One of the strengths of the 2014 Tigers is that most of the 2013 version is locked up through at least the upcoming season. Seven of the nine starting position players and all five starting pitchers are under contract going into next season so the main focus will be on the bullpen and the bench. The two starting spots to consider are second base and left field. We covered left field a few days ago which means it’s now time to turn our attention to the keystone.
IN HOUSE CANDIDATES
The Tigers aren’t blessed with a lot of big league ready talent up the middle, so the two leading candidates are Danny Worth and Hernan Perez. I think both are perfectly capable of keeping their heads above replacement level thanks to solid to above average defense and good baserunning, but neither provides much of a boost offensively. Perez was seriously over-matched during his time at the plate in 2013 and gave us one of the most incredibly terrible swings of the year:
Needless to say, Perez might need some work. We know what Worth brings and I suspect he could offer 0.5-1.0 WAR if given the job. Not great options, but options that are good enough to keep you from doing something stupid.*
THE FREE AGENTS
So obviously, Omar Infante is the guy the Tigers are after. He’s coming off four straight seasons of 2.0+ WAR and just completed his career year entering his age 32 season. Something in the 2/20 to 3/30 range makes sense for both sides and the Tigers are likely to snatch him up if big spenders don’t drive up the price.
Only three other free agents make any kind of sense for the Tigers. First, is Brian Roberts – who doesn’t really make sense either. Roberts was great about four or five years ago and has struggled to stay healthy, but if you can get him for next to nothing, I’d be interested in the upside play.
Robinson Cano is the prize of the class and is likely to command something in the 8/200 range. He’s a 5-6 win player in the near future and a 3-4 win player a few years beyond that, so he’s a legitimate upgrade over Infante and the rest of their in house options. The price is quite high given the amount of money they have to allocate to Verlander, Fielder, Sanchez, and whomever they want to extend. There’s a way in which they can make Cano work financially, but it’s a Hail Mary. You’re talking about adding $20 million to the payroll over last year in addition to the arbitration raises and keeping that on the books long-term. I think it works if you’re willing to let Cabrera walk after 2015 or if you can find someone take the Fielder deal off your hands. The second option is tricky because you’d have to eat some money, which means it would be about $30 million per year for Cano compared to $20 million for Fielder. I’m not sure Cano is $10 million better than Fielder, but I’d consider going down that road if another team would let you.
The final free agent is Mark Ellis, who strikes me as the ideal Plan B if Infante walks. He’ll be cheap on a 1-2 year deal and can be counted on for 1-2 WAR with some nice defense in an infield that needs it. Not a sexy option, but one that will work.
The only second baseman that’s an upgrade and could be on the market is Howie Kendrick. He’d work for me, but the prospect cost and salary seem high enough that Infante would be cheaper. I mean, if you can pry Matt Carpenter from St. Louis….hey wait this isn’t talk radio.
I thought about this a lot and there are four realistic scenarios. The first is to go in-house for free and punt on 2B offense. You have good glove men and the money can be spent elsewhere. Option two is re-signing Infante for $10-$12 million a year so you can keep the band together. Option three is to take a mild hit and go for Ellis at $6-$7M on a one year deal.
Option four is the big one, and I guess it’s not quite as crazy as it sounds. You have to ask yourself how much Mike Illitch is willing to pay to bring a title to Detroit. Cano doesn’t guarantee it, but it’s big deal. It’s three wins on top of Infante’s peak for $20 million extra. The math works out if the payroll does. It’s a big upgrade for a reasonable price relative to the cost of a win. You’re in at $25 million but out at $30-35 million. The question is what that means in the long-run. I don’t think they can keep Cabrera, Fielder, and Cano into their late 30s, but I think it can work in the short-run. Maybe it’s time to throw caution to the wind and think about winning now. If it sinks the 2018 Tigers, so be it.
If you could move Fielder at a financial loss, you can put Cabrera back at first, move Castellanos to third, and bring Cano in to play second. That works on a lot of levels because it improves the defense and doesn’t hurt the offense. You’re paying a premium to do it, but that could work too. I can envision a world in which the Tigers grab Cano. It would have to come from Mr. I because it’s expensive however you go about it. I wouldn’t recommend it, but I think you could talk me into it. It’s not likely, but it’s not crazy on the face of it.
Infante is the right choice. He’s still pretty young and has really improved his overall game in the last few years. A 2 win second baseman is hard to find hanging around the market and it won’t preclude other moves. Ellis is a nice backup plan, but re-signing Infante is way to go. That is, unless the owner wants to invest his children’s inheritance on one more crazy idea.