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What does re-signing Victor Martinez mean for the Tigers' outfield?

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Victor Martinez's contract extension virtually ensures that Torii Hunter will not be back for the 2015 season. Where does this leave the Tigers' outfield?

Leon Halip

By signing Victor Martinez to a four year, $68 million contract, the Detroit Tigers have struck early in the offseason and addressed their top priority. The Tigers' slugger was widely viewed as the best hitter available on the free agent market. Now, they will turn to address some of the other needs created by trades and players departing via free agency.

Martinez, a finalist for the American League's Most Valuable Player award for the 2014 season, was one of six players on the Tigers' major league roster to become a free agent at the end of the season. Starting pitcher Max Scherzer is widely considered the best pitcher on the free agent market. Outfielder Torii Hunter, who earned $14 million for the 2014 season, is also a free agent and would like to return to Detroit. However, the signing of Martinez virtually ensures that this will not happen.

In his postseason press conference, general manager Dave Dombrowski went through the list of offseason priorities for the Tigers. Specifically, he mentioned these needs, in no particular order:

  • The Tigers would like to resign Victor Martinez
  • The club needs to address the issue of center field, either with a complimentary player for Rajai Davis, or a full-time center fielder
  • The team needs a more efficient bullpen, and some of that may be addressed internally
  • Another left-handed bat at some position, possibly even on the bench

Where does this leave Torii Hunter?  Dombrowski addressed Hunter's situation this way.

"We have some real key free-agent players," Dombrowski said, "and Torii Hunter is one of them."

"Where that all fits right now, we still haven't made final decisions. So we'll just have to wait and see how our pieces fit together as we go forward."

Hunter had another fine season at the plate, hitting .286 with 17 home runs and 83 RBI. However, the former Gold Glover's defense was among the worst in the league. It got to the point where his poor defense almost completely wiped out his value as a hitter. Hunter was worth just 0.3 WAR in 2014. The Tigers may have considered Hunter as a replacement for Martinez as a designated hitter, but they should not entertain the idea of handing him a glove to play the outfield.

So, where does this leave the Tigers' outfield for the 2015 season? Austin Jackson, the Tigers' center fielder for the past five seasons, was traded in July to the Seattle Mariners in the deal that brought David Price to Detroit. Rajai Davis filled in as the replacement center fielder for the remainder of the season and did a decent job, but should not be viewed as a permanent solution. Davis was signed prior to last season to platoon with Andy Dirks in left field. Season long injuries to his would-be partner left Davis with a larger role in the outfield.

With the trade for Anthony Gose, it appears that the Tigers could have a platoon in center field with Davis and Gose, but that leaves one corner outfield spot remaining to be filled. If they're thinking about using Davis full time in left field, and Gose full time in center field, they should think again.

Word from the rumor mill spread earlier this week that the Tigers were "very, very interested" in Toronto Blue Jays' outfielder Melky Cabrera. Could the Tigers still sign Cabrera, now that they have committed another $17 million per season to Martinez? Sure, they could, but not without consequences.

Follow the money

Where does the Tigers' payroll stand after signing Martinez?

  • Expired contracts: subtract $47.3 million
  • Dirks, Kelly let go: subtract $2.7 million
  • Guaranteed contracts: $115.7 million
  • Club options for Joakim Soria and Alex Avila: add $12.4 million
  • Players eligible for arbitration, $ 35.4 million

That comes to $163.5 million for 13 players. Jose Iglesias made $1.7 million in 2014 and should not get much, if any, increase. That brings the 2015 payroll for just 14 players higher than the Opening Day payroll for the entire roster in 2014.

There is also a real threat that the Tigers' climbing payroll would exceed the threshold that would trigger payment of a luxury tax. The tax kicks in at about $178 million after allowance is made for each team's share of player benefits. For tax purposes, the average annual value of contracts is used. If you figure in the average annual value of Miguel Cabrera's latest eight year contract extension, the total average annual value would bring the club's payroll to $170 million, for just 14 players.

That would leave the team with just about $8 million to spend on the bullpen, the outfield, and the rest of the roster. If they only filled out the roster with players earning minimum wage, that's another $6 million. Any further expenditures beyond paying the minimum salary of $500,000 essentially would be hit with a 17.5 percent tax.

Melky Cabrera is expected to receive about $14 million per season for four or five years. That would replace Torii Hunter at the top of the batting order, replace his production, and give the Tigers another left handed bat -- actually a switch hitter. But that $14 million is effectively $16.5 million with the tax added.

Signing Cabrera would mean that J.D. Martinez moves to right field, with Rajai Davis platooning with Gose in center. They would have then upgraded their outfield defense by replacing Hunter, creating an effective center field platoon, and improving their bench. Most likely, a new center fielder would arrive via a trade rather than free agency.

We'll explore options for the bullpen and the rotation separately, but the picture is becoming clearer. If the luxury tax is a concern that limits what the Tigers can spend on other players this off season, then there is reason for concern.