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Will the Tigers re-sign Max Scherzer and exceed a $200M payroll in 2015?

Shall I turn off the lights?
Shall I turn off the lights?
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

With the December Winter meetings almost on tap (December 7-11), let's see what our division rivals might have up their sleeves while in San Diego...

Detroit Tigers

When last we saw the Tigers, they were sweeping the Indians in mid-September, essentially ending any shot at the division for the Tribe. The Tigers held off the Royals to win the Central by just a game, and were then swept by the Orioles in the Division Series.

This offseason was originally billed as the Max Scherzer sweepstakes. Will they or won't they retain his services?With the midseason acquisition of David Price (for Austin Jackson and Drew Smyly), the need to retain Scherzer has dropped dramatically. That doesn't mean they won't try to re-sign him, but the odds have shifted.


But before we discuss the big decision, let's review the Tigers hitters first. The offense had two key free agents, Victor Martinez and Torri Hunter. Victor was essentially their 2014 MVP, so it is no surprise he was offered a new contract. He signed a four-year deal worth $68M ($14M for 2015 and $18M each for 2016-2018). Hunter is likely to retire at 39, even though he was somewhat serviceable last season (286/319/446, 111 OPS+), or sign with another team. Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski traded Devon Travis (#84 by Baseball America last year) to the Blue Jays for Anthony Gose; the Tigers aren't in the market for Hunter.

So the lineup looks to be set, with an infield of Alex Avila, Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Nick Castellanos and Jose Iglesias (returning from injury). Cabrera is signed through 2023, but has two vesting options for 2024 and 2025. Kinsler is signed through 2017, with a $5M buyout for 2018. Iglesias is scheduled for his first arbitration year in 2016 with Castellanos the following year. Avila is the only short timer, being a free agent after 2015.

The outfield, at least for now, is J.D. Martinez, Anthony Gose and Rajai Davis, with Victor DH'ing. Davis is a free agent after 2015, J.D. Martinez is likely to get around $3M in arbitration this year, and Gose will not reach arbitration until 2017.

There have been other roster moves this winter so far too. Don Kelly was outrighted. LGFT Ezequiel Carrera was DFA'ed and Andy Dirks was claimed off waivers by the Blue Jays.


And now back to the Scherzer decision. Even if the Tigers refrain from signing him to an expensive deal, they still have one of the most expensive rotations in baseball. As of now, the top four guys are Price, Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello. Verlander's albatross of a contract is through 2019 with a vesting option for 2020. Sanchez is signed through 2017 with a team option for 2018. Price is probably getting close to $19M in his final arbitration year and Porcello should get about $13M in his final arbitration year.

The fifth spot could be Robbie Ray, Kyle Lobstein, Drew VerHagen, Buck Farmer or Kyle Ryan. But I suspect that if Dombrowski bypasses Scherzer, he'll sign another medium to low free agent, rather than depending on one of those guys.

While the rotation seems mostly stable, the bullpen, as during the regular season, is a massive mess. Joe Nathan is in his final year of his deal and the Tigers picked up Joakim Soria's final year at $7M. Al Alburquerque should net about $2M in his second year of arbitration. But other than those three, everyone else left is pre-arbitration with Blaine Hardy the best of a motley crew. If healthy, Bruce Rondon will be given every chance to be a late inning guy, with Ian Krol, Luke Putkonen and the recently claimed Josh Zeid (from the Astros) the known quantities.

Joba Chamberlain, Phil Coke and Jim Johnson are free agents. Joel Hanrahan, who was injured most of 2014 was re-signed to a minor league deal. Evan Reed was outrighted (and has criminal charges pending), and Pat McCoy was lost on waivers to the Orioles.


In 2014, the Tigers operated with the second highest payroll in the AL, at $184.7M. As of right now, the 2015 payroll is around $125M, but after adding the likely raises in arbitration and all pre-arbitration players, they are likely at $165-170M already. If Ilitch decides to open his wallet again for Scherzer, they will be very close to $200M.

I can see them re-signing him, with Price and Porcello both gone after this year. Or I can see Porcello dealt if Scherzer is signed, or Price being extended if Scherzer is not retained. The outfield could use an upgrade eventually, unless they feel Steven Moya and/or Tyler Collins will be ready by 2016, but they may be set for 2015.

I feel the most attention will be given to the bullpen as it was a tire fire last year. Dombrowski will have to overpay, unless they pull off a few trades, but with the dearth of prospects that may be difficult. If Dombrowski overpays for a few relievers, that could drain the funds for Scherzer, unless they find a taker for Kinsler's massive deal.

No matter what, they'll have easily the biggest payroll in the division again in 2015.