The Tigers are signing Mike Pelfrey to a 2 year, $16 million deal. If you’re not keen on division, that means he’ll be making $8 million a year to pitch for the club. Which kind of feels like a lot of money for Pelfrey, but the reality is that he’s getting paid for exactly what we should think he is. Pelfrey is a 1-2 win starter when healthy, and the going price for a free agent of that caliber is $8 million or so a season.
So we don’t have to spend a lot of time deciding if Pelfrey is worth his deal in the aggregate. FanGraphs readers predicted he would get a 2/$16M deal. He’s not a great pitcher, but he keeps his walks and homers low enough that his awful strikeout rate isn’t a death sentence. If you have an objection to someone paying Pelfrey $8 million a year, it’s because you’re understanding of the economics of the game are outdated.
But the Tigers are an individual team and we can discuss whether it was right for them to sign him to this deal. For this, I’m going to assume the Tigers don’t intend to significantly increase payroll over 2015, meaning they have about $10 million left in the bank after this deal gets done. If Ilitch is willing to spend $200 million this year, then I have no objection to the deal at all. It’s his money, so I only care if the amount given to Al Avila is spent inefficiently. If there’s no cap, you can buy whatever you want.
The concern is that the Tigers could have used this $8 million more effectively. If they hadn’t signed Pelfrey, they could have gone to 2016 with a 5th starter from Greene, Boyd, Fulmer, Lobstein, et al. I’m not so sure that Pelfrey is much better. He had a 3 WAR season back in 2008 and has topped out in the 2-2.5 WAR range since, with lots of lean years too. In other words, if things break right, he’s a 2 WAR pitcher for $8 million. That’s a fine signing, but there isn’t much upside. If you gave a full season to any of those other guys, they probably wind up in the same range of outcomes, or better because they have some upside.
Instead, the Tigers could have used the $8 million to sign a couple of higher risk, higher reward types. Heck, Rich Hill signed for 1/$6M this year, and he was cheaper last year! The other option is that this $8 million could buy two solid relievers or one Darren O’Day. O’Day would be an obvious choice, but we do have to acknowledge he’ll get a 4 year deal so the risk is much higher.
Any of those options sound more interesting to me. A higher risk starter might be injured and terrible, but if you get 100-120 innings from them it’s likely to be better than Pelfrey. If you go with the reliever route, you might not find guys who are clearly more valuable than Pelfrey in a vacuum, but replacing the Tigers bad relief options will solid ones strikes me as a better net increase than adding Pelfrey into the 5th starter soup. The same logic applies to O’Day, as he would slide everyone down a peg in the bullpen.
In the grand scheme of things, this is actually a pretty minor signing. Two years and $16 million just isn’t a lot of money in today’s game. Pelfrey is the kind of guy who deserves that contract, but if the Tigers are running low on payroll space, he’s not the guy I’d have given it to. If they are going to go into the $185-190M range, then this is a perfectly fine depth play. You can evaluate trades based on who got what for who, but you can’t evaluate signings until you know how much the team had to spend. That is the case here.