The Tigers captured the AL Central crown with a 90-72 record in 2014 before the Orioles made quick work of them in the ALDS. Now, the Tigers will look to retool a bit this offseason and, once again, there will be an emphasis on fixing the bullpen.
- Miguel Cabrera, 1B: $240MM through 2024
- Justin Verlander, SP: $140MM through 2020
- Anibal Sanchez, SP: $53MM through 2017
- Ian Kinsler, 2B: $46MM through 2017
- Joe Nathan, RP: $11MM through 2016
- Rajai Davis, OF: $5MM through 2015
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)
- Rick Porcello, SP (5.170): $12.2MM
- David Price, SP (5.164): $18.9MM
- Don Kelly, 3B/OF (5.138): $1.2MM
- Al Alburquerque, RP (3.147): $1.7MM
- Andy Dirks, OF (3.139): $1.63MM
- J.D. Martinez, OF (3.036): $2.9MM
- Non-tender candidates: Dirks, Kelly
- Max Scherzer, Victor Martinez, Torii Hunter, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Coke, Jim Johnson, Joel Hanrahan
Other Payroll Obligations
- Prince Fielder: $30MM to be paid 2016-20
Any discussion of the Tigers’ offseason has to start with pending free agent Max Scherzer. The 2013 Cy Young Award winner says he’d like to return to Detroit, but it’s not that simple. The two sides were discussing a possible extension in the spring before things stalled and the Tigers took the unusual step of releasing a statement on the matter.
“The Detroit Tigers have made a substantial, long-term contract extension offer to Max Scherzer that would have placed him among the highest paid pitchers in baseball, and the offer was rejected,” the statement read.
The Tigers reportedly offered a six-year, $144MM extension, identical to the deal Cole Hamels signed with the Phillies in 2012. The Scott Boras client, meanwhile, may have been seeking an eight-year deal. Now, Scherzer stands as the top available free agent on the open market after another strong season and it’s feasible that he could exceed that average annual value of $24MM on a six-, seven-, or maybe even an eight-year deal with an opt-out clause in the middle. That’s probably too rich for the Tigers’ blood.
If Scherzer goes, the Tigers will have a hard time pursuing a comparable replacement. The market offers appealing alternatives like Jon Lester and James Shields, but the Tigers already have about $151MM tied up between guaranteed contracts, arb raises, the $6MM they owe the Rangers for Prince Fielder and the options on Alex Avila and Joakim Soria. Shields will require four or five years to sign, and Lester could require six or seven, making the fit unlikely. Even second-tier options like Brandon McCarthy and Francisco Liriano could prove too expensive, barring a significant boost to 2014’s Opening Day payroll of $163MM.
As such, it’s not a given that they’d sign anyone to fill the void left by a likely Scherzer departure. In-house options like Robbie Ray, Kyle Ryan, Kyle Lobstein, Drew VerHagen, and Buck Farmer could vie for jobs in the starting five. That’s not apples-for-apples, of course, but the Tigers could get by with a core four David Price, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Rick Porcello, with their fingers crossed for a bounce back from Verlander.
In the bullpen, the Tigers have to decide on whether to exercise Joakim Soria’s $7MM club option or buy him out for $500K. In 44 1/3 innings last season, Soria turned in a 3.25 ERA (his 2.73 xFIP gives him more credit) with 9.7 K/9 and 1.2 BB/9. It’s tough to imagine the Tigers not exercising that option. For starters, the Tigers gave up two of their best prospects in starter Jake Thompson and reliever Corey Knebel to land Soria in July, and that would be a mighty steep price to pay for a ten-week rental. Soria wasn’t sharp in his 11 innings of regular season work in Detroit (though in his defense, he was also injured), but that doesn’t mean a ton in the grand scope of things and injuries didn’t help matters. The Tigers would be wise to keep Soria in their historically shaky bullpen, and recent comments from Dombrowski indicate that they’re going to do that.
Beyond that, Tigers might want to do some tinkering with their bullpen and Dombrowski has said that it will be towards the top of their list. Joba Chamberlain seemed to be paying back the Tigers’ one-year, $2.5MM investment nicely in the first half of the season but he turned in a 4.01 ERA after the All-Star break and might not be asked back. Coke, another former Yankee, had a very rough start to the year but improved in the second half, which could leave the door open to a return. Jim Johnson, who came aboard on a minor league deal after his head-scratching 2014 with the A’s, didn’t fare much better in Detroit and will probably wind up elsewhere. We know that Soria, Nathan, and Al Alburquerque figure to be in the pen, along with left-hander Blaine Hardy and perhaps Ian Krol, though his first year in Detroit was disappointing. Flamethrower Bruce Rondon will return at some point, though it’s not clear when, as he is recovering from Tommy John surgery. Beyond that grouping, question marks and injury troubles abound, which should lead to yet another close examination of the team’s bullpen. As Tim Dierkes recently noted, the Tigers drafted Andrew Miller and almost landed him in July before the O’s beat them to the punch, so they could make a run at him this winter. However, he’d require a significant investment, possibly a four-year deal, so he could prove a tough fit as well.
Scherzer isn’t the only significant Tigers free agent hitting the open market, of course. There’s mutual interest in a return between Detroit and designated hitter Victor Martinez, but he’ll have a number of suitors offering significant money. Martinez turned in a .335/.409/.565 slash line last season and, as Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com wrote recently, he’ll be seeking out a four-year deal. The Tigers will surely attach the qualifying offer to him, but the soon-to-be 36-year-old might price himself out of Detroit, especially if he’s married to the idea of a four-year pact. If Martinez goes, the Tigers could to the trade market with an eye on Adam Lind, though they’d probably want to find a platoon partner to go with him. It’s also conceivable that Ryan Howard’s left-handed bat could be a fit for them if the Phillies absorb the vast majority of his remaining salary.
At shortstop, Dombrowski says that the prognosis on Jose Iglesias is positive and he will be expected to take the full-time job if “he returns to the form of the past.” The Tigers could turn to Eugenio Suarez to fill the gap if Iglesias isn’t 100%, but they also might want to explore adding a depth option on a minor league deal.
The Tigers would love to have a healthy Andy Dirks back in 2015 for his projected salary of $1.63MM, but it’s far from a given that he can stay on the field after missing all of 2014 thanks to back problems. Utility man Don Kelly (.245/.332/.288 in 95 games) is also arbitration-eligible and likely on the bubble. As Dombrowski recently indicated, the Tigers could look to put Rajai Davis back in the corner outfield (his natural position) and slot J.D. Martinez on the opposite side and find a center fielder elsewhere.
Colby Rasmus is on the open market and, as recently noted by MLBTR’s Jeff Todd, guys like Dexter Fowler, Drew Stubbs, Jon Jay/Peter Bourjos, and maybe Desmond Jennings could be available via trade. Jeff recently pointed out a few potential left-handed-hitting trade possibilities that could make sense alongside Davis, such as Matt Joyce or David DeJesus, Alejandro De Aza or David Lough, Shane Victorino, Michael Saunders, and Ben Revere. This is all speculative, of course, but there should be plenty of full-time or part-time options available on the trade market for Detroit. Speaking of the outfield, Torii Hunter sounds like he wants to continue playing and would like to re-sign with the Tigers, but he’s not sure if he could accept a reduced role.
In the long term, the Tigers have a great deal of guaranteed money locked up in aging players. Meanwhile, they have shipped out a great deal of young talent including Willy Adames, Drew Smyly, and the aforementioned Thompson and Knebel. At some point, one has to wonder if the Tigers will be left with an over-the-hill core and an over-harvested farm system.
The Tigers have shown a willingness to spend in the past, but last year’s two major trades — Prince Fielder-for-Ian Kinsler and the Doug Fister swap — seem to indicate that ownership is still conscious of the bottom line. With only so much wiggle room, the Tigers will have to be creative in addressing their needs and wants this winter.
Steve Adams contributed to this post.