Tigers flip offseason script with new payroll flexibility
Club now has room to address long-term question marks
DETROIT -- The Tigers didn't just get a second baseman and likely leadoff hitter by trading Prince Fielder to Texas for Ian Kinsler. They got a financial do-over.
As the shock value of Wednesday night's deal wore off, and the new reality of a Tigers team set in, the discussion began in earnest on what to do with newfound payroll space to fill the holes that the trade created.
"I'm really not sure what we're going to do where we sit here today," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said on a Wednesday night conference call.
In some ways, the Fielder trade has a chance to serve the Tigers like trading Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford served the Red Sox. As much as the Tigers and Miguel Cabrera benefited from Fielder's presence in the lineup, his long-term contract limited what they could do on the field as well as with the payroll. The limitations weren't just about what they could do to change the club, but what they could do to keep the core of the club together.
The Tigers aren't nearly starting over like the Red Sox did. But by trading Fielder's mega-contract, even with $30 million going to Texas beginning in 2016, their offseason script has completely changed. Their first priority with their new payroll space will be gauging their chances at contract extensions for Cabrera (eligible for free agency after 2015) and Max Scherzer (a free agent next winter), followed by finding a closer. Their next priority is expected to be short-term upgrades to stretch out their offense.
They aren't likely to replace one big contract with another. If anybody breaks the bank in all of this, it'll be Cabrera and/or Scherzer. But with $8 million off the payroll in each of the next two seasons, and more coming after that, they have room for short- to mid-term upgrades.
And make no mistake: With Fielder erased from the middle of the order, and one less left-handed bat in a righty-heavy lineup, they have some tweaks to make.
The first area they'll have to address is where they see top prospect Nick Castellanos fitting into their lineup. With first base now open, there's an opportunity to shift Cabrera back to his old spot and put Castellanos back at third, where he spent the first year and a half of his pro career before converting to the outfield to avoid being blocked at the big league level.
"I would love to be that guy at third base," Castellanos told MLB Network Radio on Thursday. "I think the original plan was for me to play third base in the big leagues, but that changed with the logjam of signing Prince and moving Miguel Cabrera to third."
Whether Castellanos returns to third is expected to be a serious back-and-forth discussion rather than a rubber-stamp move. One scout who watched Castellanos at third liked his arm, but rated him as average or below on his range and his glovework. That said, Castellanos was learning that position, too, after spending his prep career at shortstop. His skills were raw there, one report suggested, but worth a look. And as his daily pregame defensive work in left field at Triple-A Toledo showed this past season, his work ethic is unquestioned.
Castellanos told MLB Network Radio he hasn't been given any instruction yet whether to include more infield work into his offseason regimen.
"I hope they tell me to catch more ground balls than fly balls," he said, "but we don't know yet."
From an offseason shopping standpoint, the Tigers would be better off with Castellanos at third rather than left. For the type of contract and bat the Tigers could use, they should have an easier time fitting a corner outfielder than a corner infielder. The free-agent outfield market includes switch-hitting postseason hero Carlos Beltran, multi-tooled lefty Shin-Soo Choo and a familiar lefty bat in former Tiger Curtis Granderson.
Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury sits at the top of the outfield market, but is expected to draw a long-term deal. And the Tigers have always approached free-agent speedsters with an eye on how they'll produce as they age and their speed potentially slows.
The catch with all of those outfielders is that the Tigers would have to give up their first-round Draft pick to sign one. It's not necessarily a deal-breaker, but the Tigers have valued their recent Draft picks as they try to restock a farm system that has been depleted by recent trades. Those free agents, meanwhile, turned down a $14.1 million salary for 2014 in an effort to chase bigger contracts on the open market.
The third-base market, by contrast, is far more limited, highlighted by Kevin Youkilis and Juan Uribe. A free-agent first baseman, meanwhile, would lock Cabrera into a third base/DH choice, though it could work on a short-term deal, if the Tigers wanted.
Whatever the Tigers decide, it'll be an adjustment on the fly. Unlike the Fielder signing, however, it likely won't be a megadeal.