The Tigers have had a very top heavy payroll in recent years, and 2015 will be no exception. The team is built with stars in the starting rotation and in the heart of the batting order, and replacement level (or less) players filling out the bullpen and the rest of the lineup.
Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski is the first to admit that signing Victor Martinez may limit him when it comes to filling out the roster — or even putting average players in key positions when the team takes the field in search of a fifth consecutive division title in 2015.
"It's a situation where we're in a spot that if you're going to have four starters being paid and you're going to have a couple of superstars in the middle of your lineup, maybe that means there's not as much availability to do some other things. You have to determine what you're going to do."
The reference to "a couple superstars" was likely a reference to Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera, although the comment was made two weeks before the extension for Martinez became official. The "not much else" could be a reference to the likes of Anthony Gose, a .238 hitter who will be making near the league minimum salary for the next two seasons. It may also be a sign of things to come.
There are other signs of payroll desperation as well. Releasing Andy Dirks is one. Dirks would be a relatively inexpensive outfielder, one that could feasibly outperform Rajai Davis defensively and against right-handed pitchers. If his health continued to be an issue, the Tigers could let him go for as little as one-sixth of his salary (which was not guaranteed) in March.
For the second consecutive season, the Tigers made little effort to sign most of their own free agent players. Eight free agents left after the 2013 season. Six Tigers from the 2014 roster are now free agents, with only one (Martinez) likely to return. On top of that, Prince Fielder and Doug Fister were traded, with financial implications all over those moves.
As players move through their arbitration years, the Tigers have taken them one season at a time with few exceptions. A lack of homegrown talent means the cost of acquisition for players skyrockets, and not all of them can be retained.
This is not to criticize owner Mike Ilitch, who has been more than generous with his checkbook, nor Dombrowski, who has magically pulled off trades to unload heavy contracts. He has brought back younger, less expensive talent on more than one occasion when the payroll was reaching maximum density.
Follow the money
After signing Martinez and picking up the options on Avila and Joakim Soria, the Tigers will be paying $129 million for nine players. Add the projected salaries for four arbitration eligible players of $35.4 million and Jose Iglesias' salary, and now the payroll is over $164 million for 14 players. That’s more than the Tigers paid the 25 players on their Opening Day roster to start the 2014 season.
When calculating payroll for purposes of the luxury tax, the average annual value (AAV) of those contracts will bring the total payroll up to almost $170 million. Just fill out the roster with 11 players making an average of $510,000 (just above the league minimum salary) and the total comes to about $175 million for 25 players. The luxury tax kicks in at about $178 million for the 40 man roster, after the club’s share of player benefits is added in.
This is not to say that the Tigers will refuse to put themselves over the luxury tax threshold. They have breached that limit once before, in 2008, when they paid a tax of $1 million. But it almost certainly means that they’re not going to be in the hunt for expensive free agents such as Melky Cabrera, or Andrew Miller.
On the bullpen, Dombrowski dropped this gem after the Victor Martinez presser:
Wait, did Dave Dombrowski really just say the #Tigers have "enough" relief pitching?
— Tony Paul (@TonyPaul1984) November 14, 2014
On the rotation, Dombrowski said:
"I think we have enough pitching at this point with the four guys there that, if it comes down to that, I’d feel comfortable with that."
Dombrowski has made similar comments regarding the Tigers' outfield, as we have discussed before. The Tigers aren't done. They can't be done. You don't spend $175 million on a roster with holes as glaring as what they would have to run out on the field should the season start today.
Dombrowski: "I’m not saying we’re done but sometimes they’re not the big splashy ones, they don’t have to be big dollars ..." (1/2)
— Catherine Slonksnis (@CSlonksnis) November 14, 2014
"... and big splashes. Sometimes you can get guys to step up and do the job." (2/2)
— Catherine Slonksnis (@CSlonksnis) November 14, 2014
The "defense first" punchline is what we heard when Adam Everett was installed at shortstop with Brandon Inge at third base. A better term would have been "defense only." We saw how that movie ended. Now, it’s Iglesias in for Peralta, with Gose in for Austin Jackson, and Rajai Davis penciled in as a full-time starting corner outfielder.
It’s time for Dombrowski to work his magic again. In 2009, he traded Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson for Austin Jackson, Max Scherzer, Daniel Schlereth, and Phil Coke. Last year, he traded Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler. In both cases, he slashed payroll and gave himself the wiggle room to make other moves. Both years, he followed up the trade by signing a closer and corner outfielder in free agency.
After the Granderson trade, Dombrowski waited out the market and signed Jose Valverde, who was the most prolific closer in the game over the next three seasons. The Tigers also signed Johnny Damon to a one-year deal that offseason. Last year, Joe Nathan and Rajai Davis were the ones signed, but only after some payroll had been cleared.
What will it be this year? If a trade is to be made, David Price, Rick Porcello, and Ian Kinsler seem to be the most likely candidates. Price and Porcello are due to become free agents after the 2015 season and starting pitchers can bring a nice return. Kinsler is due to earn 30 million over the next two seasons before his contract starts to get reasonable. His contract comes with an average annual value of $16 million per year.
Signing extensions for the likes of Price, Porcello, or Alex Avila could also be problematic. Players stand to get more money as free agents, and the Tigers don’t want those years to be calculated into the AAV for the 2015 and 2016 seasons before the luxury tax is set to expire with the current collective bargaining agreement.
Signing an extension after the start of the season could alleviate that concern, but if a player isn’t going to sign an extension, the team has to decide whether to trade them while they can get the maximum return, or to keep them for another run at a title in 2015.
What we can count on is an owner who is committed to winning and willing to spend if necessary. Dombrowski has been in this position before, and he didn't stand pat. Moves will be made, but big acquisitions likely will mean big salaries leaving.