Star lefthander David Price was the most valuable pitcher on the Detroit Tigers in 2015, even though he spent the final two months of the season pitching for another team. In fact, Price has been the best pitcher in the American League over the past five seasons according to fWAR. He is in the prime of his career, and seems a near lock to be the highest paid free agent of the 2015-2016 offseason.
Price was acquired by Detroit at the trade deadline in 2014 and traded a year later at the 2015 deadline. For the first four months of the 2015 season, he replaced Max Scherzer in the Tigers' rotation in what might have been a Cy Young winning season. Now, the Tigers are without Scherzer, and without Price in their rotation. In fact, they are also without Drew Smyly, who was traded to acquire Price in 2014. Is it possible the the Tigers will bring Price back for 2016?
The Tigers traded Price at the trade deadline during the 2015 season, having not engaged in any meaningful contract negotiations to keep him in a Tigers' uniform. According to Price's agent, Bo McKinnis...
"...it was evident they wanted to keep him and we expressed a desire to stay, as well. But we were coming from two different positions from the beginning and the talks really never took off from there."
Price is looking at a contract north of $200 million for six years or more. The Tigers offered Max Scherzer $144 million and he got a contract for $210 million from the Washington Nationals. Price would seem to fall in that range, and there will be multiple teams lining up to talk about terms. However, the Tigers don't figure to be one of them.
You can never say never when you're talking about how Tigers' owner Mike Ilitch will spend his money, but every indication is that the Tigers don't want their payroll to eclipse the $189 million luxury tax threshold, and that would leave them with about $40 million to spend on player salaries by opening day of the 2016 season after accounting for player benefits and arbitration increases. Should they spend close to $30 million per year on one pitcher, they won't have enough left to acquire the players that they need to return to the status of contenders. Those needs would include another starting pitcher, some help for the bullpen, and outfielders to replace Yoenis Cespedes and Rajai Davis.
A seven-year contract at $30 million per season would be in line with expectations, and would keep Price under contract until age 37. There are pitchers who perform well until age 37, but chances of getting a performance worth that kind of salary at that age are pretty remote. But say the Tigers were to offer price a 10-year contract, and pay him only $21 million per season? That would bring him to his age 40 season, and the average annual value of the contract would leave another $19 million to spend on other players.
The Nationals paid Scherzer $210 million for seven years, but spread the payments over 15 years. He made $10 million in 2015, $15 million per year for three more seasons, and $35 million per year for the final three years, but payments will be deferred so that he receives $105 million in salary deferred into future years. For luxury tax purposes, Scherzer's average annual value of his salary is $28, 089,376. But that is a seven-year contract, If Price were given a 10-year contract, that would bring the average annual value down. He would take the calculated risk of committing to terms for years when he may still be productive.
Another alternative is that the Tigers simply blow past the luxury tax threshold and pay a 17 percent tax on every dollar above $189 million, but indications from Avila are that will not happen. When interviewed by the MLB network recently, Avila sai:
"I would say (payroll) is probably more restrictive this year, just because we have money invested in so many guys already,"
Avila had previously said "a payroll in the $189-200 million range was "ridiculous."
It's not hard to see that the Tigers have been willing to spend up to, but not over the $189 million mark. In fact, trading Price in July took the team's payroll from just above the tax threshold to a comfortable margin below it.
A third alternative for the Tigers to bring Price back without paying a tax would be to make a trade that clears some payroll space, like what they did when they sent Prince Fielder to Texas. The problem with this scenario is that there are five players who earn enough salary to make a significant difference, and each of those players fills a key role on Detroit's roster. Even if we're talking about a player who under performed in 2016, such as Anibal Sanchez or Victor Martinez, there is hardly a scenario where the Tigers are contenders in 2016 without those players returning to form. Otherwise, the Tigers need to acquire a third starting pitcher or a clean up hitter in addition to those already on the shopping list.
The most realistic chance the the Tigers have of replacing the production lost by the departures of Price and Scherzer is for their well paid stars to pitch up to their ability. Justin Verlander is in the fourth season of a contract that pays him $28 million per season. Sanchez has two years left on an $80 million contract. If those two can pitch up to that level, the Tigers have a fighting chance to add two starting pitchers that can bring them back into contention without blowing the budget.