The Detroit Tigers had nine players eligible for pay increases through arbitration this winter. That was before they signed left handed relief pitcher Phil Coke to a one year contract worth $ 1.9 million. Coke and utility man Don Kelly were the two players who were most likely to be allowed to leave, rather than offering them a contract and ensuring that they could continue on the path to arbitration.
Under the rules of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) teams must offer (tender) a contract by December 2nd to arbitration eligible players that is worth at least 80% of the salary of their previous year's salary, or allow them to leave as free agents. If the club feels that the player is not worth what they'd likely receive in arbitration, they either attempt to trade the player or let them walk.
The deadline has implications, not just for the Tigers and their own players, but other players such as former Milwaukee Brewers' closer John Axford, Oakland A's first baseman Daric Barton, or Angels' starter/ reliever Jerome Williams could be non tendered and become free agents as well. Any player being non tendered would also open up another roster spot for a potential rule 5 acquisition, with the draft now ten days away.
One year ago, the Tigers set outfielders Ryan Raburn, as well as Kelly, free. Raburn landed with the Cleveland Indians, where he went on to have a fine season. Kelly, finding no club willing to give him a guaranteed major league contract, resigned a minor league contract with the Tigers and was invited to spring training where he could try to make the team. He hit .320 with four home runs in 50 spring at bats, and was back on the Tiger bench for the season.
Kelly hit .222 .309 .343 for the Tigers with six home runs in 251 plate appearances last summer. He now finds himself back in the same position, with a $ 900,000 salary and due for a raise. Kelly didn't get a raise in 2013, as it worked out when he made the team, and the Tigers likely don't want to pay him much more than that for what was replacement level performance.
The Tigers could either offer Kelly a contract, ensuring that he'd continue to be eligible for arbitration, or not tender him a contract making him a free agent, or come to terms on a contract for the next season, as they did with Coke, who received a small raise of $ 100.000. Kelly has no reason to sign a minor league contract at this point, without at least trying to get a major league deal somewhere.
Like Coke, and like Brennan Boesch a year ago, the club can sign Kelly to a one year, non guaranteed major league contract, keeping him on the roster, and still release him by March 15th at a cost of one sixth of the agreed salary. He would be eligible for arbitration one more time after the 2014 season.
It's not that the Tigers don't have a need for a utility man/ outfielder. They have at least one vacancy in the outfield, after letting Matt Tuiasosopo go. And while they have need for some left handed power after trading Prince Fielder, Kelly hardly fills that void. In fact, they'd prefer a right handed hitter if we're thinking about pairing him with Andy Dirks in left field. They can do better than Kelly, if that's the plan.
Also eligible for arbitration this winter are starting pitchers Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello and Doug Fister, outfielders Austin Jackson and Andy Dirks, Catcher Alex Avila, and relief pitcher Al Alburquerque. Together with Coke and Kelly, the nine players earned combined salaries of $ 26 million in 2013, and stand to receive total raises of about $ 17 million more in 2014, if they all return. There is little doubt that the Tigers will make offers to the remaining seven players.
In a fan poll taken one month ago, on November 2nd, most BYB readers felt that Kelly should not get a major league contract.
33% said Yes, give him a major league deal
24% said No, let him go, it's time to move on
43% said Give him another minor league contract with an invite to Lakeland
We'll find out whether Kelly is offered a contract by the end of the day.