A disappointing 2015 season led to a mini fire sale that sent David Price, Yoenis Cespedes and Joakim Soria to new teams in July as well as the eventual dismissal of GM Dave Dombrowski. With longtime Dombrowski lieutenant Al Avila now atop the baseball operations pyramid, the Tigers will again act as buyers this winter in hopes of returning to the top of the AL Central.
- Miguel Cabrera, 1B: $280MM through 2023 (including buyout of 2024 option)
- Justin Verlander, RHP: $112MM through 2019
- Victor Martinez, DH: $54MM through 2018
- Anibal Sanchez, RHP: $37MM through 2017 (including buyout of 2018 option)
- Ian Kinsler, 2B: $30MM through 2017 (including buyout of 2018 option)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLBTR)
- Neftali Feliz (5.151) – $5.2MM
- Al Alburquerque (4.147) – $2.1MM
- J.D. Martinez (4.036) – $7.8MM
- Andrew Romine (3.049) – $700K
- Jose Iglesias (3.036) – $1.5MM
- Non-tender candidate: Feliz
- Joe Nathan: $10MM club option ($1MM buyout)
Other Financial Commitments
- Prince Fielder: $6MM (paid to Rangers as part of the 2013 Kinsler/Fielder trade)
For a team with a lot of holes to fill and a potentially expensive arbitration class, the Tigers have a huge amount committed to the 2016 payroll already. Detroit has nearly $111MM committed to just the five players listed above, and that number will rise into the upper-$120MMs simply tendering contracts to the arbitration eligible players above (excluding Neftali Feliz and Josh Wilson, who are near locks to be cut loose) and rounding out the roster with league-minimum players.
The good news for Tigers fans is that the team has averaged about $155MM on their Opening Day payrolls over the past four seasons, and owner Mike Ilitch seems likely to authorize his newly minted general manager to spend aggressively in order to build a contender.
The Tigers’ biggest need is on the pitching staff — both in the rotation and in the bullpen. Last winter’s trades to acquire Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon paid little dividends, and now neither can be definitively penciled into the 2016 picture. Simon is a free agent, while Greene’s season was cut short by a nerve injury. Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez are the two Opening Day locks, and I’d expect that left-hander Daniel Norris, the key piece acquired in the David Price trade with Toronto, will be included as well (presuming his surgery to remove a malignant growth from his thyroid goes smoothly. Best wishes to Daniel in his fight against cancer.). Other options for the Tigers include Matt Boyd (who was also acquired in the Price deal but struggled considerably in the Majors), Kyle Lobstein, Buck Farmer, Kyle Ryan and Drew VerHagen. While they have a fairly sizable quantity of arms, the quality of said group leaves something to be desired.
As such, it’s not a surprise to hear GM Al Avila state the goal of adding two starting pitchers this winter. Verlander’s resurgence over the final few months might lessen the need for a front-of-the-rotation arm, and re-signing Price would cloud their long-term payroll outlook anyway. The Tigers are already paying Miguel Cabrera and Verlander a combined $58MM in 2019, and adding Price would seemingly lock them in to a pair of $30MM+ salaries (Cabrera and Price) through the 2022 season. Their pockets are deep, but from a roster construction standpoint, that type of handcuffing so far down the line makes a six- or seven-year commitment to a pitcher that will be in decline for the final few years far too risky.
Rather, second-tier arms could be the preferred route for Detroit. Jeff Samardzija, Ian Kennedy and Scott Kazmir have all been mentioned as possibilities, and any of the bunch would add some much-needed stability to a murky rotation picture. Ilitch is no stranger to dealing with Scott Boras, so perhaps we should include Wei-Yin Chen as a possibility to slot into the middle of the Detroit rotation as well.
If the aim is to suppress the length of commitment to a rotation addition, older-but-solid veterans such as John Lackey and Hisashi Iwakuma make sense on two- or three-year pacts. A one-year reunion with Doug Fister could make sense for both parties if Fister’s preferred option is to sign a short-term deal to rebuild his depleted free agent value. Failing those options, trades for 2016-17 free agents C.J. Wilson or Andrew Cashner could theoretically be reached.
Over the years, the bullpen has been Detroit’s Achilles heel, particularly in the postseason. Former GM Dave Dombrowski gets a bad rap for the team’s bullpen woes, though he frequently sought to improve the relief corps by signing Joaquin Benoit and Joe Nathan in addition to trading for Joakim Soria and Jose Veras (to name just a few moves). In the end, the Tigers have wound up with shaky relievers and wilted at various stages of their recent playoff runs. The lone holdovers from previous years that will be locks for next year’s bullpen include Alex Wilson and Al Alburquerque. Bruce Rondon should factor into the mix as well, but he was sent home from the team in rather embarrassing fashion, with the Tigers citing his “effort level” as a reason for the decision. It remains to be seen how he’ll bounce back from that. It’s possible the decision fractured the relationship between player and team, but it’s equally plausible that the drastic maneuver will serve as a wakeup call for the flamethrowing young righty.
The free-agent market this year offers a deep crop of setup men from which to draw. Darren O’Day stands out as the top arm on the market, and the Tigers will no doubt be linked to him in the weeks and months to come. Right-hander Shawn Kelley quietly had a dominant season in San Diego, as his ERA finally lined up with his excellent peripherals. Ryan Madson had a brilliant comeback campaign, and Soria will, of course, be a free agent this winter. The Tigers need lefty help as well, making both Antonio Bastardo and Tony Sipp (each of whom handles both lefties and righties well) attractive targets on two-year deals.
On the trade front, Avila could line up with frequent Tigers trading partner Mike Rizzo of the Nationals. It’s been widely speculated that Drew Storen, who did not take kindly to the team’s acquisition of Jonathan Papelbon, could be dealt this winter. He’d be a one-year rental, as he’ll hit the open market after earning a projected $8.8MM next year. But, Storen has a track record of quality performance, even if many remember him for a pair of disappointing postseason appearances.
A second option with the Nationals could be to take on Papelbon himself. While that could undoubtedly present problems within the clubhouse, Papelbon has a solid season split between the Phillies and Nationals, and Washington would most likely be willing to eat part of his $11MM salary to facilitate a trade in the aftermath of his confrontation with Bryce Harper.
One more expensive bullpen trade candidate could be Mark Melancon, who has enjoyed a dominant run with the Pirates. That success, though, has Melancon’s projected arbitration salary at $10MM, which may be too steep for the cost-conscious Pirates. A trade with Pittsburgh would need to bring more than the salary dump type of deal that sent fellow $10MM closer Jim Johnson from Baltimore to Oakland in the 2013-14 offseason, but Melancon’s value will fall in somewhere south of fellow NL Central stopper Aroldis Chapman. The Reds and Padres could represent theoretical trade partners, but the value of Chapman and Craig Kimbrel is exceptionally high, and the Tigers may not want to part with the necessary prospects to land either elite closer.
With the infield mostly set, a young catcher with starting upside in the form of James McCann (Alex Avila is expected to land elsewhere as a free agent), Victor Martinez penciled in at DH and right field locked down with J.D. Martinez, the team’s biggest need on the position player side is an outfielder. Anthony Gose can handle a good chunk of the center field duties, though he’d require a platoon partner. That could mean a reunion with Rajai Davis — perhaps on a two-year deal similar to the previous one he signed in Detroit — or a lower-key acquisition such as Drew Stubbs. One can also envision a return for Austin Jackson, whose best seasons came in Detroit, though he’d require a larger commitment and may push Gose over to left field.
While the Tigers have Steven Moya and Tyler Collins as in-house options in left, Collins looked like a platoon option at best, while Moya struggled in the Majors and at the Triple-A level. For a team with significant payroll capacity and high 2016 expectations, the best course of action would seem to be giving Moya additional time at the Triple-A level and utilizing Collins as a bench piece. Top-tier names like Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton, Alex Gordon and Jason Heyward (who would force Martinez to left field) are plausible, though with pitching being a greater priority, they may be deemed too expensive. If that’s the case, second-tier outfield options like Dexter Fowler and Colby Rasmus make some sense. That’s not to say either will be cheap relative to the rest of the market, just more affordable than the top echelon of free-agent outfielders.
The other big issue for the Tigers this winter will be whether or not they’re able to agree to a long-term deal with J.D. Martinez. The two sides are said to have mutual interest in an extension, but Martinez only has two years of club control left, and thus, isn’t too far removed from free agency. With a projected arbitration salary of $7.8MM and a $3MM salary from 2015 already under his belt, Martinez has already obtained some financial security, so there’s reason for him to simply elect to play out his final two years and hit the open market heading into what would be his age-30 season. If he can maintain anything close to his 2014-15 form, he’d be one of the hottest free agents on the market in two winters — perhaps on the receiving end of a $150MM+ guarantee. Knowing that, Detroit isn’t likely to be able to land him at a hugely discounted rate.
There aren’t many comparables when looking for hitters that signed extensions with between four and five years of service under their belts. Adam Jones is one such case, though his six-year, $85.5MM extension with Baltimore is now three years old, and it was a midseason extension that bought out one arb year and five free-agent seasons. Martinez’s projected second-year arb price of $7.8MM handily tops Jones’ $6.15MM mark, and the market, of course, has taken a huge step forward since May 2012. (Jones’ deal, at the time, was the second-largest contract for a center fielder, clearly illustrating how things have changed.) I’d wager that Martinez’s remaining arb years could be valued at around $21MM, so perhaps a six-year deal that pays him $20-22MM per free-agent year would get talks going. That would put the rough guess for an extension at $100-110MM over six years — an unfathomable sum for Martinez just 18 months ago but one that would be worthwhile if he’s able to maintain his current level of production.
In each of the past two offseasons, the Tigers sought to get their hands on a young, controllable rotation piece that could be slotted into the starting five for the foreseeable future without further bogging down the crowded future payroll. That resulted in disappointing returns from both Robbie Ray and Shane Greene, and it subsequently contributed to the team’s disappointing 2015 campaign. Somewhat ironically, Dombrowski may have finally gotten his man in the form of Norris, but the decision to rebuild may ultimately have cost him his job.
Because of that, it seems likely that Avila will take a more aggressive approach to spending on the pitching staff in his first offseason as GM. While I find a pursuit of Price, Zack Greinke or Johnny Cueto too drastic a measure, I’d imagine we’ll see the Tigers mentioned in connection with those names before ultimately landing a pair of mid-rotation arms and multiple relievers. And, given the productive names that proliferate the club’s depth chart on the position-player side of the equation, the Tigers’ return to contention in the AL Central might not take more than a single offseason.