The Detroit Tigers and the Kansas City Royals find themselves atop the American League's Central in what looks like a season-long battle for the division title. How they got here is a study of contrasting methods of building a winning team in Major League Baseball.
In one corner, we have the Detroit Tigers, four-time defending Central Division winners, with a payroll of $173.8 million, two former MVP winners, two Cy Young winners, and a star-studded lineup. In the other corner are the upstart Kansas City Royals, darlings of the 2014 season after an improbable run to the World Series, where they narrowly missed winning a world championship, with a payroll less than $100 million.
Detroit edged out Kansas City for the division title by one game in 2014, thanks mainly to a 13-6 record when the two teams met each other on the field, head-to-head. Detroit led the league in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS. The Tigers had three Cy Young Award winners in their starting rotation and a $10 million closer in the bullpen. They are enjoying the longest string of first place finishes in franchise history, and are expected to win again.
The Royals, by contrast, had a lineup that produced a bit less than the league average number of runs scored, and a rotation that was a bit above average. How did Kansas City contend in 2014? It featured a bullpen that was arguably the best in the game. They easily led the league in stolen bases, and boasted an outfield defense that was some 90 runs better than Detroit's. Some might say they took advantage of "market inefficiencies." They squeaked into the playoffs as a wild card team, and then got red hot.
Kansas City's highest paid player is outfielder Alex Gordon, an All-Star and Gold Glove winner who earns the club's only eight-figure salary at $14 million. Detroit has eight players earning eight figures, including three who make $20 million or more, with bonuses. Those six players earn over $136 million. Take them out of the equation, and the Royals actually spend more money than Detroit on the rest of their major league roster.
The Royals can not be accused of not signing free agents, or not paying enough players. At least, not anymore. The club has nine players earning salaries above $5 million, but less than $10 million. Detroit has four. Five of the Royals' mid-range salaried players were signed as major league free agents.
How they were built
|Minor league FA||6||3
Total includes players on the disabled list
One might think that, with a payroll among the five biggest in the major leagues, the Tigers went the free agent route to acquire many of their players, but that is not the case. Victor Martinez is the lone big ticket free agent signed by Detroit, having now been inked to successive four-year contracts. Joe Nathan is the latest in a long line of closers who have signed free agent contracts with Detroit. Other than that, Rajai Davis has a $5 million per year deal while Joba Chamberlain and Tom Gorzelanny each have been signed to bargains at $1 million for the current season.
The biggest discrepancy in the methods used by the two clubs to put together their major league rosters is found in how they develop or trade their own homegrown talent. Kansas City has nine players on their major league roster who were drafted by the club, including five who were top four overall selections. The Tigers have just four draftees.
The Tigers have developed a recent habit of trading their prospects for major league players. Many of those acquired were nearing free agency and were signed to lucrative, long-term contracts. Seven of the 10 highest-paid Tigers were acquired in trades. Six of those were approaching free agency. This explains the large difference in salary between the two clubs. Detroit pays players that they acquire when they are extended, then have little in the way of inexpensive talent to fill their needs, so the spending cycle continues.
Another significant difference between the way that the Tigers and Royals is the number of players who are signed to multi-year contracts in the years before they reach free agency. The Tigers do not have a single player on their major league roster signed to a multi-year contract who has entered their free agent eligible seasons. Detroit has taken their arbitration eligible players one season at a time in recent years.
The Tigers signed Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander to lucrative, multi-year deals prior to their becoming eligible for free agency. The club attempted to extend Max Scherzer, but he opted to play out his contract. Victor Martinez and Anibal Sanchez became free agents and then signed extensions. As a result, the Tigers have several players each year who are eligible for free agency, and the history is that the vast majority have departed, leaving the team with vacancies to fill each winter.
By contrast, the Royals have signed a number of arbitration eligible players to multi year contracts. Gordon is now in what would be a free agent season, signed for 2015, plus has a club option for 2016. Wade Davis, Eric Hosmer, Kelvin Herrera, and Luke Hochevar have all been signed to multi-year contracts.
One explanation for the difference in the two approaches might be that Detroit has been a contender for the past several seasons, while Kansas City has been out of the race until last summer. That would make the Tigers a buyer and the Royals a seller each season at the trade deadline. That is partially true. Detroit acquired David Price and Joakim Soria at the deadline, giving up several of their top prospects in the trades.
The Royals, however, have not relied upon trading veteran players to acquire prospects. Their most notable trade in recent years saw them trading away Wil Myers, the top prospect in baseball at the time, to acquire James Shields and Wade Davis. They also dealt Cy Young winner Zack Greinke and acquired Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain, who are two key players on the current roster.
A more simple explanation is that Tigers' owner Mike Ilitch is willing to spend money to keep players, paying top dollar for players as they enter their free agent eligible seasons. The Royals are hard pressed to pay any elite free agent players the market rate, so they will look to extend them prior to their eligibility, trade them for players under club control, or lose them to free agency. Neither method is without challenges when it comes to sustaining a winning team.
The most recent winter revealed some similarities between the two clubs in how they approached the 2015 season. Each team lost their ace pitcher to free agency, with the Tigers losing Scherzer while the Royals lost Shields. Detroit traded for Price last July, while Kansas City signed three less expensive free agents, in Kris Medlen, Chris Young, and Edinson Volquez. Each club also added some inexpensive free agent relief pitchers, with Detroit signing Chamberlain and Gorzelanny, while Kansas City signed Ryan Madson and Jason Frasor at bargain rates.
The Tigers also traded away pitcher Rick Porcello for outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, and picked up outfielder Anthony Gose, as part of an overall effort to improve the team defense. The Royals signed Alex Rios and Kendrys Morales in an effort to add more offense. Ironically, each team was acting more like the other.
As the Royals find themselves in contention, it will be more difficult for them to trade away veteran players for prospects. They have not relied on trading veterans for prospects, as shown above, but as more of their young players will get increasingly expensive as they move through arbitration and toward free agency, their payroll will be challenged. If they want to remain contenders, they will have to break out the checkbook and sign some of their players to expensive, long term contracts.
The Tigers' payroll has been pushing maximum density now for a few years, but they have found more money each season to stay atop the pack in the American League. But filling every spot on the roster by signing free agents or trading away prospects for established major league players is an expensive proposition. In order to stay on top, at some point they need to get some help from their own farm system.