Having reached the final four in each of the last three seasons, and having mostly the same lineup and rotation returning for an encore performance in 2014, the Detroit Tigers don’t need an overhaul to contend for a world championship next summer. Rather, they will need to make a few adjustments to the roster to ensure that they can keep their winning ways going.
With a roster that features six departing free agents, six expensive veteran players on multi year contracts that pay eight digit salaries, and nine players eligible for arbitration, with a payroll that is pushing up toward luxury tax levels as described in this article, the Tigers find themselves in need of some economical fixes just to replace their dearly departed free agents, and they will be fine next summer.
The free agents to be include second baseman Omar Infante, closer Joaquin Benoit, shortstop Jhonny Peralta, backup catcher Brayan Pena, utility infielder Ramon Santiago, and veteran relief pitcher Octavio Dotel. The assignment here is to replace those players while improving the overall make up of the roster. Santiago figures to be replaced internally and Dotel will be replaced by former Astros' closer Jose Veras, who was acquired in July.
In making adjustments, there are a few considerations to keep in mind. First, we'll assume that they don't want to blow the roof on spending, pushing payroll above the luxury tax, which means keeping salaries down to about $175 million. That leaves them with about $15 million to spend retaining their own free agents, or acquiring other players to fill the roles of their departing players. If you're not following the logic of this math, seriously check out the last paragraph of the above referenced article on the payroll situation.
Other key considerations are that the Tigers would like to become younger, faster, better defensively than they have been in recent seasons while adding players that won’t break the bank. Assuming that they will be replacing Jhonny Peralta at shortstop with Jose Iglesias, they are starting to make some progress in all four of those areas. We can assume that Iglesias is the new shortstop, and that the option on Jose Veras will be picked up, essentially replacing Dotel.
With those objectives in mind, here are five moves that the Tigers should make this off season to ensure that their winning ways continue into 2014 and beyond:
1. Sign Omar Infante to a contract extension. With memories of second base struggles fresh in our memories, from the departure of Placido Polanco to the reacquisition of Infante, blowing another hole in the lineup at second base is not an option. The best in house candidate to play second base is Hernan Perez, but if the club were to swap out both Peralta and Infante for Iglesias and Perez, they would be making a massive downgrade and blowing at least one, if not two holes in the lineup.
Infante stands to make $8 million plus per season as the second best free agent second baseman after Robinson Cano. He will want four years, but would probably settle for three. If they can’t get it done, they should seriously consider just making him the qualifying offer of $14.1 million for one season. That’s more than he is worth, but better than the alternative, unless they can pull off a trade to fill the void with a bona fide major leaguer. Infante would accept the generous qualifying offer, rather than hit the free agent market saddled with the albatross of costing any team that signs him a first round draft pick in addition to meeting his salary demands. A fair price for both sides would be around $ 25 million for three seasons.
If they go the trade route, the Angels are thought to be willing to trade Howie Kendrick to get starting pitching. Kendrick has two years left on his contract for just under $10 million per year. The Rays might be willing to deal Ben Zobrist, who will make a very reasonable $7 million next year, the last year before they’ll be unable to retain him. He is versatile, plays SS, 2B, OF, but they’d want a couple of good major league ready prospects for one season of him. That’s a department where the Tigers are thin.
2. Acquire two major league relief pitchers. The biggest question at the end of the 2012 season, and the biggest question at the start of the 2013 season is still the biggest question at the end of the 2013 season. It’s time to answer those questions, once and for all. The good news is that it doesn't have to cost that much.
I do not believe that a team needs to have a "proven closer", but they do need to have several capable pitchers in the bullpen to use for short stints during critical situations. Most managers- okay all managers- will use one of those as their 'closer'. The Tigers were at least one pitcher shy of a bullpen last season, preferably a lefty, and the departure of Benoit leaves them two short.
Dotel is replaced by Veras, check. Rondon and Alburquerque have big upside, but neither is reliable due to either health or control issues. Benoit helped to stabilize a bullpen that was in upheaval, but he is now an established closer, and could make $15-20 million for two years. If the Tigers want to pay him that much, I’d have no problem as long as it doesn't prevent them from doing the other things they need to do.
There are free agents who can get the job done. Whereas a closer can run north of $10 million per season, set up guys can be had for half of that, and still others for much less. Jesse Crain, J.P. Howell, Javier Lopez, Joe Smith, and Scott Downs are all available.This is also another area that Dombrowski might seek to address via the trade route.
3. Replace Peralta's bat, preferably in left field. So Peralta is very likely gone, but losing his bat leaves a void in the offense. There is nobody in the organization who can fill that void unless Nick Castellanos is ready to step up and hit major league pitching while playing adequate defense right away, or Andy Dirks regains his form shown in 2012.
It’s nice to dream about Robinson Cano, or Jacoby Ellsbury, or Shin Soo Choo. They would all be fine additions to any roster, but don’t count on the Tigers adding that kind of salary to the payroll without first clearing some space on the docket. More likely, the offensive void will be made up, if at all, via the trade route.
The Angels are known to be willing to part with Mark Trumbo, Peter Bourjous, and/ or Howie Kendrick in exchange for a mid rotation starting pitcher. Each of them brings a different kind of offense. Trumbo the power bat with little else and little D, Bourjos with great speed and glove, and Kendrick who hits for average with modest power and a solid infield glove. Any of those could help the Tigers.
The Tigers have six starting pitchers to fill a five man rotation. Almost every other club, with the exception of the Cardinals and possibly the Dodgers, could use more starting pitching. If the return is right, Porcello could be moved, saving about $7 million in salary, and a decent every day player could take his place. Smyly could also be the one moved, but he has limited experience as a major league starter, meaning that he has more years of club control, but also less of a track record to sell.
There are limited options on the free agent market, and few teams are willing to sell a proven major league starting pitcher. The Tigers might turn their thin rotation surplus into equal value in the bullpen, in left field, and/ or at second base. Dombrowski has also shown an ability to get major leaguers in exchange for minor leaguers via the trade route.
4. Re-sign Brayan Pena. Looking at the options available, I would not expect to be able to add speed, youth, or defense by swapping out Pena for another back up catcher. The club could save maybe half a million bucks by installing Bryan Holaday or James McCann as Avila’s backup. More likely, they bring Pena back for about a million dollars and fill the need by not creating it.
5. Strengthen the bench. Brayan Pena isn’t a bad hitter for a backup catcher, but he shouldn’t be your best hitter on the bench. Santiago will be gone, but Hernan Perez doesn’t add any offense in a reserve role. The sight of Santiago or Don Kelly pinch hitting is enough to turn a little leaguer’s stomach. Even Quintin Berry offered more offensive spark than the team had last year.
There are always some relatively inexpensive utility infielders available on the market who can play multiple positions, some of them switch hitters. Perhaps the leftovers between Dirks and Castellanos will give them one bat on the bench, but they could use some speed and some pop on the pine, rather than sticking with players such as Kelly or Worth, who are out of options, and don’t give their manager any options, either.
Speaking of benches, please hire a bench coach who understands win expectancy and run expectancy. I haven’t gone into the topic of hiring a new manager in this discussion, because a manager is not part of the roster. I believe that the most important attribute in a manager is the ability manage the people on his team and get the most out of them.
It makes no sense to give away outs to move a runner from first base to second, and even less sense to bat a player second in the lineup because he’s good at sacrificing outs to move runners. You don’t need to have a sabermetrician for a manager, but you need your manager to have the most up to date information on run expectancy and win expectancy in any given situation.
The Dodgers have decided to keep Don Mattingly, but are apparently thinking of equipping him with a forward thinking bench coach who can do just that. The Tigers should do the same. Come out of the dark ages and turn on the lights in the dugout.
All of this being said, the Tigers easily could have won the World Series in any of the past three seasons. A healthy Miguel Cabrera and a couple of meatballs not thrown by the bullpen for grand slams in Fenway Park could have resulted in a parade down Woodward avenue this week. The Tigers don't need major changes, they just need to keep what they have going.