Call me the Grinch who stole your offseason joy if you like, but a prediction for you: A regular in the Tigers' lineup -- probably a popular one -- will be traded before the start of spring training. It might be painful, but it's necessary. The Tigers are simply not in the position where they can spend their way out of their problems. Will it be Ian Kinsler? Jose Iglesias? J.D. -- GASP -- Martinez? Couldn't tell ya. But if Tigers GM Al Avila intends to do this right, he's going to need to do more than open owner Mike Ilitch's wallet and write a check.
The popular idea in the later months of the season was the the Tigers had to rebuild -- reloading isn't enough. That's because they had too many holes to fill and too much money tied up in too few players. Ian Kinsler, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Miguel Cabrera, and Victor Martinez will cost Detroit $105 million in 2016, $102 million in 2017, and $86 million in 2018. That group spent more than 180 days on the disabled list, with the latter four repeat offenders. Our own Patrick OKennedy estimated payroll will total about $131 million before any additions are made.
Meanwhile they need two starting pitchers, several relievers, and a little help in the outfield. Oh, and there's not a lot of marquee help to be found in what was baseball's worst farm before the trade deadline. Lynn Henning of the Detroit News eyed these circumstances in September and decided the Tigers' best bet was to take the long view, get out from underneath the big contracts and bring more talent into the system.
That means you at least listen to teams that might be seduced by Miguel Cabrera's availability. You do the same with Justin Verlander. Anibal Sanchez's sore shoulder probably eliminates him for now as a trade chip, just as Victor Martinez is anchored in Detroit because of age (37 in December), 2015's knee-induced disaster of a season, and a fat contract that runs through 2018.
But the Tigers would be better off pruning age and money — now.
From a big picture standpoint, he might be right. However, that would be not be an acceptable solution for an aging owner who'd like to bring a championship to the city. Nor would alienating fans make sense from a financial standpoint. The TV deal reportedly expires in 2018, per Crain's Detroit Business, as well (though Henning has been told early 2020s.) So, let's begin with the idea that rebuilding isn't going to happen due to all those reasons. Reloading is the only option.
Ideally a reload today looks like the 2010 offseason. At a time when many people looked at the Tigers' payroll and found it untenable, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski pulled off a major three-team trade during the 2009 winter meetings that brought future Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, everyday center fielder Austin Jackson, and relievers Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth to Detroit. It didn't come without a cost. That cost was popular center fielder Curtis Granderson being shipped to the Yankees and starting pitcher Edwin Jackson to the Diamondbacks. The financial savings was not great, as Granderson and Edwin Jackson were only paid a combined $10 million in 2010 and $17 million in 2011. But it took talent to get talent. The trade helped set the Tigers up for four consecutive division titles from 2011-2014, two ALCS showings and a World Series appearance.
What this would look like in terms of today's team might depend more on the level of interest and quality of players offered rather than targeting a specific Tiger to trade. The player or players who'll be traded likely carries this quality, however: several years of team control remaining, complete with a contract that gives value to the player. Value in this sense is surplus value. Fangraphs calculated that teams were willing to pay about $8 million per expected unit of WAR on the free agent market in 2015 and a little less the year before. A three-win player would be expected to be paid $24 million, for example.
Ian Kinsler's contributions to the Tigers over the past two seasons are valued at $72 million by Fangraphs, while he was paid $32 million. His decreasing contract values of $14 million (2016), $10 million (2017), and a $10 million option (with a $5 million buyout) in 2018 make him a strong trade candidate. But that's if the Tigers can feel comfortable with their second baseman of the future -- they'd have to acquire one of those.
J.D. Martinez has been worth $75 million to the Tigers over the past two seasons while earning about $3.5 million, giving him a tremendous amount of value. His salary will jump to an MLB Trade Rumors estimated $7.5 million next year, and likely more than $10 million after that. Even with that escalation if the 28-year-old continues to progress as a player he'll have a tremendous amount of surplus value. The Tigers would find themselves in need of starting left and right fielders with a trade, however.
And then there's Jose Iglesias. He has not carried quite the same surplus value, being worth somewhere around 28 million while being paid near league minimum. However, his talent projects well even if the fielding stats have lagged behind a bit. He's also batted .290 with .701 OPS in Detroit before his 26th birthday. He has three years of arbitration remaining while being owed a projected $2 million in 2016. From the Tiger' standpoint, a trade could be more palatable here with Dixon Machado waiting in the wings after a solid showing at short at the end of the year.
Moving a position player to strengthen the pitching staff would seem to be the best idea so long as they have an acceptable replacement. That won't solve all the problems: They will certainly spend money on the free-agent market to bring in starting pitching and relief help alike. Bringing back a young position player and established young pitcher in a trade could help set up a brighter future while continuing to compete today. Avila's been a part of just such a transaction before, so don't be surprised if he attempts just such a move now that he's in charge of the Tigers. Even if it means your favorite Tiger puts on a new uniform in 2016.