The first piece of the offseason puzzle has fallen into place with the Detroit Tigers' acquisition of Francisco Rodriguez. With one of the best closers in the game holding down the ninth inning, the Tigers now face the crux of their decision-making in constructing the 2016 roster. Without some miraculous work, it's going to be impossible to address every one of their needs. It's very difficult to imagine a scenario where, beyond the lurking issue of health, the Tigers go into the 2016 season without some legitimate question marks. Somewhere along the way, they're going to have to choose which position they want to roll the dice on.
While K-Rod comes at a reasonable, if somewhat murky cost, the Tigers are now down to approximately $35 million left to spend to stay under the luxury tax threshold. That isn't going to be enough to make all the additions we'd like. Based on the statements of Tigers vice president and general manager Al Avila, the club would still like to add two starting pitchers, another quality reliever, and an outfielder. Barring a substantial trade that opens up some payroll flexibility, or a sudden willingness to blow through the luxury tax threshold, it's going to be impossible to fill all those roster requirements with quality players.
Quality is the key word there. Sure, the Tigers could go very cheap and fill those four spots. If they were able to identify several undervalued players, perhaps they could piece together a complete roster, but that's as risky a proposition as any. With the outcome of the 2016 season already resting heavily on the health of Anibal Sanchez, Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera, that's a very uncomfortable scenario, with much potential for disaster. Instead, the Tigers should emphasize impact players and go for quality in their signings, and move that risk to the place where they have the greatest depth: starting pitching.
Depth? This is not a concept Tigers' fans are particularly familiar with. For years the Tigers have won with a disparate blend of stars and role players. It's been a rare case where they were able to fill a spot with an internal option and get solid production. This isn't the kind of depth that, say, the St. Louis Cardinals are famous for. However, there is a decent case to be made that the Tigers already have enough cheap options for a fifth starting pitcher to make spending a substantial sum on an established-but-rickety option for that spot a very poor allocation of their limited resources.
Sure they could sign Doug Fister for roughly $10 million. Or, they could add Chris Young, recently of Kansas City Royals fame, for substantially less. However, players like that come with risk of dreadful performance or injury. Is it really worth allocating a chunk of payroll to a player like that, when you could instead allow Shane Greene, Matt Boyd, or Michael Fulmer to compete for that spot at a fraction of the cost?
By passing on the idea of adding a fifth starter, the Tigers would be free to add another high quality reliever, someone like Mark Lowe or left-hander Antonio Bastardo. This would make the Tigers bullpen a clear strength for the first time in years, a strength that is more dependable than any free agent fifth starter option available [Ed.: Nope, still not comfortable with that idea. It's gonna take a while]. More importantly, it would allow them the payroll flexibility to pursue one of the better starting pitcher options available and still have the funds to address the outfield.
There are just a few of the popular fifth starter candidates for the Tigers, plus Alfredo Simon, alongside their 2015 numbers. Is it so outlandish to think that one, or a combination of Greene, Boyd, or Fulmer is going to have little trouble replicating or beating those numbers? Is it worth $5 million, or even $10 million, to avoid finding out? Personally, I think that money is a lot better spent on one of these three relievers.
Were the Tigers to add one of these three at $5 or $6 million per year, they would be in a position where they finally had the makings of an excellent bullpen. This would help alleviate concerns of Anibal Sanchez, Daniel Norris and [insert fifth starter] probably aren't going to give you more than five or six innings in a start. The Tigers would also be in much better shape for a postseason run, where the days off allow a team to bring its best relievers to bear in key spots with greater regularity than in the regular season.
By going this route, the Tigers would still have approximately $30 million remaining to acquire a front-line starter and to address left field. Most importantly, they would finally have a bullpen capable of seriously challenging manager Brad Ausmus' ability to screw it up. That is a much more workable situation to be in than trying to address two rotation spots and an outfielder with just $35 million or so available to spend.
The Tigers could acquire Jordan Zimmermann, giving themselves a very good top of the rotation, assuming Anibal Sanchez rebounds. They would still be able to sign someone like Rajai Davis, Austin Jackson, or another platoon player to avoid playing Tyler Collins and Anthony Gose every day. Or they could sign Gerardo Parra to patrol left field and still be able to afford one of the Mike Leakes or Yovanni Gallardos of the world. Either way, you add a dependable starting pitcher of good quality and, whether through a trade or a signing, avoid having both Gose and Collins in your Opening Day lineup.
Really, what it comes down to, is a pick-your-poison scenario. Either the Tigers are taking their chances with Collins and Gose in full-time roles, or they are hoping that some combination of their young starters can hold down the back end of the rotation. The only way to avoid those two risks is to leave the bullpen as is, or by accepting two mediocre starters instead of one top-tier pitcher.
For me, the choice is obvious. We went into last season with Greene and Simon manning the back end of the rotation. I'm confident that Daniel Norris and a combination of Greene, Boyd and Fulmer can do at least as well. And if they struggle, acquiring a fifth starter at the deadline is the cheapest and easiest hole a team could have to address.