It doesn’t take much analysis of the Tigers’ recent postseason history, or their regular season history for that matter, to see that the club is in dire need of an upgrade in their bullpen. It doesn’t take a skilled sabremetrician to detect problems with Anthony Gose and Rajai Davis both starting in the same outfield. It only takes a bit of calculating to see that the Tigers’ payroll is pushing maximum density, and they’re threatening to trip over the luxury tax threshold.
Therein lies the dilemma for Dave Dombrowski. He needs to add players to the roster, but will pay a premium in the form of a luxury tax if he spends the money that it will take to fix the problems. Fortunately, Dombrowski knows exactly what he has to do.
This is not the first time that Dombrowski has found himself in this situation. After the 2009 season, when the Tigers lost game 163 to the Minnesota Twins and Magglio Ordonez’s $18 million vesting option triggered for the 2010 season, the Tigers were in a similar situation. Payroll was going to escalate, even if they let every free agent player leave and replaced them with replacement level players who made the league minimum salary.
The result in December 2009, was the trade of Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson for four cost controlled players:Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson, Phil Coke, and Daniel Schlereth. That deal continued to pay dividends for the Tigers right through the 2014 season. They also gained the financial flexibility to sign Jose Valverde as their closer for the next three years, and add outfielder Johnny Damon to the top of the lineup for one season. Sound familiar?
One year ago, the Tigers were in need of a closer, a second baseman, a top of the lineup hitter, and an outfielder. They were also staring at the possibility that Miguel Cabrera would soon be a free agent. But again, payroll was going to go up, even if they allowed all eight free agents from their World Series caliber roster to leave. Dombrowski did let them all walk away, but he also pulled off a couple of cost-saving trades. Prince Fielder and his $23 million salary were dealt for Ian Kinsler, who had "only" a $16 million contract for 2014, and Doug Fister was traded for three players set to make the major league’s minimum salary.
In the process, Dombrowski filled the need at second base, and got a top of the order hitter. He upgraded the defense, and created the financial flexibility to sign a closer in Joe Nathan, give Miguel Cabrera a record contract, and sign Rajai Davis, with a few dollars left over to roll the dice on Joba Chamberlain.
Speculation has centered on the idea that Detroit might trade a starting pitcher, most likely David Price or Rick Porcello. Both are set to become free agents after one more season in Detroit. Don’t bet on it. If we know one thing about Dombrowski’s Tigers, it is that they are built around their starting rotation. When the fan base is clammoring for another bat in the lineup, Dombrowski adds another arm to the rotation, as he did with Jarrod Washburn in 2009, with David Price in 2013, and with Shane Green most recently.
If the Tigers do trade a starting pitcher, it will be to upgrade their rotation, not to borrow from the rotation to upgrade the bullpen or the outfield. If they can resign Max Scherzer, they would then have the flexibility to trade another starting pitcher. And even then, you could expect a younger, less expensive starting pitcher to be coming to Detroit in the deal. Acquiring Shane Green fills out the starting rotation, for now. It does not give the Tigers the freedom to blow another hole in the rotation with another trade.
Few observers thought that Dombrowski would be able to unload Fielder and the remainder of his nine year contract, but he did. There doesn’t seem to be much, if any, surplus value in Ian Kinsler’s contract, which will pay him $16 million next season, and at least $41 million through 2018. Ironically, though, Kinsler is one player who could be traded, clearing room on the payroll to make some of the moves that the Tigers need to make.
It seems counterintuitive to trade Ian Kinsler, the one player on the team -- other than maybe Cabrera -- who performed above average both offensively and defensively a year ago. Kinsler led the Tigers’ lineup with a 5.4 fWAR in the 2014 season. He edged out Cabrera and AL MVP runner-up Victor Martinez with a combination of offense and defense that placed him near the top of the heap among all second baseman in Major League Baseball. There is no question that he provided great value to the team, even at a cost of $16 million. Chances of repeating that performance, however, aren’t the greatest.
Detroit won’t likely be able to get the premier outfielder and relief pitcher that they need merely by trading Kinsler, but clearing his contract could create the space needed to maneuver. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves both are looking to trade a premier outfielder, in the form of Matt Kemp or Justin Upton. The Dodgers are looking for a shortstop, and could move Dee Gordon back to his natural position if they had a second baseman. Equally important, Los Angeles absolutely must trade one of their surplus outfielders. Money would change hands in any trade involving Kemp. The Braves are looking for a second baseman, but it would take more than just Kinsler to get Upton.
Somewhere here, there is a deal to be done. Detroit would have to make a second trade, or involve a third team, to fill their void left at second base by Kinsler’s departure, but that can be done. Howie Kendrick of the Los Angeles Angels and Ben Zobrist of the Tampa Bay Rays, are two second basemen, both premier hitters and defenders, who are available in a trade at about half the cost of Kinsler.
Zobrist is the one second baseman who posted a higher WAR than Kinsler in 2014. Over the past three seasons, his 17.0 fWAR is second only to Robinson Cano at the keystone position. Howie Kendrick is very comparable to Kinsler, with 10.4 fWAR to Kinsler’s 11.0 since 2012. He actually has been more productive hitting and fielding, but Kinsler makes up the difference with baserunning. Zobrist has one year left before free agency, and there is little chance of the Rays extending him. Kendrick is in the last year of a contract that pays $9 million, and the Halos have other options.
A team that is willing to trade a good second baseman isn’t going to be interested in Ian Kinsler. But then, the Tigers don’t need a second baseman, unless they trade Kinsler. This scenario involves at least three teams, just as the trades for Shane Greene and David Price did. I would not advocate replacing Kinsler with Hernan Perez or Eugenio Suarez, as some have suggested. Part of the deal that didn't work out in 2009 was allowing Placido Polanco to leave without an offer of arbitration. The club struggled to fill the void at second base for the next three seasons.
The alternatives to create some wiggle room are few for the Tigers, just as they were in 2009. Granderson and Jackson were two of the four players on the entire roster who had any significant value above the cost of their contracts. The other two were Cabrera and Justin Verlander. Dombrowski doubled down on Verlander later that winter, building the rotation around him and building the lineup around Cabrera.
This time around, the team has more players with surplus value in their contracts. In fact, Kinsler’s contract might be the only one without much surplus value. But unless they are going to blow a hole in the starting rotation in order to plug holes elsewhere on the roster, there aren’t many options to clear the payroll space necessary to make other moves. Trading Ian Kinsler and replacing his contract with one that gives them more bang for their buck is one move that makes sense.