The narrative circling around the Detroit Tigers as their season circles the drain, is that a sell off of veteran players is imminent, with no player exempt from being shipped out. After this season, that’s it for the current group of players, before the rebuild begins. That would be very unwise, for several reasons.
In fact, the Tigers don’t need to reduce payroll after this season by selling off veteran players. They will have some $47 million in average annual value of salaries coming off the books due to expiring contracts, losing only one expensive player — that being J.D. Martinez — who is playing an important role on the team. The other contracts of Mike Pelfrey, Mark Lowe, Francisco Rodriguez, and Anibal Sanchez are dead weight on the payroll that will provide financial relief and spending flexibility that they have lacked the past two seasons.
The Tigers’ payroll for tax purposes is about $20 million above the $195 million tax threshold. If they do nothing, the team would be $27 million under that level before adjusting for arbitration increases, needing to replace Martinez, Alex Avila, and whomever else is needed to contend in 2018. Deadline deals can begin to fill the vacancies, but slashing payroll further brings no benefit, short or long term, unless they spend the savings.
When Tigers’ general manager Al Avila says he is open to trading any player, for the right return, he is absolutely right. Any club should be open to dealing any player for “the right” return. But when the Tigers made their players available this past offseason, they were not impressed with what they might get in return for their veteran stars.
The Tigers almost certainly have to trade J.D. Martinez, rather than letting him walk after the season with only a supplemental fourth round draft pick as compensation. Alex Avila and Anibal Sanchez are due for free agency as well.
Most of the Tigers’ players with large contracts don’t have to accept a trade. Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, and Victor Martinez have full no trade protection as “five and ten” players with at least ten years MLB service and five years with Detroit. Ian Kinsler can block trades to ten teams, and Justin Upton can block trades to 20 teams. Jordan Zimmermann has full no-trade protection for 2016-18 and partial no-trade protection (can block 20 teams) for 2019-20. His performance does not warrant his $22 million annual salary, so there is no return to be had for him, either, beyond salary relief.
While there may be a few teams willing to take on the large contracts for Verlander, Upton and Cabrera, there is little or no surplus value beyond their contracts that would bring any meaningful players in return. So trading them means payroll would be reduced while the team gets worse.
J.D. Martinez and Kinsler have some surplus value beyond their salaries, and should bring good young players in a trade, but losing their best offensive player and arguably their only two way player would blow two massive holes in the Tigers’ lineup. The club needs to fill roster vacancies with the return in those trades, and spend the salary savings to improve the roster.
The Tigers have nothing to get excited about in the farm system in terms of position players, either in the short term or the long term. If we have to wait until the team drafts players to fill holes in the lineup, we will be waiting a long time, while the team racks up last place finishes in the standings and collects draft picks. A team needs to develop talent internally, but a contender also needs to spend on free agents and make savvy trades.
J.D. Martinez and Justin Upton would be the two top free agent position players available, should Upton opt out of his contract after this season, according to the projections by MLB trade rumors. Yoenis Cespedes signed a contract to stay with the New York Mets for $27.5 million for four seasons. That is the highest average annual value for an outfielder in MLB history. Upton’s contract ranks among the top ten on that all-time list, meaning an opt out is unlikely.
Selling off good players just to clear payroll makes no sense in terms of fielding a contender. The only reason to clear payroll beyond the natural attrition after the current season would be to restructure the team’s business model, spending the savings across several players rather than continuing with a top heavy payroll.
Even from an owner’s perspective, slashing payroll at this time doesn’t make sense. The club has yet to cash in on their recent high television ratings with a new local television contract, which they can do shortly, but only if they have a winning product to sell. Now is not the time to start losing, and winning means spending, especially for a team without major league ready talent in the pipeline. The Tigers saw what fielding a loser for multiple seasons can do to attendance and TV ratings in 2002-2003.
There is a middle ground that the Tigers may need to pursue if they are determined to remake the roster. It involves eating a significant amount of salary while unloading most of the money on some of the larger contracts, getting value in return while freeing up payroll to fill multiple needs. This is what Dave Dombrowski did when he dealt Prince Fielder and cash for Ian Kinsler.
The Tigers do need to lower their payroll, at least to avoid paying an escalating luxury tax. But they don’t need to start dumping players for the sake of slashing payroll, and they don’t need to unload good players without a plan to replace them in the short term. If you build a winner, people will come. If you build a loser, they won’t.