Tigers' payroll update: makeover may keep the team together

Mike Ehrmann

After losing eight players to free agency, releasing a couple more, trading Prince Fielder and Doug Fister, acquiring Ian Kinsler, and signing Joe Nathan, the Tigers are in strong position to keep their nucleus together.

Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski erased any doubt about the connection between trading Prince Fielder and Doug Fister, and the signing of closer Joe Nathan, as well as the pending free agency of Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera in the near future.

MLB.com's Jason Beck. quoted Dombrowski

"A very big part of what we were trying to accomplish [was] to get a closer," said Dombrowski. "And when I say that, sometimes you need some flexibility to make some other things happen, too. We do have some players that are on the verge of being free agents that are pretty big players for us, that you want to create some flexibility there to be in the right spot at various times."

I wrote this article at the end of October, breaking down the Tiger payroll and discussing the possibility that they might have to pay a luxury tax if some adjustments were not made. The math is all there, with the final calculation being that, even though the Tigers would lose eight players to free agency, payroll would still increase without replacing any of them.

We discussed restructuring the payroll in this article a month ago, comparing the situation that the Tigers found themselves in after the 2009 season with the current financial situation, and describing the methods that Dave Dombrowski used to make adjustments at the time. The more that Dombrowski does this off season, the more similar the two off seasons look, some four years and three final four appearances apart.

The common thread between the two off seasons was the need to restructure payroll. Salaries would have to be cleared or reduced in order to make room for necessary replacements, let alone improving the team on the field.

The Tigers opened the 2013 season with a payroll of $148,693,600, fifth highest in major league baseball. Few roster changes were made during the season to impact that number, other than adding Jose Iglesias, who didn't make enough to offset the savings from Jhonny Peralta's 50 game suspension.

Fast forward to the end of the season. The Tigers immediately saw a drop in payroll for 2014, with eight players set to become free agents, including several at key positions. $ 22.5 million came off the books. But instead of freeing up cash to extend the free agent players or hire replacements, that money was more than offset by $ 7 million in salary increases and another $ 17 million in arbitration increases due to existing players.

A look at what happened after the 2009 season provided something of a blueprint for the 2013 winter, and all is going just as planned so far.

In each case, there were free agents at second base, shortstop, closer, and set up man. The Tigers secured an inexpensive, glove first shortstop, with Adam Everett in 09 and Jose Iglesias in 2013.

Each year, the Tigers also lost their backup catcher (Treanor/ Pena) and right handed platoon left fielder (Thames/ Tuiasosopo).

A major trade was made in 2009, dealing starting pitcher Edwin Jackson with Curtis Granderson for Austin Jackson, Max Scherzer, Phil Coke and Dan Schlereth. In 2013, the trade was Doug Fister for three players, including another pair of lefty pitchers. In each case, payroll was reduced, while the team got younger, faster, and better defensively.

Dombrowski then signed the best closer on the market, (Valverde/ Nathan), each time at a salary lower than expected. Finally, they signed a left handed hitting left fielder late in the off season in Johnny Damon in February, 2010. They also installed rookie Scott Sizemore at second base in 2010, with poor results. They'll start a more highly regarded rookie, Nick Castellanos at third base in 2014.

There are some differences between 2009 and 2013 as well. In 2009, Magglio Ordonez had an $ 18 million option vest, which was much more than he was worth. In fact, there were many- maybe as many as ten bad contracts on the books. By "bad contract", I mean one that no other GM would take, even for nothing, because the player was not quite worth the salary.

In 2013, Prince Fielder was the only real bad contract, and Dombrowski was able to shed that albatross by trading Fielder and the seven years and 168 million left on the books, eating $ 30 million of the money owed. This puts the Tigers in a much stronger financial position going forward, and they can think about extending Max Scherzer, who is a free agent after one more season, and Miguel Cabrera, who has two seasons left.

Any reasonable observer has to conclude that Dombrowski has done a masterful job of restructuring the payroll in each instance, even if unhappy with the replacements so far.

So, where does that leave the Tigers today? While they are certainly better off than they were four years ago (and those four years didn't go so badly), they're not yet better than they were four weeks ago, when the season ended. But they're not done yet.

Here's a breakdown of the Tiger payroll as it stands before the winter meetings, 2013.

First, the multi year contracts:

Player 2013 Salary 2014 Salary
Ian Kinsler --- $16.0 million
Miguel Cabrera $21.0 million $22.0 million
Justin Verlander $20.0 million $20.0 million
Anibal Sanchez $8.8 million $15.8 million
Torii Hunter $12.0 million $14.0 million
Victor Martinez $13.0 million $12.0 million
Joe Nathan --- $ 9.0 million
TOTAL $97.8 million* $108.8 million

* Figure includes multi year contracts for Fielder and Octavio Dotel.

Next, the arbitration eligible players, using 2014 estimates by Matt Swartz of MLBtraderumors.com

Player Arbitration Year 2012 Salary 2013 Salary 2014 Estimate Estimated Increase
Max Scherzer 3 of 3 $3.75 million $6.725 million $13.6 million $6.875 million
Rick Porcello 3 of 4 $3.1 million $5.1 million $7.7 million $2.9 million
Doug Fister 2 of 3 $500,000 $4.0 million ---
---
Austin Jackson 2 of 3 $500,000 $3.5 million $5.3 million $1.8 million
Alex Avila 2 of 3 $500,000 $2.95 million $3.7 million $ 750,000
Phil Coke 3 of 3 $1.1 million $1.85 million $1.9 million $ 50,000
Don Kelly 3 of 4 $900,000 $900,000 $1.0 million $100,000
Andy Dirks 1 of 4 $485,000 $500,000 $1.7 million $1.2 million
Al Alburquerque 1 of 4 $495,000 $500,000 $ 700,000
$200,000
TOTAL -- -- $26.0 million $35.6 million
$ 13.875 million

That's a subtotal of $ 144.4 million for 15 players

The remaining ten players, as things stand today, would all be earning near the major league minimum of $ 500,000 for the 2014 season, with the exception of Jose Iglesias, who will receive just over $ 2 million. The total for the ten adds up to $ 6.5 million, for a grand total of $ 150.9 million.

It won't matter much which first or second year players fill out the roster. If the Tigers sign or trade for any more players, or if they replace any of those above with other players, the final numbers will change.

When calculating payroll for luxury tax purposes, add $ 10.8 million as the team's share of player benefits, and use the average annual value for the multi year contracts, which is about $ 3 million higher than the 2014 payroll number. That would leave a current total of $ 164.8 million. That's 24.2 million under the luxury tax threshold of $ 189 million.

Dombrowski downplayed the chances of a major free agent signing.

"I would think that we would not be involved in the big names".

For those who are hoping that Shin Soo Choo or Carlos Beltran will be the 2013 version of Johnny Damon, take those comments with a grain of salt, as there is plenty of wiggle room, not to mention a history of similar comments followed by free agent signings. Of Scott Boras clients, no less.

The Tigers do have some 26.4 million for Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter coming off the books after the 2014 season, but whether they'd take on another $ 20 million contract is questionable.

Dombrowski also spoke of keeping the core of the team together, and that strongly suggests that they will make every effort to retain Cabrera and Scherzer going forward. You can guesstimate that Scherzer will look for a multi year contract in the range of 20- 25 million per year, and Cabrera will be looking for 28- 30 million.

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