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Arbitration cases likely add up to increased payroll

As baseball's general managers gather in Palm Springs, Calif., for Major League Baseball's annual GM Meetings, Tigers president/GM Dave Dombrowski will be hard to miss. He'll be one of the guys supposedly with money to spend.

Whether he really does have that luxury this winter, none of them can say for sure -- not yet, anyway. Dombrowski won't be telling. At this point in an offseason, he never has.

A year after the Tigers shocked the game by signing Prince Fielder as possibly the most expensive injury replacement in sports history, the lessons about the Tigers have been learned. It's going to be a challenge to definitively rule out Detroit from anybody on the market if the need is there. If somebody's ruled out, it might be for reasons other than money.

Tigers officials had spent the days after Victor Martinez's offseason training injury in January ruling out Fielder as a replacement. A week later, he was being introduced wearing the old English D, with a nine-year contract. That's the impact owner Mike Ilitch makes.

With that in mind, the thought of Josh Hamilton potentially in a Tigers uniform had to spring to mind when Dombrowski talked last week about upgrading one of their corner-outfield spots. Dombrowski talked down the possibility of a big-name free-agent addition, but didn't completely eliminate it.

"We've pushed the payroll as you're aware in the last few years, many times," Dombrowski said. "But I can't say that we're actively going to participate in trying to sign some big-dollar free-agent player, but I'm not saying that we're not going to do it at this time either."

Interestingly, though, Dombrowski's comments from September painted a tricky balance for teams with large payrolls compared to small ones, and a balance that might provide some insight to what teams like the Tigers face.

A team with a small payroll, he suggested, is far less inclined to sign a player to a long-term deal at an age with unproductive years expected at the end than a club with a large payroll.

"There are times when you have a low payroll, you just have to say, 'No,'" Dombrowski said then. "So when you have a tough question for signing guys to long-term contracts to big dollars, that may push them at the point that you know the last couple years may not be as productive, you don't say, 'Well maybe I can do this.' There's one answer: No. Not, 'Can I ...' No."

If reports of Hamilton's reported asking price -- seven years, $175 million -- turn out to be anywhere near accurate, there's a correlation there.

Make no mistake, the Tigers will be spending this winter. It's just a matter of how much goes to upgrades and how much will go toward keeping together the core of the existing team.

Detroit currently has eight arbitration-eligible players on its 40-man roster. The potential deals for them, based on projections from, could cost more than $15 million, filling much of the payroll gap that opened when Delmon Young and Jose Valverde became free agents.

"We have more arbitration-eligible players this year than what we've had," Dombrowski said. "There's some significant guys that fit that category, and that will take up a significant amount of dollars for us."

The top free-agent priority for the Tigers will be to keep Anibal Sanchez in their rotation. Given the supply and demand for starting pitching on the market, that could be the biggest investment Detroit makes this offseason, no matter who's available in the outfield. The one exception could be a potential contract extension for Justin Verlander, whose current deal expires in two years.

Do the math, and it's easy to see the Tigers' payroll pushed into record territory without a single addition. Of course, it's almost certain they'll make some sort of addition, more likely in the outfield, possibly in the bullpen.

It's arguably easier to justify stretching the payroll more for an impact player than it would be to make a smaller stretch for a simple fill-in. Unlike last January, though, the market is still wide open, and the free-agent outfielders numerous, from Hamilton to Torii Hunter to Angel Pagan to Cody Ross. Jason Bay's buyout from the Mets adds another free agent to the market.

Tigers officials met earlier this week in Florida to make out their shopping list, and Dombrowski has most likely talked to Ilitch about payroll. What follows will be interesting to watch.

Detroit Tigers, Prince Fielder, Josh Hamilton, Victor Martinez, Anibal Sanchez