Rotation depth gives Tigers retooling options
Club could use starters to infuse young talent on veteran roster
When he announced to his players that he was stepping down as Tigers manager, Jim Leyland told them it was time for somebody younger to do the job. Dave Dombrowski certainly abided by that notion when he made the surprising decision to make 44-year-old first-timer Brad Ausmus his choice to succeed the 68-year-old Leyland.
The burning question as we enter the winter signing and swapping season: Might this only be the beginning of the Tigers taking on a more youthful glow?
Coming off three straight visits to the American League Championship Series round (including a 2012 finish on the wrong side of a World Series sweep), the Tigers are still chasing owner Mike Ilitch's burning ambition for a ring with an elite roster. But it's a roster with increasing costs that will lead to some difficult and delicate decisions on Dombrowki's part.
As it stands, the Tigers could do basically nothing -- let all their free agents walk, take care of their arbitration obligations and fill all empty positions from within -- and still see their player payroll rise from its Opening Day level in 2013 ($148.4 million, according to USA Today) to somewhere in the vicinity of $155 million in 2014.
In other words, the Tigers could get worse on paper and still wind up with the third-highest payroll in the sport.
Couple that reality with the free-agency-created holes at second base (Omar Infante ), the back end of the bullpen (Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Jose Veras ) and maybe even left field (Jhonny Peralta, loosely), depending on what the Tigers do with prospect Nick Castellanos, and the Tigers might bump up against the $189 luxury tax threshold if they make more of the open-market splashes that have defined their recent winter activity.
Ultimately, it's up to Ilitch to decide how much more he wants to invest in this core. The Tigers have already come so far and accomplished so much with this group that it's hard to see them shying away completely from a market ripe with closing commodities (Grant Balfour, Joe Nathan and Brian Wilson, to name a few) and outfield speed (Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo ). If they replace Infante with Robinson Cano, you'll know the Tigers are really sparing no expense in their pursuit of a pennant.
But the sounder, saner course of action for the Tigers at this point will be to fill as many of those holes as possible by taking advantage of their greatest source of depth: the rotation.
And that's where Dombrowski's offseason strategy will be especially fascinating.
Remember, Dombrowski was the guy faced with a fairly similar situation after the 2009 season, and he wasn't afraid to make a deal then. No, the Tigers weren't coming off three straight division titles at the time (they had just lost the AL Central tiebreaker to the Twins), but they did have the fifth-highest payroll in the game with six guys entering free agency and the price tags rising dramatically for Magglio Ordonez, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander.
Dombrowski could have handled that situation any number of ways, but the route he pursued essentially revolved around a three-way swap that dramatically impacted three franchises. The Tigers gave up their center fielder and leadoff man (Curtis Granderson ) and a key component of their rotation (Edwin Jackson ) and hauled in four younger, cheaper commodities in Max Scherzer and Dan Schlereth from the D-backs and Austin Jackson and Phil Coke from the Yankees.
The dividends of that move did not immediately reveal themselves. The Tigers finished .500, 13 games back of first, in 2010, and it wasn't until they got Cabrera some middle-of-the-order help in Victor Martinez that they made the leap to elite in 2011.
But that trade is instructive in terms of the strategy we can expect Dombrowski to apply as he looks ahead to 2014.
The most fundamental decision the Tigers have to make is what to do with Scherzer, whose stock has never been higher in the wake of what will most assuredly be a Cy Young season and who is one year away from his own free-agent payday. If the deep-pocketed Dodgers lock up Clayton Kershaw this winter, as so many expect, that will leave Scherzer as the class of the 2015 free-agent group, and the Tigers will be hard-pressed to afford him without venturing into luxury tax territory. From the long-term perspective, it makes all the sense in the world to explore Scherzer's trade value now.
But since when are the Tigers fundamentally focused on the long term? This is an organization that has gone to great lengths to impact the immediate and make the World Series the target in every transaction.
So Scherzer will stay, I suspect.
Rick Porcello and Doug Fister, on the other hand, have to be dangled if the Tigers are going to patch some of their holes without completely overextending themselves in the payroll department. They're both two years away from free agency, they'll both make somewhere in the neighborhood of $6-7 million next season, and they both have a ton of trade value in a winter starved for free-agent options. The Tigers can trade either arm, move Drew Smyly to the fifth starting spot and delve into the left-handed relief market to replace Smyly, all while adding young talent and saving costs that can be applied to the second base or closer search.
We've heard Porcello's name in trade rumors so long it feels like second-nature, but Dombrowski has always been careful -- rightfully so, it turned out in 2013 -- to keep him as rotation depth. And Fister's value to this club since his arrival at the 2011 Trade Deadline has been incalculable.
But the cost of all those winter splashes the last few years is that the Tigers have to evaluate which luxuries they can live without, and arguably the deepest rotation in the game is quite a luxury, indeed. Dombrowski acted boldly in addressing the payroll issue four years ago, and he could do so again.
As was the case with his managerial move, he might find that there is value in going younger.