When a team sees their payroll jump from approximately $148M to what figures to be a tad higher than $160M by opening day like the Detroit Tigers have from last year to this, you’d expect a product that is equal to or greater than the previous version. Well, so much for logic, and welcome to modern baseball where arbitration raises and ballooning free agent deals are driving payroll numbers through the ceiling.
Baseball is a rich sport, and the massive infusion of tv contract money this year to teams across the league has loosened up the already frivolous budgets of nearly every organization. And for some organizations, like the Tigers, what choice did they really have?
Prior to last season the Tigers knew what they were spending and essentially could etch in stone what they’d be getting in return on the field. That simply isn’t the case in 2014. For an additional $12M in team payroll, the Tigers get seemingly 12 million questions in exchange.
Six of the seven expected bullpen arms are highly questionable for one reason or another. Will Drew Smyly be a solid starter and hold up physically for his 32 turns in the rotation? Can Rick Porcello continue to improve? Will Justin Verlander return healthy and pitch like he did last postseason? Is Nick Castellanos ready for everyday at-bats? Is Rajai Davis able to hit righties or is he simply a platoon player against left-handed pitching? Can Jose Iglesias hit with consistency? Is there any chance that Alex Avila returns to his 2011 form? Can Austin Jackson flourish lower in the lineup?
For a team that most experts would still say should claim the AL Central with relative ease, the question marks outnumber the certainties. And things don’t get any easier with Max Scherzer’s impending free agency and more raises due to Avila, Jackson, Porcello, and Andy Dirks next offseason. Essentially, the Tigers are on the cusp of a payroll disaster.
Here’s a thought: what if the Tigers pull it all together and win a World Series this October? My hunch is that means Scherzer is a goner, same for free agents to be Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez. There’s $40M or so in savings that would be replaced with downgrades in talent next offseason to help pave the way for the inevitable resigning of Miguel Cabrera. The Tigers that we’ve come to know could very quickly become a thing of the past.
And if they don’t win it all? How far can Mike Ilitch push this thing in hopes of claiming that elusive trophy? Bring Scherzer back, re-sign legitimate talent to replace Torii and VMart to contend once again, pay more arbitration raises, and the 2015 payroll could push $180M or more.
If the Tigers were able to boast the farm system of the Red Sox or Cardinals or Astros, the blueprint would be substantially more legible. But alas, ESPN’s Keith Law claims the Tigers have the 28th best farm system out of the 30 MLB teams. Yikes.
Detroit’s farm system has been depleted over the years via trades for proven big leaguers. Not a bad recipe to help win a World Series crown. One problem though, the Tigers haven’t pulled it off, yet. And sadly, last year may have been their best opportunity. I maintain that if Cabrera and Bruce Rondon were both healthy last October the Tigers would have won it all. But they weren’t, and they didn’t.
Keith Law only rated one Tigers prospect in his top 100 and that was Nick Castellanos at #32. MLB.COM was slightly friendlier, rating Castellanos #15 and Robbie Ray (acquired in the Doug Fister trade) at #97. That’s it. Considering that Castellanos will start the year in the major leagues, the cupboard couldn’t be more bare.
The Tigers are either running out of time, or have already run out of it and are just hoping nobody has noticed. With an elite starting rotation and bona fide stars in the batting order, they should be contenders all year long, assuming the makeshift bullpen doesn’t sabotage the greater good.
In either case, they better get to it. Sorry Brad Ausmus, you get absolutely zero learning curve as new manager.
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