Everything we have heard so far this offseason suggests that the Tigers are in a bit of a payroll bind. They seemed to be pinching pennies when placing Andy Dirks on waivers last week, and there are concerns as to whether the Tigers' "stars and scrubs" model is efficient enough to bring home a championship. The Ilitch family reportedly does not want to cross the luxury tax threshold, effectively limiting the amount of money the Tigers can spend this offseason.
Yet, they need bullpen help. The Tigers had one of the worst bullpens in baseball last year, and it cost them dearly in the ALDS against the Baltimore Orioles. Getting quality upgrades won't be cheap, unless they get lucky on a few fliers. At this point, however, they may only have the budget for fliers.
Except, what if they didn't? What if the Tigers eschewed their current payroll model and went all-in for 2015? They have over $17 million coming off the books from the bullpen alone after next season, and no reliable late-inning options in the pipeline. Enter David Robertson. The Yankees' right-hander made the most of his final year before free agency, tallying 39 saves with a 3.08 ERA. As the best "proven closer" available, could Robertson entice the Tigers into opening up the wallet again?
*2015 Steamer projection
Who is he?
An Alabama native, Robertson was drafted out of the University of Alabama by the New York Yankees in 2006. The former 17th round pick rose quickly through the minor leagues and made his MLB debut in 2008. He struggled in his rookie season with a 5.34 ERA, but quickly settled down to post consecutive seasons with an ERA under 4.00. The last four years have seen Robertson blossom into one of the better relievers in the American League, and he took over the closer role from the now-retired Mariano Rivera in 2014.
Why should we care?
The national media caught wind of Robertson last season as he followed in Mariano Rivera's footsteps. However, Robertson has been one of the best relievers in baseball for years. He has put up four consecutive seasons with at least 1.6 WAR. His 7.6 WAR ranks fourth among all MLB relievers during that stretch. He has a career 2.81 ERA and 2.74 FIP in 393 1/3 innings. He has 254 strikeouts to 60 walks -- a 4.23 strikeout-to-walk ratio -- in the past three seasons. Simply put: he's really good.
One of the most impressive things about Robertson's numbers is how dominant he has been against left-handed hitters. In his seven year career, lefties are hitting just .194/.283/.267 with seven home runs in 815 plate appearances. For a pitcher who plays half of his games in Yankee Stadium, this is astounding. Robertson struck out 4.9 lefties for every walk he issued in 2014, holding them to a minuscule .437 OPS.
Why should we stay away?
It's too bad that Robertson didn't hit free agency a year sooner. After saving 39 games in 44 opportunities last season, he now has the "proven closer" tag on his resume and will command top dollar on the free agent market. Plus, Robertson has received a qualifying offer from the Yankees -- which he is likely to turn down -- and will cost the team that signs him a first round draft pick.
Giving relievers big money in free agency is a risky venture, even when they have been as consistent as Robertson. Consider this: in the four years leading up to free agency, these two players posted the following stat lines.
Player A: 258 innings pitched, 2.20 ERA, 3.73 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 7.6 WAR
Player B: 268 2/3 innings pitched, 2.75 ERA, 4.51 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 9.6 WAR
Player A is Robertson. Player B is Jonathan Papelbon, who is heading into the final season of a four year, $50 million contract (though his 2016 option will likely vest, barring injury). While Papelbon's numbers are still solid -- he has a ERA and is 106 for 121 in save opportunities in a Phillies uniform -- his contract is an immovable albatross that is costing the team a chance at landing a prospect or two at the trade deadline. Would Robertson suffer the same fate? Part of that depends on which club signs him. But that's a game of hot potato that the Tigers might not want to get involved in.
Will he end up in Detroit?
Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News mentions the Tigers as a possible destination for Robertson, but this is only because they have a large payroll and an awful bullpen. With the Tigers already set on having Joe Nathan as their closer -- let's face it, he'll "earn" the job with a halfway decent Spring Training -- and Joakim Soria in the fold, the Tigers will not look to bring in another top-dollar right-hander. Robertson may not like the idea of pitching in the seventh or eighth inning after getting a taste of the closer's role last year in New York, and there's no reason why the Yankees won't look to bring back their own guy in 2015.