Baseball is a fiercely competitive business with constantly evolving strategies by general managers and a shifting landscape of rules and constraints. One of the new “innovations” – used by the Boston Red Sox en route to their 2013 championship – has been to hold a fire sale (getting rid of high priced veterans) only to immediately reload through free agency.
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The attraction isn’t always obvious… those high priced veterans aren’t only fan favorites, they also have real value. But, in essence, the potential to gain is quite clear: if you can immediately replace the player you lost with equivalent talent at equivalent cost and simultaneously gain prospects or other useful pieces in the process it’s a clear net gain. The only barrier would be the unwillingness to make a change, fearing blame if it goes south (something I’ll refer to as “loss-aversion”). GMs are rarely blamed for holding onto a player who then underperforms, but they are certainly blamed for trading for a dud.
The difficulty is that for a player to have trade value, he needs to be expected to outproduce his contract. Finding someone willing to take albatross contracts on (as the Red Sox did with the Dodgers, managing to unload dead weight like Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett) is possible but difficult. Finding someone to take on albatross contracts without handing you an albatross contract in return (as the Rangers did with Ian Kinsler) is doubly difficult.
The question that I pose is whether the Detroit Tigers might be able to benefit from such a strategy and what it would look like if they did. The central personnel problems for the Detroit Tigers are that the team is aging, and that key players will either soon part ways or require huge raises – not that the roster lacks talent. This makes maintaining a dynasty difficult if not impossible. For starting points, I’ll assume that the Tigers have no reason to unload cheap players and no ability to unload either Justin Verlander’s megadeal or Joe Nathan’s $11 million for 2015. Miguel Cabrera will be assumed to remain as the centerpiece and face of the franchise.
The Tigers have certainly long since passed the point where they were getting substantial value from the salaries that they were paying (due to arbitration and extension raises) but many of the Tigers expensive players are not dead weight. The Tigers could free up $11 or $12 million by moving Rick Porcello, $18 or $19 million by moving David Price and $16.8 million by moving Anibal Sanchez. Any or all would fetch a decent, if not necessarily spectacular, return and any could at least theoretically be replaced by guys available on the free agent market.
Ian Kinsler had a good year – especially defensively – and may no longer be viewed as a player with an excessive contract. He would likely fetch no more than a fringe prospect, but his salary could be moved. The same goes for Alex Avila, though weak interest from other teams would be a function of his injury history rather than his contract. He could be moved, and he could fetch something (though probably not a major-league ready prospect) in return.
If we leave off Rajai Davis and Joakim Soria, that would mean that the Tigers could free up approximately $79 million in payroll to add to (what I estimate to be) the $20 million that they felt they could spend already. The smart bets in free agency are the best available players not quite good enough to get saddled with a qualifying offer. Among starting pitchers, (in addition to Max Scherzer) James Shields, Ervin Santana and Francisco Liriano are likely to get QO’d. Fortunately, the starting pitching market is fairly deep – which means both a lot of supply and a lot of demand (since every pitcher on the market is somebody’s loss). The free agent market also appears fairly deep in DHs, and very weak with respect to offensive talent in most any other position. The team could use the cash to resign Max Scherzer and Victor Martinez, but then they could also – and this could be the “smart” move – let them walk and hoard sandwich picks.
I imagine that with all that trading, the Tigers would be able to acquire one major-league ready corner outfielder or third baseman (which would move Nick Castellanos to the outfield) and one major-league ready starter. They’d likely be comfortable with internal candidates at second, short and catcher. With about $100 million to spend, they could bring in Colby Rasmus to split time in center with Rajai Davis (and provide additional insurance at the corners) for about $14 million (just guessing) and Cuban émigré Yasmany Tomas for about $13 million to push JD Martinez (or Nick Castellanos if the team trades for a third-sacker) to DH.
And then to starting pitching… Jon Lester is viewed as a rough equivalent to Max Scherzer, but he is ineligible for the qualifying offer. It should be possible (though the competition to attract him will be fierce) to sign him for about the same money that Scherzer rejected, in the neighborhood of $24 million per year. The next target would be Japanese righty Kenta Maeda whose cost I will (arbitrarily) estimate at $19 million per season, including posting fees. That would leave the Tigers with $30 million to spare to find one more starter and fill some holes in the bullpen. $30 million is plenty, and should be able to bring in Justin Masterson, Andrew Miller AND Zach Duke on 3-year deals.
What might a team like this look like? Purely hypothetical picks, that I’m either imagining that the Tigers are able to sign or imagining that the Tigers would be able to trade for will have an asterisk. I’m hypothesizing (and I’m sure I’m getting valuations, intentions, etc… totally wrong here) that the Tigers trade David Price to the Cubs for Kris Bryant and Anibal Sanchez to the Astros for Mike Foltynewicz, which assumes that both the Cubs and Astros are going to be making a big push this offseason for relevance (which I do think is likely). If you don’t think the Cubs would ship Bryant for Price, maybe they’d ship him for Price and Porcello…
#1: Jon Lester*
#2: Justin Verlander
#3: Kenta Maeda*
#4: Justin Masterson*
#5: Mike Foltynewicz*/Robbie Ray
That is obviously a radically different team from the one the Tigers put out there in 2014, but also from the one that they are likely to put out there in 2015 – if such a strategy is not followed. This assumes a lot. But I don’t think that any of those assumptions are exactly “implausible”. The Tigers offense looks questionable, but it also looks young. Miguel Cabrera would be the only starter over 30 and none of them would be guaranteed defensive black holes – it’s even possible that team D could be a plus. Losing Victor Martinez would obviously hurt, and offensive contributions from McCann and Suarez might be iffy. But… the Tigers would stand to gain huge power from Bryant and Tomas, though with some huge risk associated, as well as Rasmus. Every player would be under contract, with the salary ratchet effect greatly reduced, for at least 3 more years.
The rotation, to my eye, looks “unknown” but not necessarily worse than what the Tigers are going to be putting out there in 2015 all-else-equal. Maeda would add risk, but adding another quality prospect to compete for the 5th starter spot would reduce it. Lester over Price would be largely a wash, Masterson over Porcello a gamble that the guy’s 2015 WOULD look like his 2013 instead of the other way around. Here one benefit is that Lester and Masterson would remain under contract for 3 years at least whereas the Tigers stand to be Price-less and Porcello-less come 2016.
Much of the benefit of this strategic gamble is tied up in freeing some teens of millions to spend on two top bullpen lefties so as to avoid relying on Ian Krol et al. in 2015. The bullpen looks objectively much stronger as a result. Frankly, I think I like the chances for the new look team – in 2015 but especially 2016 and beyond – better.