When Jhonny Peralta's suspension was announced in early August of 2013, it set in motion a series of transactions that re-shaped the Tigers' roster. The results, viewed in the aggregate, appear rather impressive. GM Dave Dombrowski not only shored up the team's chances at an ultimately successful division title run in 2013, but formulated a responsive strategy that spared the club over $150MM in future guarantees without sacrificing significant short-term value. Here's how Dombrowski's subsequent actions shook out.
With Peralta set to miss the stretch run at a division title, the Tigers acted decisively to replace him at short with Jose Iglesias, costing the team outfield prospect Avisail Garcia and reliever Brayan Villarreal. While that took Garcia out of the running to see time in left field in 2014 (as a regular or in a platoon with Andy Dirks), he likely would have competed with Nick Castellanos for a single job anyway. As a result, the Tigers not only replaced Peralta, but were left with the ability to slot not just one, but two league-minimum salaries into their everyday 2014 lineup. (I.e., Iglesias and Castellanos, as opposed to Garcia or Castellanos alone.)
Castellanos' role remained unclear, however, as the 21-year-old has played both third and the corner outfield over his career. That flexibility helped free Dombrowski to ship first baseman Prince Fielder to Texas in exchange for second baseman Ian Kinsler, saving $76MM in the process. Castellanos entered the picture at third, Miguel Cabrera shifted to first, and Kinsler slotted in at second.
As a byproduct of the around-the-horn musical chairs, the Tigers no longer had to compete for free agents to play up the middle. Second baseman Omar Infante would have come with an estimated $25MM price tag. (Although, as MLBTR's Zach Links noted, the club may have gone with the younger, cheaper Hernan Perez at the keystone anyway.) And Peralta's return, we now know, would have required over double that sum.
Meanwhile, the Tigers still had an excess of legitimate starting options. By shifting Drew Smyly to the rotation and shipping Doug Fister to the Nationals, the club saved another $6.5 million or so in guarantees at that starting slot. And in nabbing utility infielder Steve Lombardozzi and left-handed reliever Ian Krol in return, Dombrowski added two more league-minimum roster spots. In addition to adding back a left-handed arm to a pen that stands to lose Smyly, the move presumably saves the cost of adding a utility player on the open market. (That might have cost around $2.5MM to $3MM per season on a one or two-year deal, based on the Nick Punto, Willie Bloomquist, and Skip Schumaker contracts.)
The Tigers just made another related move by signing Rajai Davis to a two-year deal. With Garcia now in Chicago and Castellanos at the hot corner, the club still needed a right-handed bat to pair with Dirks in left. This move, in turn, adds $10MM back to the Detroit payroll.
The net of these moves is significant, to say the least. If, instead, the team were still responsible for the Fielder and Fister contracts, and had brought back Infante and Peralta while signing a utility infielder, it could well have over $150MM in additional guaranteed current and future payroll obligations. (This includes the money saved in the Fielder and Fister deals, offset by the money owed the newly acquired players, and the avoided cost of signing Peralta at $50MM+, Infante at $25M+, and a utility infielder at around $3MM.) Even if you assume the club would have plugged in Perez at second, this is a huge sum.
It is worth noting, also, that if young pitcher Robbie Ray can eventually occupy a big-league rotation spot, his years of cheap control will offset the added money that Smyly will eventually earn through arbitration from throwing as a starter. And the additional league-minimum and arb-eligible years from Lombardozzi and Krol could avoid some long-term spending as well, even if neither player figures to be terribly productive. (Of course, it is still fair to ask — as I have — whether the Tigers should have commanded a different and better return for Fister.)
But, how do the tradeoffs look in terms of projected performance? Detroit likely saved $150MM+ at a cost of between 1.5 and five wins next season. Compare Detroit's current alignment to a hypothetical Tigers team that instead retained Fister and Fielder while signing Peralta, Infante, and a utility infielder of Lombardozzi's ilk. Steamer and Oliver project something like the following production shifts: A 3-4 win improvement at first and a half to a full win improvement at second. An approximate push at left field and the utility spot. And the loss of between four to five wins at third, 1 to 1.5 each at short and in the rotation, and somewhere in the realm of a half to a full win in the pen.
Now, we will see whether and how Detroit spends its surplus cash. Extensions are certainly possible, of course, whether agreed upon now or in the future. Or, the club could still try and add back those missing wins by signing an impact player like Shin-Soo Choo, which might well bring the net dollar and WAR impact for 2014 back to its rough starting point.
Even in the latter scenario, Dombrowski's maneuvering would not have been for naught. Remember, he not only plugged a sudden and unexpected gap at a critical point in a contending season, but did so by adding a player (Iglesias) with largely the same control and value as the one he gave up (Garcia).
But what if Dombrowski instead moves to add 2014 production — through the pen and bench, perhaps — at a much lower overall commitment than the dollars he shed? (And, in so doing, refrains from tapping his 2016-20 powder kegs, holding them in reserve for long-term deals for worthier players?) It is generally assumed that a closer like Joe Nathan would have been signed either way, but that might not be true. And what if Dombroski has reason to expect that his replacements will outperform their projections?
If some or all of those questions are answered in the affirmative, Dombrowski's strategic response to the Peralta suspension may prove to have been a masterstroke.