Unpredictability marks Tigers' offseason
Once thought of as sellers, club turns tables as buyers
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Plans change. So do the Detroit Tigers.
Two months ago, the club left baseball's Winter Meetings seemingly set for a payroll purge after trading away Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson for younger, lower-salaried players, and watching Placido Polanco and Brandon Lyon leave as free agents. Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski talked about making "adjustments," and with the Michigan economy looking like a mess, the Tigers seemed headed for an era of trying to do more with less.
Fast forward to Monday, as the Tigers introduced Johnny Damon to the Detroit media, and the club stands poised to open the season with about the same level of payroll as it had last season. They're set to start the year with rookies at center field and second base and some unproven talent in their bullpen. But they also have a one of the best closers in the game and now one of baseball's prolific offensive catalysts over the past 12 years. They also have a pitching rotation where their top three starters, including their Cy Young Award candidate, are under team control for at least the next five years.
Nobody's asking anymore if the Detroit Tigers were buyers or sellers this offseason, because they've basically defied a label. They were a team in flux, but they enter the 2010 season with potentially as good or better of a chance to contend as they had last year.
Dombrowski called it "the most complicated offseason I've had" in his two decades as a general manager, topping the sell-off he had to do with the Florida Marlins after their 1997 World Series title. But he also said it was an offseason with a plan.
"We needed to make some adjustments," Dombrowski said, "not only for this year, but as we go forward. The moves we made earlier in the year allowed us to make some adjustments, not only now but in the future. It also brought in some young talent."
When reports emerged from last October's GM Meetings that the Tigers were willing to listen to trade interest on Granderson and Edwin Jackson, speculation turned towards a potential fire sale that could rival what Dombrowski had to do after '97. The signs were there, from a high-payroll team that didn't make the postseason last year to a handful of bad contracts to a city with a sagging economy.
Dombrowski insisted that they weren't in sell-off mode, and that they wouldn't make a deal they didn't like simply to shed payroll. But Granderson and Edwin Jackson were the two players most likely to draw the best return package of any Tigers short of Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello.
Granderson batted .249, but also hit 30 home runs, and he has a track record to suggest his hitting will rebound. He's also under contract for at least the next three years plus a club option, though his salary escalates quickly. Jackson was coming off his most successful season, but the 26-year-old also was on track for an arbitration raise and free agency in two years. He appeared more likely to choose free agency over a long-term extension, and Verlander's situation made it almost impossible for the Tigers to sign Jackson long-term anyway.
The Tigers dealt both in the same three-team trade and gained three young pitchers -- Max Scherzer, Daniel Schlereth and Phil Coke -- plus the center-field prospect Austin Jackson, who was key to the deal. Dombrowski talked afterward about the Tigers getting back to developing young players.
"We didn't trade those guys and give them away," Dombrowski said. "We always said we weren't going to do that. We brought in, to me, four young, talented players that are ready to help us right now or in the near future."
Dombrowski said they chose not to offer Polanco arbitration because they didn't want to be forced into a one-year contract worth potentially $9 million. A few days later, Polanco signed a three-year, $18 million deal with the Phillies, who did not have to give up a first-round Draft pick as compensation as a result.
The Tigers made contract offers to Lyon and Fernando Rodney, but wouldn't match other teams. Detroit didn't go beyond a two-year offer with Lyon, who signed a three-year, $15 million deal with the Astros. The Tigers never offered a multi-year contract to Rodney, who signed a two-year, $11 million contract with the Angels.
Had they kept some of those players, Dombrowski said, they would not have been able to make the moves to come -- some of which was budgeted, some of which was not.
A contract extension for Verlander -- who would've otherwise been a free agent in two years -- was always in the plans, Dombrowski said, but they had to reassure Verlander that they were still serious about contending. Signing closer Jose Valverde, Verlander said later, helped convince him.
The Tigers planned on adding a closer, Dombrowski continued, whether it was Lyon, Rodney or someone else. They also looked at the closer's market against the number of teams seeking a closer and expected someone to be able later in the offseason.
That turned out to be Valverde, which turned out to be a bigger signing than they might have planned. They agreed to a two-year contract in part to ward off interest from teams that might have signed him as a setup man, but also to justify the cost of a first-round Draft pick to sign the Type A free agent.
"He worked with us in making that work for us at the time," Dombrowski said. "But he was the guy that was left out there, and we were very fortunate, we thought, to be able to add that quality type of reliever. But that was always part of the plan."
Signing Damon, Dombrowski admitted, was a last-minute adjustment. When he told reporters in mid-January that the Tigers had not expressed interest in Damon, it was for financial reasons.
"It was not based upon the ability of player. It was basically knowing that I was at my budget limits," Dombrowski said. "I didn't have any more finances at my point, on how we had drawn up my offseason.
"Now, I will tell you, we have a unique owner."
Owner Mike Ilitch was the difference that allowed the Damon signing to take place by expanding the budget.
"Once he gave the OK, by all means, we were thrilled to see if we could make it happen," Dombrowski said.
By signing Damon to a one-year contract, the Tigers preserved some flexibility for next year, when they'll shed a slew of payroll thanks to expiring contracts. Jeremy Bonderman, Dontrelle Willis, Nate Robertson, Gerald Laird and Brandon Inge are all eligible for free agency at season's end, as could Magglio Ordonez depending on his vesting option.
"Anyone looking at our situation can see that our contractual situation changes dramatically at the end of this year," Dombrowski said, "allowing us to make some further adjustments that we need to going forward."
That doesn't mean that the Tigers won't go after free agents, Dombrowski said. But it's clear that they want to base their team around young talent. Jackson and second baseman Scott Sizemore are part of that.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.