Tigers facing tough decisions after meetings
GM Dombrowski debunks rumors of payroll purge
DETROIT -- Are the Tigers trying to purge payroll? Team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said they're not having a fire sale.
Still, with nearly $100 million committed next season to 10 players, and others up for raises in arbitration, the Tigers are looking at ways to fill their holes without further bumping a payroll that already ranked among the top handful in baseball.
Dealing a more prominent young player or two for help could be one way to do it. It's at least enough of a possibility that the Tigers are willing to listen.
Dombrowski has always been one to listen to teams showing interest in several players, though not necessarily one to solicit deals. This week's General Managers' Meetings in Chicago might well have set the stage for an offseason more active than many might've expected.
While FOXSports.com reported that Dombrowski will at least listen to offers on All-Star right-hander Edwin Jackson, the New York Post cited an anonymous National League executive who suggested the Tigers will listen on All-Star center fielder Curtis Granderson, too.
Both reports cited payroll considerations and a Michigan economy that drags behind the rest of the country.
Dombrowski isn't commenting on specific players. Still, in terms of the club's situation, if there was any question whether the Tigers could be selling off players, Dombrowski wanted to quiet it.
"I don't know what's going to happen [trade-wise]," Dombrowski said Wednesday afternoon, "but we're not having a fire sale."
Dombrowski was surprised the question of a fire sale came up. He said the Tigers do not have a set payroll from owner Mike Ilitch at this point. He did say they had conversations with many clubs at the GM Meetings. At this point, however, they're just conversations.
While no deals are close, they're at least a reflection of the decisions the Tigers have to ponder as the offseason unfolds, and what they might at least consider to fill holes in other areas.
Like staff ace and 19-game winner Justin Verlander, Jackson is eligible for arbitration and could qualify for free agency in two seasons. The Tigers are expected to talk with Verlander and his agent about a long-term contract at some point this winter. Over the last several years, most long-term deals for front-line starters have happened two years shy of free agency, when long-term security is more immediate than the possibility of hitting the open market.
Jackson and Verlander are both young, coming off impressive seasons, and in a position to get a hefty raise in arbitration. Several other Tigers are up for arbitration, too, including catcher Gerald Laird, utility man Ramon Santiago and relievers Zach Miner, Bobby Seay and Joel Zumaya.
Other Tigers under long-term deals will see their salaries rise, too. Magglio Ordonez's $18 million option was the most publicized situation. Miguel Cabrera's salary leaps from $15 million to $20 million. Carlos Guillen's salary jumps from $10 million to $13 million. Nate Robertson goes from $7 million to $10 million.
Granderson gets a $2 million raise to $5.5 million as part of a deal that runs through 2012 with a club option for 2013. Dontrelle Willis' salary, too, will rise, from $10 million to $12 million.
Those salaries add up to more than $75 million, with nearly $23 million more going to third baseman Brandon Inge and pitchers Jeremy Bonderman, Rick Porcello and first-round Draft pick Jacob Turner.
More than half of that payroll figure will disappear at this point next year as part of expiring long-term contracts. Still, that doesn't help them deal with payroll this year, while Michigan's economy suggests more tough times ahead.
Add in at least four free agents the Tigers must replace or re-sign -- Fernando Rodney, Brandon Lyon, Placido Polanco and Adam Everett -- and the Tigers have a challenge.
The Tigers have had early contact on all of their free agents, and are expected to follow up now that the GM Meetings are over. But with the long-term contracts likely not going anywhere, simply keeping payroll level could be a mathematical squeeze.
"With the number of free-agent players we have, we will have to make some tough decisions," Dombrowski said. "However, you need to make tough decisions most years at this time of year."
That said, there's a difference between shedding payroll and swapping it to fill other needs on the team. There's also a difference between cutting salary and deciding whether to sell high on a player.
With Jackson, there's the question of what to make of his 2009 season. Though he ranked seventh among AL starters with a 3.62 ERA and 214 innings, there was a vast difference between his first- and second-half performances. He entered the All-Star break with a 7-4 record and a 2.52 ERA, allowing just 94 hits over 121 2/3 innings with 97 strikeouts and averaging better than 6 2/3 innings per start.
Statistically, he went 6-5 after that, but gave up a 5.07 ERA, 106 hits and 17 home runs in 92 1/3 innings. Pitching-wise, he lost movement in his slider and went predominantly to his fastball in some starts down the stretch. Tweaks in his side sessions between starts made a little difference, but didn't turn things around.
It was his second straight year with a second-half dropoff after a strong turnaround in 2007. Even so, his ability to eat innings was critical to manager Jim Leyland's management of the bullpen.
Granderson's struggles against left-handed pitching were well-known, a .183 average against southpaws that contributed to a .249 season overall. He batted .243 in the second half with a .314 on-base percentage.
Still, Granderson's career-high 30 homers, his all-around game and his character would be a huge appeal to clubs needing a center fielder or looking to upgrade there. And that's a big reason why Dombrowski might listen.
While the Tigers have Bonderman, Robertson and Galarraga coming off injury-plagued seasons to potentially fill innings if healthy, they don't have a clear center fielder ready to step in for Granderson. Ryan Raburn was Granderson's backup this past season, while prospect Casper Wells has played center field and the corners in the Minor Leagues.
Those might not be questions the Tigers end up having to address. But as they try to find ways to maintain and improve a club that led the American League Central from early May until the season's final day, they're questions they have to consider.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.