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Are the Tigers due for another payroll adjustment?

When the Tigers found themselves with escalating payroll and holes to fill after the 2009 season, they made a big trade to reset the balance sheet. Will they have to do the same again this winter?

Leon Halip

In many ways, the Detroit Tigers find themselves in a similar situation as they found themselves in after the 2009 season. Game 163 had gone twelve innings in the Metrodome in Minneapolis, and the Tigers had come up just short of winning their division and moving on to the playoffs. It was October, 2009. As the Tigers front office surveyed the damage, Dave Dombrowski knew that adjustments had to be made.

The Tigers had a payroll that was growing faster than their odds of winning the World Series that owner Mike Ilitch has coveted so badly. They had the second highest payroll in the game in 2008, high enough to trigger a "luxury tax" penalty, and it was only getting higher.

During the 2009 season, eyes were focused on veteran outfielder Magglio Ordonez and the vesting option in his contract. The six-time All-Star outfielder who had finished second in the MVP voting in 2007 was struggling at the plate, hitting just .260 with only four home runs and 28 RBI at the All-Star break. Ordonez had an option for $18 million for the 2010 season which would vest if he continued to play full time. Speculation was that he’d be benched, either because of that option or because he wasn't hitting, or both.

Ordonez did have his time reduced for a period, and the team acquired Aubrey Huff to DH, but he hit just .189 for them. The usual combination of stiffs on the Tigers bench offered no solutions with the likes of Clete Thomas and Don Kelly. Jim Leyland figured the best way to get to the post season was to play Ordonez, and the decision paid off. Temporarily.

Ordonez hit .375 with an OPS of .978 down the stretch, but the Tigers lost a seven game lead to the sizzling hot Twins in September. They lost the division title in game 163, and lost all the postseason revenue and the big boost in season ticket sales for the following year that goes with winning. Worse yet, they had salary commitments and arbitration cases over the winter that would boost payroll even higher, even if they replaced all of their departing free agents with minor league prospects.

The players scheduled for free agency were second baseman Placido Polanco, shortstop Adam Everett, closer Fernando Rodney, and set up man Brandon Lyon. Dombrowski was in a precarious position. His options were:

A. Sign or replace the departing free agent players, driving payroll even higher.

B. Fill the vacancies from within, allowing payroll to increase marginally, but damaging the team’ prospects on the field.

C. Fill some vacancies cheaply, make some roster moves to clear payroll, then fill remaining vacancies through free agency

Dombrowski chose option C. Specifically, the Tigers allowed Polanco to leave as a free agent without so much as an offer of arbitration that would have given them a first round draft pick if he signed with another team. They released Marcus Thames and Matt Treanor, clearing $2 million off the balance sheet. They resigned Everett on the cheap for just $1 million, and offered arbitration to Lyon and Rodney, knowing full well that both would decline and seek multi-year offers elsewhere, which they both did. Needless to say, the Tigers’ trade deadline acquisitions -- Jarrod Washburn and Aubrey Huff, who had flamed out immediately upon arrival -- were also allowed to leave as free agents.

Those moves left Dombrowski without a second baseman, a designated hitter, a setup man or a closer, and with a payroll still pushing maximum density. Next came the big one. In the biggest blockbuster trade of the off season, he traded Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson in a three-way deal that brought back four players: Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson, Phil Coke, and Dan Schlereth.

Dombrowski told Jason Beck at at the time:

"The reality is, no matter what, we needed to make some adjustments," Dombrowski said. "In almost any scenario, it’s a necessity. But it’s also one of those where we’re in a very good situation with a quality owner that projects to have a really solid payroll as we go forward. But at some point, adjustments needed to be made, and this was the time to do it for us."

Dombrowski goes into more detail in the article. Suffice it to say that the adjustments were made, and on the whole, they worked out very well.

Dombrowski decided that the priority was to get a closer, and they’d fill the second base job by promoting rookie Scott Sizemore, who had yet to lace up a pair of major league spikes. To complicate matters, Sizemore had been sent to the Arizona Fall League where he broke his ankle making a play at the bag, but it was hoped that he’d be fully recovered by Spring Training. He wasn’t.

In order to clear salary to make room for a closer, there were just four Tigers who were making significant money that still had market value. They were Verlander, Cabrera, Jackson and Granderson. Even Cabrera had little surplus value in his deal, so the Tigers doubled down by extending Verlander for $80 million over five years. They traded the other two -- Granderson and Jackson -- to get younger and cheaper at two positions.

Once he had broken free of the payroll straitjacket, Dombrowski was free to deal. He waited out the closer market. In January, Jose Valverde -- arguably the best closer on the market -- was still looking for work. The Tigers signed him at about a 30% discount off the market rate for a premier closer.

Not only was he able to get his closer, but Dombrowski now had a better, younger, cheaper starting pitcher in Scherzer who would be under club control for another five seasons. He also had a younger, cheaper centerfielder who was very good, even if he lacked the power of Granderson. He had a couple of left handed relievers who... did I mention he also signed Johnny Damon for one year?

Fast forward to 2013

The Tigers have won their division and advanced to the final four three seasons in a row. Scherzer is the probable Cy Young winner, but heading into his final season of arbitration where he stands to have a salary of about $13.5 million. He will be a free agent after the 2014 season if not extended. Jackson is in his second year of arbitration, and these are two of nine players who are eligible for arbitration this offseason.

In retrospect, getting Jackson as an unproven rookie to replace Granderson worked out fantastically. Putting unproven rookie Sizemore at second base did not. It took two and a half years to fill the void left by Polanco’s departure. Getting Scherzer to take Jackson’s spot in the rotation worked like a charm. Putting Adam Everett at shortstop did not. Coke worked out okay, Schlereth did not. Free agent Valverde worked out great, Damon did not.

The Tigers find themselves in familiar territory this winter as in 2009. They have free agents departing at second base, shortstop, setup man and closer.

As in 2009, they have already acquired the cheaper replacement for shortstop.

As in 2009, they have dismissed the backup catcher as well as the right handed platoon outfielder.

As in 2009, the Tigers still need a second baseman a closer, and some bullpen help including a lefty reliever.

Beginning to sound familiar?

Wait, there’s more. As in 2009, the Tigers’ payroll is going to rise, even if they replace all their free agents from within. While almost $24 million comes off the books with departing free agents, six veterans are due for salary increases of a combined $13 million. Nine arbitration-eligible players are in line for $15 to 17 million increases. The net result is a payroll of about $155 million, give or take a few million bucks, up from the $ 150 million spent in 2013.

Dombrowski has some decisions to make. First, the Tigers will not make qualifying offers of $14.1 million to any players. This is similar to offering or not offering arbitration under the old collective bargaining agreement. While they would like to have Infante and Benoit back, both are worth closer to $8 million per season. Dombrowski has also said it iss highly unlikely that Peralta will be back. Next, expect at least one or two players -- most likely Phil Coke and Don Kelly -- to be non tendered, saving the club an additional $3 million or so.

Then the big one. Expect the Tigers to make a trade. A starting pitcher is the most likely to be dealt. How much they can save by trading a pitcher depends upon which pitcher they trade. Dealing Rick Porcello could save $6 to 7 million. Max Scherzer would save $13.5 million, or Doug Fister approximately $5.5 to 6 million. I can’t see them trading Scherzer, although he would bring the biggest return. They should be able to fill multiple needs by trading any of the above. One catch is that if they trade any starting pitcher and move Drew Smyly to the rotation, they will need another lefty reliever for the bullpen. Still, they should be able to find a lefty for less than they're paying the starter that they'll trade away.

If they can sign Benoit and/or Infante on reasonable terms, that would cost about $16 million, bringing payroll up to around $168 million. Only the Dodgers and the Yankees have higher payrolls than that currently, though the Red Sox and Phillies have been up in that neighborhood in the past. The sticking point could be the number of years desired by Infante or Benoit. It's generally not wise to go long term on middle infielders or relief pitchers in their 30s.

We don’t know whether Mr Ilitch will authorize an $18 to $20 million increase in payroll for the 2014 season. If the Tigers are unable or unwilling to extend Infante or Benoit, we can only hope that Hernan Perez is not the new Scott Sizemore.

Dombrowski has confirmed that, as in 2009, the team will pursue a "proven closer," Benoit being one of the candidates. He may again decide to wait out the closer market, which looks like it will be a buyer’s market this winter. Thankfully, we won't see a repeat of the attempt to use an unproven closer.

"We're going to have a closer," Dombrowski said. "We're going to pursue somebody to pitch the back end of the bullpen. Joaquin is in that group, but there are a lot of closers out there. That's the one area where there are a lot of guys. That is one area I think we need to address with him or someone else and then we'll look at the rest of our club."

Here is a list of closers provided by MLB Trade Rumors:

Grant Balfour (36)
Joaquin Benoit (36)
Rafael Betancourt (39)
Kevin Gregg (36)
Joel Hanrahan (32)
Ryan Madson (33)
Edward Mujica (30)
Joe Nathan (39)
Chris Perez (28)
Fernando Rodney (37)
Jose Veras (33)
Brian Wilson (32)

The market for second basemen is not as attractive. Infante is the best free agent second baseman not named Robinson Cano, and it’s a sharp drop down to Mark Ellis or Kelly Johnson from there. One good thing for the Tigers is that most teams are all set for a second baseman. If the Yankees can’t come to terms with Cano, they might pursue Infante as reported in the New York Post. One team that should make a run at Infante is the Kansas City Royals.

If you’re concerned about the luxury tax, (read this article for a full breakdown on the Tigers and the luxury tax) you needn’t worry as long as we’re only talking about these guys. When you start to dream about Ellsbury, Choo, or Cano, then the tax man cometh like the grim reaper.

Things are a bit different than they were in 2009. The Tigers are coming off three straight division titles and three trips to the final four. They're knocking on the championship door, and Mr Ilitch isn't getting any younger. They might want to hit the reset button, but the smart money says they'll go for the gold in 2014.

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