If you’ve been following our coverage here at BYB this offseason you've probably caught on to the fact that the Tigers appear to be near the limits of their budget. They say that actions speak louder than words, and over the last couple of years the team’s actions have suggested that they are strongly opposed — if not forbidden — to exceed the luxury tax threshold.
I won’t go into all the details of why we think the team is tapped out or what the exact budget is, let’s just assume for now that the Tigers cannot spend a single penny above their current payroll. That's a problem, because most fans can see two obvious holes in the current roster. The first and most glaring is the overall lack of talent in the outfield. Rajai Davis can hit left-handed pitching and run the bases well, but he isn’t very effective otherwise. Anthony Gose is spectacular defensively, but his hitting ability is barely acceptable. J.D. Martinez might be the best of the bunch, as he should provide some solid offensive value even if his glove is below average.
Ideally, Davis and Gose would form a strict platoon in center field. Their abilities play well off of each other; Davis is better in center field than in the corners, and his ability to hit left-handed pitching is welcome since Gose might as well wear a blindfold when facing southpaws. Both players are true burners on the basepaths, and a platoon would guarantee that one of them is always available to pinch run for one of the more lead-footed hitters. In order to make this platoon happen, however, the Tigers will need to add someone from outside the organization to play one of the corner positions. Martinez has played mostly left field but he has a strong arm and would likely be just as serviceable in right field, so whoever is added could be played in either position.
The second glaring hole is an effective left-handed reliever. In fact, a strong argument could be made that the Tigers need more than a single bullpen arm, but for now let’s work under the assumption that an outfielder and a reliever would finalize the roster. That’s two holes that the Tigers will need to fill without increasing payroll. Obviously, they're going to need to do some shuffling.
There’s only one way to fix this problem; someone’s salary must be redistributed between multiple players that fill the Tigers' two remaining needs. Actually, it would likely result in filling three holes with one salary, as the player that is removed will need to be replaced. If the Tigers truly can't increase the payroll any further, the only way for them to make another acquisition is to trade someone on the current roster. So who is most likely to be traded?
Let’s eliminate some names right off the bat; Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, and Victor Martinez aren’t going anywhere. Love it or hate it, they’ll all be wearing the Olde English D until they retire. On the other end of the spectrum, there are a handful of players that make so little money that trading them wouldn’t free up any significant payroll space. It’s still possible that these players get dealt, but it would be for non-financial reasons. Gose, Nick Castellanos, Eugenio Suarez, Tyler Collins, Kyle Lobstein, Robbie Ray, and Bruce Rondon all fit into this category, among others. While they would all make great trade chips, their removal from the roster wouldn't help the payroll problem.
There has been a lot of chatter about the Tigers potentially trading from their starting pitching. While their rotation is a strength, it’s not necessarily an area of depth. Five spots will be needed, and the Tigers only have four pitchers locked-in, so removing any one of them would require a replacement. There are a few relatively appealing possibilities though; the Tigers could try to fill two rotation spots internally, with Lobstein, Ray, Drew VerHagen, Kyle Ryan, Buck Farmer and whoever else may rise to the top throughout the season. Alternatively, there are a few inexpensive options on the free agent market, such as Justin Masterson, Brett Anderson, or Jake Peavy.
Anibal Sanchez has the most trade value among the Tigers starters. His contract pays him $16.8 million over the next three years, with a team option for slightly less in the fourth (and a $5 million buyout). That salary is a bargain for a pitcher with five consecutive seasons of 3.4 fWAR or more, but trading him would give the Tigers nearly $17 million to distribute to other areas of need.
Trading David Price instead might not net as good of a player return — though it would be close — but it would free up more cash. Price is in his final year of arbitration, so another team would only be acquiring one year of his services, but he is estimated to make more than $18 million in 2015. If the Tigers or Price aren’t interested in signing a long-term extension, the team may decide his salary could be better spent elsewhere.
Rick Porcello is also in his final year of arbitration, but his salary is only projected to be in the $12 million range. While trading him might not result in same reduction in payroll as his rotation mates, it wouldn’t be as big a hit to the team's chances either. Porcello is one of the most experienced 25 year old pitchers ever, and he's in line for a surprisingly lucrative contract, whether that be through free agency or an extension with the Tigers.
In an odd turn of events, the Tigers actually have depth in the middle infield. Ian Kinsler and Jose Iglesias are expected to be the everyday starters, but there are a number of players in line to back them up including Andrew Romine and Hernan Perez, who are out of minor league options. Depending on how the Tigers feel about each of those backup options being in the lineup every day, there may be an opportunity to shed the payroll of one of the starters.
Dealing Iglesias doesn’t make much sense on the surface. He’ll be making less than $2 million in salary, and his trade value surely took a hit after missing a season to injury. Still, if another team is enamored with him it could be an opportunity to shed a bit of payroll while getting value in return.
Trading Kinsler, on the other hand, would be much more likely to give the team the flexibility they need to fill other areas of need. He’s set to make $16 million in 2015 and is under contract through 2017. His limited surplus value might equate to an underwhelming return, but the cash freed up would allow the Tigers to address needs in other ways. Again, this would all depend on how the Tigers feel about their backup options, but I would bet they aren’t excited by the idea of any of them playing every day.
The catcher position has also been discussed at length this offseason. The Tigers took their time picking up Alex Avila’s team option, were reportedly listening to other team’s offers for him, and even went so far as to inquire about the Astros’ surplus of backstops. With James McCann’s solid season in the minor leagues last year and Bryan Holaday as a capable backup, some see Avila as expendable. His $5.4 million salary is far from crippling, but a penny saved is a penny earned, or so I’ve been told. It would be a huge gamble to rely on a rookie in such an important position, but if the team is convinced that McCann is ready (or they’re worried about Avila’s health) they could conceivably take that risk.
Does it make sense to trade from an already thin outfield in order to free up the cash to reinforce the outfield? Not really, but let’s take a look anyway. Rajai Davis is under contract for one more year at $5 million. Again, freeing up that amount of money may not move the needle, but at the same time Davis is 34 years old. For a player that gets nearly all of his value from speed, 34 is a scary number. The team could choose to deal him after a solid season as a sell-high candidate. Still, I think Davis is too important in his role of covering up Gose’s weaknesses to be moved.
The Tigers could trade J.D. Martinez. Wait, hear me out. Martinez isn’t going to hit .315 again next year. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but it’s just not going to happen. Martinez is entering his first year of arbitration, so he’ll still be working for cheap and has three years of control left. His trade value could be enormous to another team that believes his new swing is the real deal. While trading him would only free up about $3 million, the return could potentially fill more than one hole with productive, cost-controlled players. Unfortunately, it wouldn't return all three of the pieces needed at that point, so it’s not likely to happen. But it’s possible. It would all depend on whether there are other teams that view him as a perennial 4-WAR player moving forward.
This is similar to the outfield. How could the Tigers trade from their weakest area? Well, they’ve got $17 million tied up in Joe Nathan and Joakim Soria. No one is going to take on Nathan’s full $10 million salary, that much is certain. But could Dave Dombrowski wrap a $5 million bill around him and find someone willing to take on the other half of his salary? Perhaps. If age was the main factor in Nathan’s performance last year, he may not be worth the paper his contract was printed on, so any salary relief would be worth investigating. Then again, it's still possible that Nathan regains some of his former dominance, and paying him millions to pitch for someone else might seem like a poor business strategy.
Picking up Soria’s $7 million option was a no-brainer for the Tigers. While he isn’t guaranteed to be worth more than that salary in 2015, a pitcher of his caliber on the open market always comes with a multi-year commitment, and much more risk. For that reason alone Soria would be enticing to other teams. Trading him might return a pair of lesser relievers that are still cheap and effective, while freeing up $6 million to put towards the outfield.
So who’s it going to be?
None of the players that make a significant amount of money can be moved without seriously damaging the current roster. However, the options to replace a starting pitcher look more appealing than the rest. With the young pitchers in the organization and a bevy of mediocre fifth-starter types and cheap reclamation projects on the free agent market, the Tigers could probably absorb a loss from this area more easily than anywhere else.
That said, it has become evident that the organizational philosophy is to win with starting pitching. Relying on two unproven or proven-to-be-poor arms is not part of Dave Dombrowski’s modus operandi. He might be more willing to deal Kinsler, and move Suarez or Romine into the full-time second base role. Or he could get even more creative and trade someone for their own replacement, in which case all players on the roster are fair game. To go one step further, he might also be more willing to roll with the roster as-is than to simply shuffle the team's weaknesses.
Quit beating around the bush
Fine, if I have to pick someone I’ll go with David Price. He has enough trade value to get a solid return, and moving his salary off the books gives the Tigers a ton of wiggle room. How they would replace him is anyone’s guess, but if the budget crunch is as tight as we’re assuming, it won’t be Max Scherzer.