We don’t know the extent to which the Detroit Tigers are looking to offload salary this offseason. General manager Al Avila said his bit shortly after the season ended, and followed up by trading Cameron Maybin — a.k.a. the only proven center fielder on the roster — to the Los Angeles Angels. Fans have parsed Avila’s words multiple times over without finding a definitive conclusion on just how long it will take the Tigers to lower their payroll to an acceptable level.
Should they still feel like shedding more salary, the Tigers could look to Philadelphia for help. On Tuesday, the Phillies released lefthander Matt Harrison, who will be paid $13.2 million in 2017. Harrison came to Philadelphia in the blockbuster deal that sent Cole Hamels to Texas, but has not thrown a pitch for the Phillies due to a back injury. Had Philadelphia kept Harrison on their 40-man roster throughout the offseason, they could have stashed him on the 60-day disabled list and recovered his entire salary through insurance.
Instead, the Phillies decided to eat over $15 million (Harrison has a $2 million buyout for 2018) in order to use that 40-man roster spot this offseason. According to The Good Phight’s John Stolnis, that decision could be something they repeat later this winter.
It is a template the team must continue to follow. If the Phils want to trade for an improvement in the outfield, like Detroit’s J.D. Martinez for example, they need to be willing to accept the big contract of a declining or fading player in return, such as Anibal Sanchez. The Phillies could then do what they did today and release Sanchez, eating even more “dead money” while freeing up a roster space.
The Phils have almost no payroll to spend in 2017. Roster flexibility is far more important than payroll flexibility, especially for a team raking in billions of dollars in Comcast money.
I’m not sure why a team that finished 71-91* would want a one-year rental like J.D. Martinez, but that’s not the point here. Should the Phillies find someone to their liking on the Tigers’ roster, they could choose to eat a bad contract in order to extract more value in a trade. Just like the Atlanta Braves did with Mike Aviles, the Phillies could accept one of Mike Pelfrey or Anibal Sanchez in a trade, then release that pitcher straightaway if they find the roster spot more valuable.
*This largely ignores the fact that the Phillies started 25-19 in 2016 and have a solid young core of starters. Picking up a one-year rental (that they may eventually extend) this offseason isn’t entirely ridiculous.
Both Pelfrey and Sanchez pitched their way into this position with awful 2016 seasons. According to Baseball Reference, Pelfrey was a replacement level pitcher who managed a 5.07 ERA and 5.15 FIP in 119 innings. Sanchez was even worse, finishing 1.1 wins below replacement level with a 5.87 ERA and 5.06 FIP in 153 1⁄3 innings. The Tigers owe Pelfrey and Sanchez a combined $24.8 million in 2017, with Sanchez due at least $5 million more in 2018.
Trading either Pelfrey or Sanchez along with a marquee talent like J.D. Martinez isn’t smart business for a team looking to acquire more young talent. Trading Martinez by himself will net the Tigers a better prospect package, while adding a bad contract to the mix decreases the value Detroit nets in return. Both players have only one year remaining on their respective contracts, and a more patient front office could make do with the struggling starters through 2017 as they inch closer to free agency.
However, if the Tigers are simply looking to shed payroll, pairing Sanchez or Pelfrey with Martinez may be the most effective way to get out from underneath either of those deals. It would harm their on-field product in the long run — just give us the prospects for J.D. on his own, kthnx — but could help clear their books for whatever is next to come in this bizarre early offseason.