FanGraphs' Dave Cameron recently asked which batters should get a qualifying offer this offseason. For the Tigers, Cameron thinks Jhonny Peralta does not deserve such an offer, but Omar Infante does.
Qualifying offers are the new arbitration, essentially. Or maybe you can think of them as similar to the NFL's franchise-player tag. In the past, if a team wanted a chance at a compensation pick, it had to offer its players eligible for free agency arbitration. A pick would be awarded based on the quality of the player, using a proprietary formula. It was more complicated than that, but that's a thumbnail sketch, anyway.
Today, teams have to make a qualifying offer to players instead in order to get compensation. It works the same: if the player declines the offer, the team gets a pick. But now the offer is a set dollar amount no matter the player's past salary history: the average salary of the top 125 best-paid players in baseball. That figure cannot be calculated until performance-bonuses are paid, but it's expected to be about $14 million this offseason.
Based on salary figures entering this season, $14 million would rank just inside the top 50, or similar to what Ryan Zimmerman, Jose Bautista and Hunter Pence earned in 2013. So two questions arise: First, are Peralta and Infante worth $14 million for an additional year with the Tigers? Second, are there any better alternatives?
We can knock this question out of the park pretty quickly for Peralta. Yes, he's among the best batters at shortstop this season, with a .305/.361/.461 line. Coupled with reliable (though unspectacular) defense, he was among the top two-three shortstops this year. That's a far cry from the .239/.305/.384 season in 2012 or .249/.311./.392 in 2010. In other words, this is a player who hasn't been real consistent. Even ignoring the Biogenesis suspension, it's easy to find doubt about giving Peralta a large check. Couple inconsistency, the suspension and the alternative Jose Iglesias offers, and you've got a player not worth $14 million that the Tigers don't need anyway.
Infante is the interesting one, because he has going for him pretty much everything Peralta does not. There are no alternatives ready to step in at second base. Hernan Perez, Danny Worth and anyone else in the system do not count. Infante does not go through the peaks and valleys of Peralta. He'll be coming off a career year at the plate (.325/.350/.459) but his defense at second base has consistently been above average. Even last year's down year hitting saw Infante right in the middle of the pack for second basemen. Finally, there are obviously no blemishes on Infante's record.
The only bit of information lacking was alternatives outside the organization. The overly optimistic (or readers of Buster Olney) will point out that the season's top free agent, Robinson Cano, plays second base. That certainly does offer an alternative to Infante. But if we're serious for a moment, it seems unlikely Cano will be a Tiger. There are a few interesting names, each with a set of warning signs or without much recent experience at the position, and a number of veterans, each of whom would come at a good discount and be a step above internal options but below Infante.
The Tigers are going to have to eventually start making some tough decisions, with extensions for Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera looming, but Infante is too good to lose without getting something back. Even if he takes the offer, $14 million for an above average second baseman with no long term risk is a good deal for Detroit.
As a last ditch, I think the logic makes sense. Max Scherzer will receive a raise this offseason but the team does not have to count on paying free agent value until a year later. Cabrera is locked in through 2015 as well. The Tigers can afford to pay Infante what it takes to keep him in 2014, a year when the World Series window ought to remain wide open. With Iglesias' bat being a step down from Peralta's, the Tigers ought not to risk losing a bat at second base as well. They might be able to sign Infante to a multiyear deal that costs less per season but pays Infante more over the life of the contract, but it might be wiser to wait a year and re-assess after 2014.
If Infante declines, well, OK. The Tigers will be worse off, but they'll get a draft pick out of it. It seems like it would be Infante's best interest to take the money, but it's possible his agent (Gene Mato, who also represents Anibal Sanchez) will calculate differently.
In any case, I agree with Cameron: The Tigers should do what it takes to keep Infante on the team next season.