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Could Anibal Sanchez be back within Tigers’ price range?

One by one, clubs interested in Anibal Sanchez are filling their needs elsewhere. Could Sanchez fall back within range of the Tigers’ budget?

Leon Halip

The Tigers have made it known from the time that the 2012 season ended that they would very much like to have Anibal Sanchez back in their rotation. In fact, the first reported offer to Sanchez was a four year, $ 48 million bid from Detroit that his agent referred to as "insulting".

Early reports suggested that Sanchez had an asking price of $ 90 million over six years, or more. Jon Heyman of CBS reported that Sanchez’s agent had asked one club for $ 100 million over seven years.

Don’t put too much stock in those comments, even if the reports are ultimately true. Opening bids and agent speak are all part of the negotiating process. Throughout the process, though, one thing has remained constant. The Tigers remain interested in Sanchez, but they have been unwilling to go up to six years or $ 90 million to keep him.

Sanchez was widely considered the second best starting pitcher available on the free agent market this winter, after the Angels’ Zack Greinke. Clubs reportedly interested in Sanchez have included the Tigers, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Angels, Texas Rangers, Kansas City Royals, and Boston Red Sox.

The Tigers have already made a substantial investment in Sanchez, trading their consensus top prospect in Jacob Turner to the Miami Marlins as part of a trade package last July. The Tigers also dealt catcher Rob Brantly, who is penciled in for a major league job next season, in the trade. In return, Detroit received Omar Infante, who is under contract for another season, and half a season of Sanchez, who pitched brilliantly for them in September and in the post season.

Not insignificantly, the Tigers also swapped draft picks with Miami in the trade. The Tigers dealt their "competitive balance lottery" pick, about No 73 overall, for Miami’s lottery pick, which is about No 37 overall. This draft pick is important because, under the rules of the new CBA, the Tigers can not receive compensation should Sanchez sign with another club. That reduced his value to Detroit, and increases his attractiveness to other clubs as a free agent.

Regardless of how one views the trade for Sanchez, Dave Dombrowski has made him the only free agent pitching target that the club is pursuing this off season. If the Tigers don’t sign Sanchez, the plan at this point is to head into spring training with Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly as their fourth and fifth starters, in some order.

The Dodgers have now signed Zack Greinke to a six year, $ 147 million contract. The deal is the second largest contract ever given to a pitcher, after CC Sabathia’s current contract with the Yankees. In 2014, Greinke is set to be the highest paid pitcher in the game.

What impact does the Greinke signing have on Sanchez? Does Greinke’s contract establish a price range that would meet his initial demand for a $ 90 million contract? I think not.

The Dodgers are essentially the new Yankees in the major league baseball market as New York is hell bent on getting their payroll under the luxury tax threshold of $ 189 million for the 2014 season. The Yankees aren’t giving out any significant multi year deals. The Dodgers not only signed Greinke, but they’ve also signed Korean pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu to a six-year, $36 million contract.

The Dodgers also have Clayton Kershaw and Josh Beckett in their rotation, along with Aaron Harang, Chad Billingsley, and Ted Lilly, so they’re likely done signing pitchers. The Dodgers will open the 2013 season with the highest payroll in the history of major league baseball, and, like the Tigers, they have a perennial Cy Young candidate that they'd like to extend, in Kershaw.

The Angels had made keeping Greinke their primary target this winter, having dealt three prospects to Milwaukee for him last July, but they lost out to their cross town rivals in the bidding war. The Angels could pursue Sanchez, but reports are that they will set their sights a bit lower.

The Texas Rangers were seriously involved in negotiations with Greinke, but also lost out in the end. Texas is known to want to trade for Arizona outfielder Justin Upton, and they’ve been promised the right to match any offers for their own former MVP, Josh Hamilton. They have also been linked with Ryan Dempster, whom they acquired from the Cubs last summer, and who would be less expensive than Sanchez.

The Kansas City Royals, reported by JP Morosi of Fox News, made Sanchez their top free agent. choice. However, the Royals have completed a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays for James Shields, dealing a load of talent that includes MLB's top prospect Wil Myers in the trade. Shields has two years at a total of $ 21 million remaining on his contract.

If the Royals are serious about contending immediately, they’ll need more starting pitching. If not, this trade makes no sense for them. Still, it’s unlikely that Kansas City will go after Sanchez even if they make further upgrades to their rotation. Jeff Passan of Yahoo sports reported, even before the Royals traded for Shields, that they were not going to meet Sanchez’s price of $ 70 million plus over five years. The Royals were also reported to have offered Dempster a two year deal at a salary of $ 13 million per year.

The Boston Red Sox were reported to be interested in Sanchez, but there hasn’t been any news from their corner in connection with Sanchez since long before the winter meetings. Boston has also most often been mentioned in connection with Dempster. The Red Sox also made a two year, $ 25 million offer to Dempster.

Even with Greinke no longer available, clubs looking for starting pitchers have other options. Cardinals’ free agent right hander Kyle Lohse went 16- 3 with a 2.86 ERA and a WHIP of 1.06, but the signing club would have to give up their highest available draft pick to sign him.

The Mets may trade last season’s National League Cy Young winner, RA Dickey if they can’t negotiate an extension. They’re looking for two top prospects in a trade, while the 38 year old Dickey’s salary demands for an extension are in the range of $ 26 million for two years. He may or may not agree to an extension with his new club, so there is only one season guaranteed at a bargain rate of $ 5 million.

While the Tigers have not pursued other free agent pitchers, Danny Knobler reported that the team made an effort to work a trade for Shields. The Rays like Avisail Garcia, but Detroit could not match the talent that the Royals were offering. According to Knobler, the Tigers were doubly disappointed that Shields will be pitching in Kansas City, helping the Royals to challenge them for the division title. Perhaps the Tigers will now be even more inspired to keep Sanchez.

Sanchez could give the Tigers the best rotation in the league, if not in all of baseball. Signing Sanchez would mean that one of Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, or Sanchez would be their fourth starter. That’s a helluva number four to have in any pitching rotation.

The Tigers are justifiably reluctant to sign Sanchez, or any pitcher, to a six year contract, or even a five year contract. I would happily lock up Justin Verlander for that many seasons, but Verlander is the best pitcher in the game. I would be equally reluctant to add more than four years for Scherzer or any other pitcher. Yet, it may be that fifth guaranteed season that gets a deal done.

It would appear that, despite the huge salary that the Dodgers paid to Greinke, the price tag for Sanchez is falling toward the Tigers’ number, rather than rising closer to his initial demand. The Tigers already have three players with salaries over the $ 20 million mark, and they have a large group of players that have entered their arbitration seasons, and relatively few still in their first three seasons, when they receive the major league minimum salary of about $ 500,000.

Detroit’s payroll is now assuredly going to top the $ 140 million mark in 2013, and Sanchez would put that number above $ 150 million. While there has been no talk of any fiscal cliff coming from the Tigers’ front office, one has to wonder how much farther Mike Ilitch will go in pursuit of a championship.

What do know is that, whenever there has been an opportunity to upgrade the team, Mr Ilitch has not shown any reluctance to open his checkbook. With several of the potential suitors for Sanchez no longer looking, and with his price tag dropping, Detroit may be the place where Anibal Sanchez will pitch for the next few seasons.