit Tigers. While there was little new information, author Zach Links did drive home a key point: the Detroit Tigers have an awful lot of money tied up in guaranteed contracts, options and arbitration raises.

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If they do nothing more than resign Victor Martinez (which they would definitely like to do) they will still wind up with a payroll close to $10 million higher than what they had on opening day this year. That does assume that they hold on to Al Avila and Joakim Soria and that they don’t non-tender any of the guys under team control, but also that all their other free agents (like Joba Chamberlain or Max Scherzer) are let go.

How high can the Tigers feasibly allow payroll to go? For the length of their current high-payroll run of success they have been slightly in the red, pushing things beyond what the ability or willingness of fans to support a contender would actually allow. There is always the possibility of an ugly and expensive rebuild lurking around the corner, but we do hope that is still a few years off. What we are likely to see is another offseason much like the last one. That means decisions being made for financial reasons by men very hesitant to admit that they are being made for financial reasons.

I do not expect that dollars will stand in the way of resigning Victor Martinez, but that would make the most likely scenario one in which signing effectively taps the Tigers out. If signing Martinez puts the Tigers at $171 million or so all told, can you see them entertaining the thought of spending another $7 million on Andrew Miller or another $10 million on Francisco Liriano? I for one can’t, at this point. I would guess that we aren’t – probably – going to be seriously discussing the team pursuing free agents unless VMart winds up elsewhere.

If that’s the case (and I do think it probably is) the baseline scenario is that the Tigers are left with last year’s 90-win roster less Max Scherzer, Phil Coke, Joba Chamberlain and Torii Hunter and few exciting prospects waiting to fill those holes. The options available to the Tigers are going to remind us of last year’s deals (and maybe the Granderson and Weaver trades as well). Given the potentially extreme payroll crunch (unless Ilitch is comfortable stretching it beyond $180 million) Dave Dombrowski has to be – and probably is – looking at which players might have acceptable (cheap) replacements waiting, which veterans are no longer giving “value” relative to their salaries and which players might fetch a decent return.

It’s unlikely that we’ll see any attempt to trade Miguel Cabrera or Justin Verlander, due to their long contracts and importance as the faces of the franchise. It’s unlikely that we’ll see any dangling of Joe Nathan, since no one would take his salary. Almost anyone else could be fair game. There are three specific “options” that I would draw attention to:
1. Alex Avila. Avila is the guy with a potential replacement (in James McCann) within the organization already. Replacing him with McCann would free up about $5 million for other priorities and since Avila will be a free agent following the 2015 season trading him may not affect the organization’s long term plans at the position. It’s an open question how much value Avila would have at this point, while he has been reasonably productive (given the low standards for catchers these days) he has never matched his 2011 and has suffered more than a few concussions and other injuries. If Avila could fetch a valuable (and cheap) piece to help patch another hole, the Tigers may well pull the trigger on the deal.
2. Rick Porcello. Kid Rick is still young and is coming off his best ever season with an ERA below 3-and-a-half and over 200 innings pitched, so he may have some substantial value. He’s also one year away from free agency and forecast to make $12 million in arbitration, so the incentive to look for a deal (like last year’s shopping of Doug Fister) is there. You’d figure that Dombrowski would have to get a AAA starter or two that could enter the rotation immediately in exchange, since the Tigers don’t have an obvious replacement though it’s also possible to imagine that they would use the savings to pay a second or third tier free agent starter and simply seek the best possible prospect package regardless of level or position.
3. Nick Castellanos. The guys that have the most value on the trade market are cheap major leaguers under team control, like Castellanos. The Tigers aren’t going to be saving any money, per se, by dealing him but they may hope to fill two holes by creating one. Castellanos is the type of talent, if you can find a team that values his bat highly enough, that could fetch multiple genuine prospects (like maybe a hard-throwing reliever and a center fielder). He’s also shown the Tigers some pretty terrible fielding moves this season that might be leading management to wonder if they should look for some youngsters with less bat but more glove.

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