Tigers will be hard-pressed to make big signing this winter

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The Tigers have made a habit of big splashes in the offseasons. Three years ago, it was Victor Martinez. Then Prince Fielder. Last winter, the Tigers signed both Anibal Sanchez and Torii Hunter. Those deals have helped them reach the postseason each year, but the ultimate prize has remained out of reach.

As the Tigers enter this winter with a new manager in Brad Ausmus, it worth wondering just how high the payroll can go. Even with Jhonny Peralta, Joaquin Benoit, Omar Infante, Octavio Dotel and Jose Veras off the books, their current group weighs in at $156 million according to my arbitration guesstimates. That would already be a new franchise high and it’s without making a single addition.

Here’s the current 25:

CF Austin Jackson: $6 million (arbitration)
RF Torii Hunter: $14 million
3B Miguel Cabrera: $22 million
1B Prince Fielder: $24 million
DH Victor Martinez: $12 million
C Alex Avila: $4 million (arbitration)
LF Nick Castellanos: $500,000
2B Danny Worth: $500,000
SS Jose Iglesias: $1.7 million

C Bryan Holliday: $500,000
INF-OF Don Kelly: $1.1 million (arbitration)
INF Hernan Perez: $500,000
OF Andy Dirks: $1 million (arbitration)

Justin Verlander: $20 million
Max Scherzer: $13 million (arbitration)
Anibal Sanchez: $15 million
Doug Fister: $7.5 million (arbitration)
Rick Porcello: $7.5 million (arbitration)

Drew Smyly: $530,000
Bruce Rondon: $500,000
Al Alburquerque: $900,000 (arbitration)
Phil Coke: $2 million (arbitration)
Jose Alvarez: $500,000
Luke Putkonen: $520,000
Evan Reed: $500,000

Just look at all of those arbitration cases. The Tigers have eschewed multiyear deals with youngsters, always going year to year instead. It’s going to catch up with them this year, with the rotation of Scherzer, Fister and Porcello likely to nearly double what they earned last season.

If there are any non-tenders, they’re likely to come from the cheaper players. Coke would seem be the most likely candidate. Non-tendering Kelly and re-signing him to a minor league deal could also work, though that’ll be a minimal money saver.

An obvious choice to free up cash is to trade a starter. Scherzer would bring back a top-notch position player. Porcello wouldn’t, but the Tigers could make themselves better and cheaper at the same time by trading him for a young reliever and moving Smyly to the rotation.

As is. the Tigers need a second baseman, at least two relievers and a utilityman. But that’s not making much of a splash, unless the second baseman happens to be Robinson Cano. I think that’s a big long shot. The Tigers already have Verlander’s salary jumping to $28 million in 2015, and they have to start thinking about an extension for Cabrera, who is a free agent after 2015.

So, what are we looking at? If the Tigers want Infante back for second, that’s going to cost $6 million-$7 million per year on a two- or three-year deal. A closer from the group of Joe Nathan, Brian Wilson and Grant Balfour is going to cost around $10 million per year. Just those two signings would push the Tigers over $170 million without providing any sort of upgrade (Benoit, while not a great bet as a closer going forward, was very valuable last season).

That puts the ball in owner Mike Ilitch’s court. If he wants to add another star, he’s looking at the AL’s second highest payroll, something in the $180 million-$190 million range. It’s a full $30 million higher than he’s ever gone before. Certainly, Shin-Soo Choo or Jacoby Ellsbury would look great at the top of the order. It’d take a whole lot of dough, but it’s the kind of addition Tigers fans are expecting after coming up just a bit short again.

Must-Click Link: Do the players even care about money anymore?

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Yesterday I wrote about how the union has come to find itself in the extraordinarily weak position it’s in. The upshot: their leadership and their membership, happily wealthy by virtue of gains realized in the 1970s-1990s, has chosen to focus on small, day-to-day, quality of life issues rather than big-picture financial issues. As a result, ownership has cleaned their clock in the past few Collective Bargaining Agreements. If the union is to ever get back the considerable amount of ground it has lost over the past 15 years, it’ll require a ton of hard work and perhaps drastic measures.

A few hours later, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan dropped an absolute must-read that expands on that topic. Through weeks of interviews with league officials, agents and players, he explains why the free agent market is as bad as it is for players right now and why so many of them and so many fans seem not to understand just how bad a spot the players are in, business wise.

Passan keys on the media’s credulousness regarding teams’ stated rationales for not spending in free agency. About how, with even a little bit of scrutiny, the “[Team] wants to get below the luxury tax” argument makes no sense. About how the claim that this is a weak free agent class, however true that may be, does not explain why so few players are being signed.  About how so few teams seem interested in actually competing and how fans, somehow, seem totally OK with it.

Passan makes a compelling argument, backed by multiple sources, that, even if there is a lot of money flowing around, the fundamental financial model of the game is broken. The young players are the most valuable but are paid pennies while players with 6-10 years service time are the least valuable yet are the ones, theoretically anyway, positioned to make the most money. The owners have figured it out. The union has dropped the ball as it has worried about, well, whatever the heck it is worried about. The killer passage on all of this is damning in this regard:

During the negotiations leading to the 2016 basic agreement that governs baseball, officials at MLB left bargaining stupefied almost on a daily basis. Something had changed at the MLBPA, and the league couldn’t help but beam at its good fortune: The core principle that for decades guided the union no longer seemed a priority.

“It was like they didn’t care about money anymore,” one league official said.

Personally, I don’t believe that they don’t care about money anymore. I think the union has simply dropped the ball on educating its membership about the business structure of the game and the stakes involved with any given rule in the CBA. I think that they either so not understand the financial implications of that to which they have agreed or are indifferent to them because they do not understand their scope and long term impact.

It’s a union’s job to educate its membership about the big issues that may escape any one member’s notice — like the long term effects of a decision about the luxury tax or amateur and international salary caps — and convince them that it’s worth fighting for. Does the MLBPA do that? Does it even try? If it hasn’t tried for the past couple of cycles and it suddenly starts to now, will there be a player civil war, with some not caring to jeopardize their short term well-being for the long term gain of the players who follow them?

If you care at all about the business and financial aspects of the game, Passan’s article is essential.