It’s a strange balancing act, in modern baseball, to try to win every season without overreaching and losing the base of sustainability. Some teams have been methodical, aggressive and fortunate, and have built strong teams around very young, cost-controlled sets of players. (The Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals, Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers come to mind.) Generally, though, one must still choose between trying to be the last team standing and trying to play in October every year.
Detroit Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski seems ready to walk the tightrope, though. His team’s core is aging fairly quickly, and is getting expensive more quickly than that. Only six Tigers are under contract for 2014 at this moment, and their combined cost will run over $107 million. On top of that, Max Scherzer ($6.725 million), Rick Porcello ($5.1 million), Doug Fister ($4 million), Austin Jackson ($3.5 million) and Alex Avila ($2.95 million) are all due raises via the arbitration process. Andy Dirks will also reach arbitration, as a Super Two player. Without finding a starting second baseman or filling a single bench or bullpen role, the Tigers are looking at $140 million in expenditures to keep together the band that came within two wins of a second straight American League pennant.
That’s why Dombrowski, whether at the behest of ownership or in the hope of keeping the team competitive for more than the next year or two, is apparently open to trading one of his three arbitration-eligible starting pitchers, including Scherzer, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner. If that happens, of course, it will be a major story. The New York Mets traded reigning NL Cy Young R.A. Dickey last December, but that was different. The Mets were not competitive in 2012, and no one expected them to be competitive in 2013. The Tigers’ situation is very different, so the right deal for Scherzer would look very different than the right one for Dickey (which turned out to be three very strong prospects, most notably Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud).
In fact, I’m not sure the right deal is out there. The Tigers would do best to hold onto everyone and go for it, one more time. Three straight AL Central titles have ensured great attendance numbers each season, and the playoffs themselves have infused more revenue. This isn’t one of the large-market giants, especially in terms of media market, but Tigers games drew over 38,000 patrons, on average, in 2013. If their payroll can’t at least rise incrementally from the $148 million-plus that they spent last season, it should never have been that high.
Now doesn’t seem to me to be the time to think more about the next five years than the next one. Scherzer is under control only through 2014. Ditto for Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter. Cabrera, Porcello, Fister, Jackson and Avila all could become free agents after 2015. Cabrera’s and Fielder’s peaks aren’t going to last much past 2015, if past it at all. Martinez will turn 35 this winter, which makes him three years younger than Hunter. Justin Verlander remains a very good starter, but is no longer one of the five best in baseball, let alone the best right-hander around, as he was in both 2011 and 2012. The Tigers’ time is now, and I can’t talk myself into breaking up this group in an effort to guarantee that which can’t be guaranteed in baseball, ever: a good team four years from now.
There will be plenty of money coming off the books next winter, if money really is an issue. The team’s top prospect, Nick Castellanos, is a corner outfielder who should replace Hunter easily and cheaply. If the Tigers wait out the relief market, there will be a quality arm or two whom they can add without paying a closer premium. They will need to replace Omar Infante, whose springboard season should secure him a multiyear deal in free agency, and that won’t be cheap or easy, but this team should still be able to come in under $170 million, and that cost should not be prohibitive given how good they’ve been and how well their fan base has responded.
Now, there’s a danger of just the opposite sort, too. While breaking up the dynamite starting rotation sounds like a bad idea to me, extending Miguel Cabrera sounds like a worse one. Cabrera is 30, and is under contract for two more seasons at $22 million apiece. He’s the two-time reigning AL MVP (never mind that he didn’t deserve either award), and the most famous player east of New York right now. That $44-million commitment for the next two seasons looks really good. It’s a bargain.
There would be no realistic contract that could come out a bargain if the Tigers tried to lock up Cabrera right now. In fact, if it’s me, I’m not even talking to him about it. Cabrera had a serious groin issue that affected him from late August through the end of the Tigers’ season this year. He weighs 270 pounds and plays third base. He will be 32 when his contract expires. As long as free-agent compensation still exists when that happens (not that I think it should), the thing to do will be to let someone else pay for Cabrera’s decline phase, and take an extra draft pick for the trouble. As good as Cabrera is, he doesn’t figure to age all that well, and he’s not right on the cusp of free agency. Restraint is in order.
What This Team Will Look Like Next Season
One move the team made for the stretch run in 2013 will help define their 2014, and signals the beginning of a change in the shape of the club for the long term. That was the deal that sent right-field prospect Avisail Garcia to the White Sox and Brayan Villareal to the Red Sox, to net Jose Iglesias. Iglesias is an elite defensive shortstop, and his presence changes the look of the Tigers’ defense across the diamond. While Cabrera will still give back runs at third, Iglesias helps minimize the damage there, and if the team can find a slick-fielding second baseman with whom to pair him, they’ll have something they sorely lacked even as they raced to those three straight postseason berths: a respectable defense.
Of course, that comes somewhat at the expense of the offense. Jhonny Peralta may have been another in a long line of right-hitting, slow-footed Tigers, but he had the bat to make that work. Peralta won’t be back, and Iglesias is as big a downgrade at the plate as he is an upgrade afield. This was the best offense in baseball last season, at least while Cabrera was healthy and Peralta was on the field. In 2014, they’ll still be good, but several old players—Martinez and Hunter, especially, and those two combined for 1.320 plate appearances last season—will be a year older, and Fielder and Cabrera will have to carry them more than ever. Avila and Jackson are the wild cards. Each has had better seasons than they did in 2013, even flashing star potential, but it’s not clear that either is at that level.
On the mound, there’s the big question of whether this dominant rotation (by an even clearer margin than the offense boasted, it was the best in baseball for 2013) will remain intact. If it does, there are smaller questions, like whether an all-right-handed rotation is vulnerable in certain subtle ways, or what to do with Drew Smyly. If it doesn’t, then the questions become whether Smyly can make the successful move back from the bullpen to the rotation, and who fills out the bullpen. Even if Smyly does take the place of Scherzer, Porcello or Fister, though, the pitching staff will depend more heavily upon the rotation than any other in the league. It will be up to new manager Brad Ausmus to make that work as well as Jim Leyland did. If he still has all the same pitchers Leyland had, though, that’s not likely to be a problem.
The Tigers have dominated their weak divisional opponents over the past three years. They’re scarcely better than .500 outside their division during that time. With the Royals and Indians making plans to be perennial problems for them now, the path to the playoffs gets a lot rockier. Still, this is the best team in the division, and they need to remember that when weighing trade proposals that might shift resources into the future at the expense of a very impressive present.Next post: A Balanced Schedule: Philadelphia Phillies – November 18
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