Detroit Tigers: Rebuilding Or Just Shedding Salary?

Mar 29, 2015; Clearwater, FL, USA; A general view of a Detroit Tigers hat, glove and sunglasses in the dugout against the Philadelphia Phillies at Bright House Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Multiple media reports have taken the report from Detroit Tigers GM Al Avila that the team is looking to trim salary to indicate the team is rebuilding. Could we be reading this all wrong?

The Detroit Tigers have spent heavily in the last number of years, attempting to win a World Series for their owner, Mike Ilitch, who will be in his 25th year of ownership with the Tigers in 2017, and at age 87 would badly like to win a title before he passes.

Ilitch notably did not invest in the team heavily until they were able to get a new stadium, Comerica Park, in 2000 with over 60% of the facility funded by Ilitch himself. At that point, he put money into the team in a way he hadn’t before, and the results came in 2006, when Ilitch lured former Tiger farmhand Jim Leyland out of a 7-year absence from the game to take over as manager and saw the team make the wild card that season and make it all the way to the World Series.

From 2006-2016, the Tigers have never lost as many as 90 games in a season, though they finished at the bottom of a stacked AL Central two times in that run. In that 11-year span, they’ve won 4 AL Central titles, been to the playoffs 5 times, been to the ALCS 4 times, and ended up in the World Series twice. However, their success has not brought home an elusive championship.

With the 2016 season finishing 8 games out of first place and missing the playoffs after major investments in players like Justin Upton, Jordan Zimmermann, and Francisco Rodriguez, the Tigers’ GM came out and discussed trimming salary this offseason, and it led to the media immediately discussing which of the star players in Detroit would be traded. Would Miguel Cabrera finish his Hall of Fame career elsewhere? Would Justin Verlander pitch for another organization? Would Upton and Zimmermann, just one year after signing long-term deals, be moved to create financial space?

I truly think we’ve all been looking at the wrong spots, and the Cameron Maybin trade to the Angels shows it. We’ll start with a look at the payroll for 2017…

Sep 18, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera (24) against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. The Tigers won 9-5. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

2017 Commitments

Miguel Cabrera – $28M
Justin Verlander – $28M
Justin Upton – $22.12M
Jordan Zimmermann – $18M
Victor Martinez – $18M
Anibal Sanchez – $16.8M
J.D. Martinez – $11.75M
Ian Kinsler – $11M
Mike Pelfrey – $8M
Francisco Rodriguez – $6M
Mark Lowe – $5.5M
Total – $173.17M

Sep 4, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Detroit Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias (1) chases down a ground ball against the Kansas City Royals during the first inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Arbitration Eligible Players (likely figure from MLBTR)

Jose Iglesias – $3.2M
Justin Wilson – $2.7M
Andrew Romine – $1.2M
Nick Castellanos – $2.8M
Bruce Rondon – $0.9M
Alex Wilson – $1.2M
Total – $12M

Jul 27, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Detroit Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer (32) delivers a pitch during the fifth inning against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Pre-Arbitration Eligible Players (typically kept at $550-750K, so we’ll average at $600K)

Michael Fulmer
Blaine Hardy
James McCann
Shane Greene
Daniel Norris
Tyler Collins
Buck Farmer
Kyle Ryan
Drew VerHagen
Anthony Gose
Matt Boyd
Steven Moya
Dixon Machado
JaCoby Jones
Joe Jimenez
John Hicks
Total – $9.6M

Overall Total – $194.77M

Let’s take a look at some of the quick and easy guys who can save the team a big chunk off that salary:

Sep 5, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35) delivers in the third inning against the against the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

So Who To Move?

There are many guys who are rumored and making waves on social media like Twitter and various team blogs due to their value to many teams, of course, but perhaps the Tigers don’t really need to tap into that to really drain significant salary.

The difficult guys to move

For a number of reasons, multiple guys are going to be tough to move.

Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, and Victor Martinez have 10-5 rights, which means they have played 10 years in the league with 5 years on the Tigers, so they have full no-trade rights.

For the future of the team, it is nearly impossible that guys like Joe Jimenez, Daniel Norris, or Michael Fulmer will be traded away from the pitching staff. Guys like James McCann and Jose Iglesias are quite vital to the team defense and very cheap, so it’s unlikely they’re on the move either.

Jul 16, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey (37) walks off the field after being relieved in the second inning against the Kansas City Royals at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Guys you’d get nearly nothing for

The value of a number of Tigers has gone down significantly since they signed their deals. After a barrage of injuries has left his stuff less than effective, Anibal Sanchez and his $16M 2017 salary looks difficult to move, though it is only a $21M total commitment left to the team he’d go to.

Mike Pelfrey and Mark Lowe were just signed last offseason, but their performances in 2016 were so poor that their combined $13.5M salary is going to be tough to get anything of value for.

So how do you shed enough salary to be significant while still putting a team on the field that could win in 2017? Let’s take a look…

Sep 2, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez (19) delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Crunching Numbers

The Tigers are looking to not only dispel themselves of 2017 commitments, but also future commitments beyond 2017.

Here’s a quick way to chop down some big time money:

The Throw-Aways

There are a number of guys who will likely not get much in return, but they need to go. For whatever you can get for them, you ship off Anibal Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey, and Mark Lowe. That’s a total of $30.3M in 2017 and $35.3M in future commitments.

If you can get anything for Austin Romine, you do it, otherwise, you non-tender him as you have plenty of guys to replace him. His $1.2M arbitration estimate brings the number to $36.5M removed from future commitments and $31.5M in 2017 commitments.

Sep 26, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers right fielder J.D. Martinez (28) celebrates with designated hitter Victor Martinez (41) after hitting a two-run home run during the second inning against the Cleveland Indians at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Tough Choices

With Maybin gone, the team could hand over center field to Anthony Gose and JaCoby Jones and do well without adding any other player.

Victor Martinez is a 10-5 guy. He will have to approve any trade. However, the Tigers have Steven Moya and Tyler Collins that can provide production in the DH slot that certainly won’t be equal to Victor’s, but Victor is also going to be 38 in 2017, so there’s no sure bet that he’s going to be able to produce at a .289/.351/.476 level in 2017 as he did in 2016.

In Martinez, they have a player who is paid well, so it may be difficult to move him. However, he has been productive and is a switch-hitter, so he could have some value on the trade market. He won’t bring back a top-20 prospect or anything, but he could bring back someone who is more than a dart throw like Sanchez, Lowe, and Pelfrey will. He’ll also trim $36M in future commitments and $18M from 2017, which will bring the total to $49.5M off of the 2017 ledger and $72.5M from future commitments.

The Final Numbers

While this doesn’t get the Tigers to under $100M or anything as some have done in panic once the idea of slashing ANY payroll was brought out, this would get the Tigers to $145.27M for 2017.

That leaves some room to add in another reliever or two on the cheap this offseason while staying around $150M along with the ability to compete in 2017 and use the purse strings to add at midseason if the team is close and Ilitch is willing to make the move.

And if it doesn’t work?

The big part of this is that it leaves some huge trade pieces for the Tigers if they do want to blow it up midseason, and guys that should have big value to the market. Ian Kinsler is making $11M in 2017 with a 2018 option at $12M and a buyout of $5M.

J.D. Martinez is making $11.75M before becoming a free agent after 2017. The Tigers have a prospect who just had a great Arizona Fall League in outfielder Christin Stewart, who could be ready mid-season, making Martinez trade-able whether or not the team is still in the hunt at that point.

Francisco Rodriguez is pitching for $6M this season and will then be a free agent. While he’s not Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman, we saw the craziness of the relief market midseason.

These are the guys who can bring back big prospect returns, and having them in the middle of the season when they can play contenders against one another will be huge.

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