The Tigers’ Next Move Should Be Alex Gordon

“I don’t care about the money,” (Mike Ilitch) said. “I want the best players.”

The Tigers owner made that comment at yesterday’s press conference introducing Jordan Zimmermann as the newest member of Detroit’s rotation. For sure, Ilitch has indeed backed up that comment with significant spending over the years, giving out big money deals to acquire guys like Prince Fielder and Anibal Sanchez while still retaining players like Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, and Victor Martinez. The Tigers have consistently run some of the highest payrolls in baseball over the last decade, and Ilitch clearly isn’t looking to rebuild, given his own age and that of most of the team’s players.

But while adding Zimmermann should help stabilize the rotation, the Tigers should not yet be done spending. If Ilitch is serious about not caring about his budget — he stated he’d even be willing to go over the luxury tax if need be — he has a real chance to back up those words this winter, because the Tigers were not one Jordan Zimmermann away from being the best team in the AL Central. Even with Zimmermann, they don’t currently look like one of the five best teams in the American League.

Over at our projected WAR by position grid, we can see that the Tigers currently rank 21st in projected catcher WAR, 24th in projected third base WAR, 24th in projected left field WAR, 22nd in projected center field WAR, 23rd in projected starting pitcher WAR, and 30th in projected relief pitching WAR. In other words, this team still has some pretty significant problems, and Dave Dombrowski’s stars-and-scrubs approach to roster construction left the organization with a huge gap between their best players and their depth pieces. While Zimmermann is a good first step, he’s not a panacea, and this is a team that shouldn’t be looking to go half-in on contending.

So there’s work to do, but if Ilitch is serious that money is no object, he may very well have to push up towards the luxury tax threshold, and potentially even cross over it. Between Cabrera, Verlander, Martinez, Zimmermann, Sanchez, Kinsler, Mabyin, and K-Rod, the team is on the hook for around $135 million in 2016 salaries, since the Braves are picking up part of Maybin’s contract. They also owe the Rangers $5 million for Prince Fielder, however, so they’re really at around $140 million for just their guaranteed commitments. MLBTradeRumors estimates their five arbitration awards would cost them $17.3 million, but they could drop that down to $12 million by non-tendering Neftali Feliz. Still, that puts the team at between $150 and $155 million for 12 players.

Even if everyone else on the roster was a league minimum guy, you’d be looking at another $7 million, so the Tigers current 2016 payroll is hanging around $160 million. They spent $173 million on their 2015 Opening Day payroll, and realistically, they’ll probably need to go above that to improve the roster enough to see themselves as a contender this year. At the bare minimum, they need to make at least two or three more upgrades, with the bullpen, the outfield, and the back of the rotation looking like obvious places where replacement level players currently occupy too much of the depth chart. Given that it’s a weak free agent crop of relievers, I’d expect that the team will probably turn to the trade market to add bullpen depth, so for now, let’s confine their spending to the outfield and getting one more starting pitcher.

Given that the Tigers are roughly $30 million away from the luxury tax line, we’ll assume they’re probably going to be out on the top-tier of outfielders; Justin Upton or Yoenis Cespedes would take up almost all of that space by themselves, leaving them dumpster-diving for a starting pitcher and likely forcing them to pick between league minimum relief options on the trade market. Unfortunately, there isn’t really a good middle-tier of outfielders this year, with the drop-off after the big four proving fairly substantial. They could have been a fit for Dexter Fowler or Austin Jackson before trading for Maybin, but that deal likely puts them in the market for a corner outfielder instead. And the corner OF market, after the big four, kind of stinks.

I like Steve Pearce as a free agent bargain, and Steamer projects him for +2 WAR if given an everyday job, but given that he’s never had an everyday job before, he probably isn’t enough of an upgrade to represent the kind of improvement the team should be looking for. If they went with Pearce, they may have enough money left for one more good starting pitcher — assuming Ilitch was serious about his “money doesn’t matter” comment — but if they’re planning on going with more of a back-end innings-eater type, they’ll probably need to get a better outfielder.

So, how do we get the Tigers a substantial improvement in the outfield while leaving enough money for another starter and some relief help? My suggestion: outbid everyone for Alex Gordon and backload the contract.

Of the big four free agent outfielders, Gordon is expected to land the cheapest deal, given that he’s heading into his age-32 season and a lot of his value is tied to his defensive performance. The crowd estimated that he’d land a five-year deal for $18 million per year, though the crowd is usually low, so maybe something like 5/$100M might be more realistic; that’s the guess Jon Heyman put out there.

But while Gordon’s age is going to limit most suitors to offers in that four- or five-year range, there’s no real reason the Tigers need to stick to that plan. If there’s one thing Ilitch’s spending patterns have all had in common, it’s that he’s been willing to take on future dead money in exchange to get players who can help in the short-term, and the team hasn’t been shy about signing players to big contracts that extend towards a player’s 40th birthday. The end of these deals won’t be pretty, but given that they’re already headed down this path, there’s no real reason to draw the line on a guy like Gordon and say that you won’t pay him past age 36.

And if you offer Gordon a six-year deal, there’s plenty of time to push the weight of the contract onto years where the team isn’t going to contend anyway. Say, for instance, the team gives him $110 million over six years, the payout structure could be something like $10M/$15M/$20M/$21M/$22M/$22M. The end of that deal is going to be painful, no question, but the 2018-2020 Tigers are already likely going to be ugly, and trading from non-contending years to try and win in the last few seasons where Cabrera, Verlander, and Kinsler represent an actual championship core is a trade-off worth making.

And if you get Gordon for $10 million in 2016, there’s plenty of room left to make a few more upgrades on the pitching side of things. Instead of settling for Mike Pelfrey or Bartolo Colon, the team could afford to spend on a Wei-Yin Chen or Mike Leake, and still have enough left to trade for a few arb-eligible relievers instead of looking just for young cheap guys who might be undervalued. A Gordon/Chen/reliever trio might cost the team $30 million in 2016 additions, pushing them right up against the luxury tax, but it also probably adds something like +6 WAR to their roster, pushing them squarely into the contention tier.

If Ilitch wants to show that he really doesn’t care about the money, then there’s a path forward for the Tigers to start 2016 as potentially the favorites to win the AL Central. Take Gordon away from the Royals while adding two quality starters and a couple of bullpen upgrades, then hope for health from the older core players, and 85-95 wins is certainly within the range of reasonable expectations. As it stands, the Tigers are probably more of a .500 team, even after adding Zimmermann, so they shouldn’t be done yet. With an aging roster and an aging owner, they’re the kind of team that should push their chips in on as large a short-term upgrade as they can get.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

92 Comments
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Anthony
6 years ago

Isn’t the luxury tax calculated using AAV, not yearly salary? So a backloaded Alex Gordon 5/100 deal still counts as 20 MM towards the luxury tax for 2016, no?

Snooty Babitt
6 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

Especially this line muddles things:

“And if you get Gordon for $10 million in 2016, there’s plenty of room left to make a few more upgrades on the pitching side of things.”

If you are talking about the Tigers needing to hit a budget that is something unrelated to the cap, then this line is at odds with the Ilitch quote you used.

If you are talking about the Tigers needing to the hit the salary cap, then you wouldn’t use his 10 mm salary but rather his AAV.

Either way, your comment here helps us understand your intention, but it’s not clear from the article.

Snooty Babitt
6 years ago
Reply to  Snooty Babitt

Actually, this line clarifies that you are indeed using the 10mm salary against the cap, which is wrong:

“A Gordon/Chen/reliever trio might cost the team $30 million in 2016 additions, pushing them right up against the luxury tax…”

So basically the point about backloading the contract does not apply here.

McNulty
6 years ago
Reply to  Snooty Babitt

to be fair to Dave, “costing the team $30 million in 2016 additions” is true in terms of salary, and is distinct from “pushing them right up against the luxury tax” which may also be true, but Dave may be using an unstated figure higher than $30 million

Anthony
6 years ago
Reply to  Snooty Babitt

McNulty: earlier in the article, Dave states that the Tigers are roughly 30 MM away from the luxury tax line. It’s clearly stated. In fact:

“Given that the Tigers are roughly $30 million away from the luxury tax line, we’ll assume they’re probably going to be out on the top-tier of outfielders”

Dave from AZ
6 years ago
Reply to  Snooty Babitt

Actually the Tigers opening day payroll might be at 164 million in terms of AAV

Then you have to add in bonuses, benefits at the tune of 12.9 this year.

Which will leave us with 12 million AAV to hit $189

Anthony
6 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

A Gordon/Chen/reliever trio would not cost 30 MM for luxury tax purposes, is my point. Gordon at 6/110 is 18.67 MM AAV. You’re getting Chen and a reliever for less than 12 MM AAV?

Anthony
6 years ago
Reply to  Anthony

Sorry, I’m an idiot at math today. 6/110 is 18.33, not 18.67 AAV.

Snooty Babitt
6 years ago
Reply to  Anthony

If Ilitch doesn’t care about the dough, he shouldn’t care about the taxes either. Sure avoid them if/when possible, but it shouldn’t be much of a barrier if contention in on the other side.

Anthony
6 years ago
Reply to  Anthony

I mean Illitch certainly could blow past the luxury tax line but that’s not what Dave is saying he’ll do here.

Snooty Babitt
6 years ago
Reply to  Anthony

Oh, yes, I agree with you. I just don’t get why the article would go to such lengths to avoid the luxury tax after starting with that quote.

Patrick OKennedy
6 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

The Tigers have $ 17.8 million to spend on 13 players to reach $ 189 million in payroll for the 2016 season, including player benefits.

The difference between the AAV and the actual 25 man payroll for 2016 is negligible. (In 2015, the AAV was $ 5.6 million higher, but so far this year the AAV is actually lower). The difference will be whether or not they exercise buyouts on Maybin and/ or K Rod. Buyouts for 2017 options count against the 2016 payroll for tax purposes. Joe Nathan’s buyout, for example, counts against 2015 payroll.

10 players earning near the league minimum salary cost about $ 5.1 million. That leaves $ 12.7 million for three players. They want one starting pitcher and at least one reliever. You do the math from there.

Leaving out the cost of player benefits is a common error in calculating payroll for luxury tax purposes.

FWIW- the Tigers were actually over the tax threshold last year before they traded Price and Cespedes. They were on track for a $ 191 million payroll, give or take.

Mr I talks a big game, but then Mr A says they’re through with the outfield, and they’re shopping in a different aisle for the next starting pitcher, and they couldn’t afford $ 2.5 million for a backup catcher who would start about 50 games.

Bat
6 years ago
Reply to  Anthony

As a Mets fan, I have to say that I have so much respect for Ilitch – I can only dream of having an owner like that.

Not saying all of these were great moves, but look at the Cabrera, Verlander, Fielder, and Zimmerman contracts. Sometimes his GMs spend money poorly, but boy does Ilitch give them the ability to spend in a market which is not among the biggest.

And w/r/t Fielder: Ilitch authorized Dombrowski to pay Fielder $214 million over 9 years. And then after a disappointing playoffs from a production and attitude perspective (and baserunning perspective), Ilitch allowed Dombrowski to pay the Rangers $30 million…for Fielder not to play for them.

And that number paid to make Fielder go away – $30 million – would be considered a relatively large signing by a team like the Mets: Cuddyer, $21 million; Lagares, $23 million; Frank Francisco, $12 million.

Granderson at $60 million and Wright at $138 million are far and away the largest commitments by the Mets in the last five years and those contracts are dwarfed by the Cabrera and Verlander deals if you want to go head to head on each contract.

Ilitch is such a great owner. I hope Tigers fans really appreciate him because once he’s gone, the team could get transferred to someone who doesn’t spend anywhere close to what Ilitch spends (even if the team is bequeathed to his children – see Steinbrenner, Hal / Hank).

CircleChange11
6 years ago
Reply to  Bat

He’s old and says he’ll spend whatever in order to win a championship. Let’s see how much he spends before we get all “respectful” about it.

Larry Bernandez
6 years ago
Reply to  Bat

Fielder is not a wide receiver, a running back, or a tight end. Hell, he can barely play 1B

senor_mike
6 years ago
Reply to  Bat

I’m a Mets fan too, and oddly enough I see Ilitch allowing the Tigers to construct a roster on a philosophy that looks eerily similar to that of the 07>10 Mets. Top-heavy with enough talent to compete, but when the those top-heavy pieces start to breakdown so does the competitiveness.

So is that what you are hoping to see from the Mets again?

Ironic that one of the few things that may prevent this team from totally falling apart is the restocking work Dombrowski did at he deadline, which he was famously fired for.