Tigers reportedly fell just $2 mil shy of luxury tax

The Tigers have paid out luxury tax for payroll only once since Major League Baseball put the system in place in 2003. That was in 2008. If an Associated Press report is accurate, Detroit came as close this year to crossing the threshold as it has since paying out.

According to final calculations reportedly obtained by AP, the Tigers finished with the third-highest payroll in the game at just over $187 million. That’s just $2 million shy of the $189 million mark that triggers the luxury tax calculation.

The two teams with higher payrolls — the Dodgers and Yankees — are reportedly due to pay out $45 million combined in luxury tax. Both pay higher rates as repeat big spenders — 30 percent for the Dodgers, 50 percent for the Yanks. If Detroit had gone over, it would have had to pay tax at just a 17.5% rate for first-timers on the excess amount.

The luxury tax threshold rose from $175 million in 2013 to $189 million this year. It will stay at $189 next season, so any significant increase will put the Tigers at risk again. And while the Tigers shed payroll with Torii Hunter in Minnesota, Austin Jackson in Seattle and Max Scherzer potentially headed elsewhere, the average annual value on Victor Martinez’s contract goes up from $12.5 million to $17 million. Meanwhile, David Price is up for arbitration one more time after earning $14 million this year. Also, Joakim Soria will be making $7 million with his option year exercised, and Alex Avila gets a raise to $5.4 million with his option picked up.

The total payroll numbers here are significantly higher than numbers previously seen. However, for luxury tax purposes, MLB uses average annual salaries on long-term contracts, not a specific year’s salary. It also includes the 40-man roster, not just the active 25-man list from Opening Day, and includes benefits.

That thin margin perhaps offers some view into why Alfredo Simon made sense for the Tigers in replacing Porcello. Payroll went up a few million in the Simon and Cespedes trades, but it would have surely been more had the Tigers acquired a higher-salaried, longer-term starter like Mat Latos.

Given the numbers, it would be nearly impossible for the Tigers to re-sign Scherzer without paying out luxury tax, meaning a deal would come at a higher cost than the salary in the contract. They could take comfort in the likelihood that they’d only be paying it for a year if Price leaves as a free agent next winter, but it would still be a complication.

Danny Worth signs with Diamondbacks

If any player deserved a fresh start in a new place, it’s former Tigers infielder Danny Worth, who spent most of his tenure in the organization bouncing back and forth between Detroit and Toledo. He has found his fresh start, agreeing to terms with the Arizona Diamondbacks on a minor-league contract that includes an invitation to Major League spring training.

Chris Iott of MLive first reported the deal. Two industry sources later confirmed it.

The 29-year-old Worth played in 135 games with the Tigers over five seasons, but had a lot of back-and-forth trips to Triple-A Toledo doing it. He was called up nine different times from 2011 to 2012, three different times for a week or less. He had a longer stretch with the big club this past season once the Tigers cut ties with Opening Day shortstop Alex Gonzalez, but still had limited playing time. He was best known for pitching in two games.

Worth batted .230 (60-for-261) for his Tiger tenure, hitting 11 doubles and two home runs with 19 RBIs. He played in 381 games as a Mud Hen.

Ironically, Worth’s opportunity comes after a three-team trade with the Tigers created an infield void in the Diamondbacks system. The trade that sent Shane Greene to Detroit also sent Didi Gregorius to the Yankees, partly clearing an infield logjam in the Arizona system.

Worth is expected to compete for a utility infield job in Diamondbacks camp. He is not expected to pitch.

Payroll impact of Tigers’ winter meetings trades

The on-field impact of Thursday’s trades for Yoenis Cespedes and Alfredo Simon has had a chance to air out. The financial impact really has not, and it might be a little different than you think.

All three major players in the deals — Cespedes, Simon and Rick Porcello — are in line to become free agents after this season. So in terms of long-term obligations, nothing has changed. For 2015, however, payroll has gone up. The impact of the bump depends on how much you expected the Tigers to spend on their outfield void.

The one guaranteed salary belongs to Cespedes, who’s due to make $10.5 million next year in his final season of arbitration. Both Porcello and Simon are eligible for arbitration one last time — Simon as a third-year eligible, Porcello as a fourth-year eligible thanks to his qualification as a super-two player a few years ago.

That super-two designation is huge for Porcello, who avoided arbitration last offseason with an $8.5 million deal. With 15 wins, three shutouts and 204 2/3 innings pitched in 2014, he’s in line for a major bump. Each fall, Matt Swartz uses case history and stats to project salaries for arbitration-eligible players on MLB Trade Rumors, and his track record is fairly good. The projections have Porcello in line for a $12.2 million salary in 2015.

Simon, too, is due for a big raise. However, because he spent most of his career as a reliever until this past season, he’s in line for a major raise from a comparatively smaller salary. He made $1.5 million this year. MLB Trade Rumors projects those digits to flip, earning him $5.1 million in 2015.

Wilson has just over a year of service time, and will make somewhere around the minimum salary for 2015. Take those players into consideration, and the Tigers take on just over $16 million in salary while shedding Porcello’s $12.2 million projection, thus adding a few million to the payroll. That said, if Detroit hadn’t made the deal and signed a free-agent outfielder of some impact, it likely would’ve ended up with a larger payroll. Cespedes’ salary is about the same as what Torii Hunter will make in Minnesota next year. (Update: Melky Cabrera reportedly agreed to a 3-year, $42 million deal with the White Sox late Saturday night.)

I’m not counting Eugenio Suarez’s salary as a savings, mainly because there was no guarantee for him making the Tigers roster in 2015 with Jose Iglesias expected back from injury and Andrew Romine and Hernan Perez both out of options and in competition for a utility spot.

The only long-term impact could come in the draft. The Tigers would have received a compensation pick in 2016 had Porcello left as a free agent. That’s now gone, and they won’t receive a pick if Cespedes signs somewhere else next winter. Cespedes’ contract forbids his team from making a qualifying offer.

No active talks on Scherzer, but no closed door

A day after agent Scott Boras said the pursuit of free-agent pitcher Max Scherzer “is not church bingo,” Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski suggested that — at least for now — they’re not playing the game.

But just because the Tigers aren’t in active talks on Scherzer right now doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bidding farewell.

“I guess anything can happen,” Dombrowski said Thursday, “but we’re not in active pursuit at this time. We’re happy with our starting pitching. Again, we love him, but as I said at the time, we were the sole club that could sign him last spring. It didn’t work. I don’t think our odds improve with 29 other clubs that could potentially try to sign him.”

Effectively, it’s the same update Dombrowski gave on Scherzer twice this week during baseball’s Winter Meetings, which wrapped up on Thursday. Dombrowski made the remarks in the media room at the press conference to announce their trade of Porcello to Boston for outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.

While talks on Cespedes had been rumored all week, the Tigers’ stance was that they could not give up Porcello or Cy Young winner David Price without some assurance of adding another proven pitcher. If the Tigers swung a deal, the logic followed, it could be a harbinger of progress on a new contract for Scherzer.

Instead, Dombrowski accounted for the loss of Porcello by trading for Reds starter (and converted reliever) Alfredo Simon. He then told reporters the trade meant nothing in regards to their chances on Scherzer.

“Our situation with him has not changed whatsoever,” Dombrowski said. “I’m not sure how many times we have to talk about this situation, but I know it keeps coming up. We love Max. He did a great job for us. Tried to sign him last spring. We really made an effort in that regard.”

Dombrowski was referring to the six-year, $144 million contract offer they made to Scherzer in Spring Training. Scherzer opted to play out the season and hit free agency, and Boras referred to the offer during his annual Winter Meetings session with reporters Wednesday.

“He’s always on the information train to improve himself, to evaluate his market,” Boras said. “Last year, he really turned down a deal that was seven years and $160 million. He looked at the markets … and he really wanted to have the opportunity for choice, to see what teams are interested in him.”

Boras later clarified that he was including Scherzer’s 2014 contract — a one-year, $15.5 million deal to avoid arbitration — in the total, as teams and agents often do on contract extensions for players just shy of free agency.

By adding Simon, the Tigers have five starting pitchers. In Simon’s case, they have a starter who also has extensive experience pitching in relief, including 19 career saves. Three-quarters of his 209 Major League appearances have been out of the bullpen.

In other words, there’s a spot for Scherzer if he returns, and it wouldn’t take a lot of maneuvering, at least with the roster. The payroll could be another matter, since the trades don’t create any space from that standpoint.

Asked about Scherzer expressing a desire to return to Detroit, Boras said, “Certainly I’ve had this conversation with the Tigers about his willingness to return, and that’s been expressed at every level. He’s had a great experience in Detroit. Detroit can be a winning team and he’s very familiar with it, obviously, so he is certainly willing.”

Boras said the Tigers will not get the right to match a final offer from another club when it comes time to make a decision, a sign that the Tigers could be out of the bidding altogether. However, an industry source suggested Tigers owner Mike Ilitch will get a chance from Boras — an agent with whom he was completed many a free-agent contract — to match a final offer, at least as a professional courtesy.

Boras on Scherzer talks: “This is not church bingo”

Scott Boras has a binder prepared for all his top clients to help put some statistics behind their case. The Max Scherzer one is pretty big.

“We’ve narrowed it down to 45-50 pages,” Boras said.

It includes the much-publicized “pitching odometer” Boras has mentioned. It has stats ranging from such advanced metrics as Fielding Independent Control to traditional stats such as the Tigers’ winning percentage in games he pitched compared to everyone else in Detroit’s rotation.

“Max Scherzer is the type of athlete that just covers all bases,” Boras said. “He is actually getting better. He’s rare. Since he developed a curveball two years ago, left-handers hit 40-50 points less against him. He’s durable. He’s one of only four men in baseball the last two years that had 57 starts that go six-innings plus. Against postseason teams, he had an ERA of about 2.8 during the season. He wins in the postseason. He’s durable. And he’s one of those rare Cy Young Award winners where he’s at 29, but he has the innings and the pitches of a 26-year-old, of a Kershaw when he was 26 or a Felix Hernandez when he was 26 or a Sabathia when he was 26. So he offers a team so much because he’s durable, he’s fresh, he’s gifted, he’s getting better, he’s a leader, he’s great in the locker room, and he’s been tested and has achieved the highest award of any pitcher. This is a rare opportunity for a team.”

It’s a wide range of evidence, but one specific argument: Scherzer is a game-changer.

“Signing Max Scherzer can make a dramatic difference in the outcome of many divisions – most of them in baseball, to be honest with you,” Boras told reporters. “You sign one player, and you can say that a division race has been impacted to where it would lean toward the team that would sign him. …

“I think going into this year Max is kind of a Peyton Manning, No. 1 kind of guy. He’s always on the information train to improve himself, to evaluate his market. Last year, he really turned down a deal that was seven years and $160 million. He looked at the markets, and we have a new revenue structure in the game — we’re well over nine billion – and he really wanted to have the opportunity for choice, to see what teams are interested in him. Going into this, we knew that there really was not going to be any other pitcher that would impact his free-agent pursuit and the fact that his pitching odometer is so different and so unusual for a No. 1 pitcher.”

That number sounds different than the 6-year, $144 million offer we heard about in Spring Training, so I checked to clarify. That figure includes the $15.5 million Scherzer made in 2014 in a one-year deal to avoid arbitration. Take that out, he meant six years beyond free agency at just over $144 million.

Boras did not get into what they’re seeking now, other than to say that recent contract extensions signed by others aren’t necessarily relevant.

“I think the part that you start with is that you’re looking at a free-agent player,” Boras said. “All the prominent pitchers that have signed – Verlander, Hernandez or Kershaw – were not free agents. Certainly if you put a performance like Kershaw into a free-agent market, you’re going to get a much, much different calibration of value than you would when he signed outside of one. I think we have to look not to any particular model other than free-agent models to really know what the markets going to be like.”

More Tigers specific, Boras was asked whether Scherzer has expressed a desire to remain in Detroit.

“Certainly I’ve had this conversation with the Tigers about his willingness to return, and that’s been expressed at every level,” Boras said. “He’s had a great experience in Detroit. Detroit can be a winning team and he’s very familiar with it, obviously, so he is certainly willing.”

The reference to every level certainly suggests ownership.

“I don’t talk about my conversations with owners,” Boras said. “I can only say that Mike Ilitch is very involved with his team and is one of the owners in baseball that I think fans in Detroit have to support. He deserves every bit of respect. He’s always done everything, I think, to make his team and that city what Detroit’s become. To draw 3 million fans in a great stadium is a real credit for the Ilitch family.”

Asked whether there’s a timetable for Scherzer to make a decision, Boras said no, because there are so many factors involved.

“Max has given me kind of a laundry list of what his needs are, what his wants are,” he said. “As to timeframe of these things, you can’t tell, because these negotiations are largely owner decisions, owner-driven. I think every general manager in baseball wants Max Scherzer on their team. There’s no doubt about that. It’s not something you have to trade for. It’s just really something that the owner has to decide what the economics are.”

Finally came the question of whether the Tigers will get the right to match a final offer when it comes time for Scherzer to make a decision. That brought the money line from Boras.

“No, this is not church bingo,” Boras said. “You pretty much are in the market on a player. You tell all the teams and everyone involved that he can sign at any time. He’s open to signing at any time. If we get in a room and we carry out a negotiation and he’s pleased with it, it can be done without notice at any time.”

Dombrowski: Nothing has changed on Scherzer, report “not accurate”

The Tigers have done nothing so far at these Winter Meetings, but they became a buzz topic Tuesday based on priorities and approach. It came in a tweet from ESPN’s Buster Olney:

It was a buzz around the lobby at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego. It also apparently created a buzz in the Tigers suite at the hotel Tuesday, because Dave Dombrowski was seemingly ready for the question whether there was anything new on Scherzer since Friday, when Dombrowski said there were no active talks.

“There’s not one thing that’s changed from the Detroit Tigers’ perspective,” he said. “Our situation has not changed. I’m not sure where various rumors start, but our situation has not changed whatsoever. …

Asked if it might be a leverage ploy, Dombrowski said, “I don’t really know that answer, but I can 100 percent guarantee you that our situation has not changed whatsoever. We’ve had no further conversations as far as negotiations since Friday or increase in offers. I can’t say that anybody hasn’t talked to anybody from their organization or if they’ve reached out to us, but our situation has not changed at all. We’re very happy with our starting staff as we sit here right now.”

Dombrowski went on to say that “we’re really not seeking starting pitching,” and that Scherzer’s situation won’t hold up other needs they’re trying to fill.

None of this necessarily means the Tigers are out on Scherzer. They can end up with him back in their rotation even if they’re not seeking starting pitching. If one thought the Tigers were on the verge of bringing back Scherzer, however, this seems to kill that by suggesting there’s nothing going on right now, and no new momentum towards a deal.

As for the report, Dombrowski said, “I don’t know where he got that from. That’s not accurate. I’m not sure where it comes from, how it comes. I know it didn’t come from this room, but that’s not accurate.

“And the other thing I’ll say is I hope Mr. I didn’t see that. Because he’d be saying, ‘Well where did that come from?'”

Taken at face value, then, the situation is the same as last week, and we’re again led to believe Scherzer’s situation will take a while to play out. From a strategic standpoint, too, that makes more sense. With Jon Lester seemingly close to a decision, there’s every reason for Scherzer and agent Scott Boras to wait on that saga to play out. Not only does it set a contract range, it also allows the teams that lose out on Lester to debate getting involved on Scherzer. And that then gets the bidding going.

In other words, might as well settle in. This might not go on until February, but it doesn’t seem ready to be settled in San Diego.

Hernan Perez could be set up for superutility role

The Tigers have had a superutility player on their roster for the bulk of the last six years, thanks to Don Kelly. They could be setting up Hernan Perez to be the next.

It might be Perez’s best shot to not only stick in the big leagues, but stay in the organization.

Perez has spent the past month with Zulia in the Venezuelan Winter League, but hasn’t played since Nov. 29 after injuring his knee in a collision. He’s expected to return to action this week, but he told Carlos Duarte of the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal that the Tigers want him playing some games in the outfield.

Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski confirmed that request Monday, saying they want Perez to enhance his versatility and help his cause.

“He’s out of [minor-league] options, and we like Hernan a lot,” Dombrowski said, “so we thought it would be [good]. We know he can play second base, shortstop and third base, but we asked if he could take some fly balls to see how he does out there.”

Perez was already working out in the outfield before the injury, Tigers assistant GM Al Avila said. He has not started a game there yet, splitting his time between second and first base. He split most of his regular season at Triple-A Toledo between second and shortstop.

“We figured we would try to increase his flexibility, versatility, because we like Hernan,” Dombrowski said. “With how the club fits, maybe we’ll want him to play some outfield.”

The Tigers have counted on Don Kelly as a backup outfielder for years while also using him at first, second and third base. However, Kelly is a free agent after Detroit dropped him from the roster at season’s end. Both sides are open to a reunion.

If Kelly returns, it could set up a positional battle with Perez and others in which whoever doesn’t win the job has to be designated for assignment and would have to clear waivers before being assigned to Triple-A Toledo.

Kelly, who turns 35 on Feb. 15, is 11 years older than Perez, who will turn 24 in March. Despite the age, Kelly has the advantage of being a left-handed hitter, a trait the Tigers have in short supply on their bench. Perez, once a candidate last spring to fill the shortstop void in Detroit, is a right-handed hitter.

Tigers, Dirks open to reunion

The Tigers continue to linger on the market for outfield help. Meanwhile, Andy Dirks is going to linger on the free-agent market, looking for a roster he can make on Opening Day after being non-tendered by the Blue Jays last week.

Could a reunion be in the works?

“I’d say we’d be open-minded to it,” Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said Monday from baseball’s Winter Meetings.

So, too, is Dirks. His agent, Will McGuffey, said they haven’t closed on the door on it, or anything else.

McGuffey said Monday there’s a healthy amount of interest in his client, who is fully cleared for baseball activity after missing the 2014 season recovering from back surgery and hamstring problems. He would not comment specifically on whether that interest includes Detroit, which could have brought him back to camp as a non-roster invitee had Toronto not claimed him on waivers. Dirks was eligible for arbitration before being non-tendered.

The Blue Jays’ need for Dirks evaporated when they traded for Seattle’s Michael Saunders. In that sense, the non-tender might have been a blessing in disguise, allowing him to pick a situation.

At the same time, Toronto’s saga was a cautionary tale, even if it wasn’t one of Dirks’ creation. With corner outfielders in abundance on free agency and the trade market, Dirks is likely to wait until bigger-name outfielders move before figuring out the destination that gives him the best chance to make a club.

That could well be the Tigers, who currently have just three outfielders with a decent amount of Major League experience on their 40-man roster. Of those three, only Anthony Gose bats left-handed. Prospects Tyler Collins and Steven Moya are also left-handed hitters, but they have 29 games and 33 plate appearances in the Majors combined.

“We think Collins is ready to play,” Dombrowski said.

If they can bring back Dirks without taking up a roster spot, though, that could be irrelevant. It would take some contractual creativity, but at this point, the difference between a Major League contract and a minor-league deal might be secondary for Dirks to finding a chance to stick on a big-league roster for Opening Day and beyond.

If the Tigers trade for a more proven outfielder, of course, such a signing would be far less likely.

Tigers sign right-handers Alberto Cabrera, Rafael Dolis

With Evan Reed, Jose Ortega and Justin Miller all out of the system, and not a whole lot of relief talent on the verge of the big leagues, the Tigers needed some depth in the organization. They took a step in that direction this week, signing right-handers Alberto Cabrera and Rafael Dolis to minor-league contracts according to Matt Eddy of Baseball America.

Both are Dominican right-handers who came up through the Cubs farm system and pitched in Chicago from 2011 to 2013. Cabrera pitched at Triple-A Iowa this past season, while Dolis pitched in four games for the Giants’ Triple-A affiliate in Fresno.

Cabrera, who turned 26 in October, has put up some Al-Alburquerquish numbers, which might be fitting since Alburquerque also came through the Cubs system once upon a time. He was stingy in Iowa in 2014, with just 24 earned runs allowed on 46 hits over 65 2/3 innings. Nine of those hits, however, were home runs. He walked 30 and struck out 61.

Cabrera averaged 93 mph on his fastball during his big-league time in 2012 and 2013, during which he allowed 16 runs on 23 hits over 27 2/3 innings with 23 walks and 31 strikeouts. He also has a slider he throws at 82-83 mph.

Cabrera hails from Las Matas de Farfan in the Dominican Republic, which is the same hometown as former Tiger Ramon Santiago.

Dolis, who will turn 27 in January, threw a little harder in the big leagues, with a 95 mph fastball he threw more than 80 percent of the time. He also has a low- to mid-80s slider. He, too, has some been wild, recording more walks (26) than strikeouts (25) over 44 1/3 Major League innings, during which he allowed 43 hits. His minor-league track record has been better, but he was released by the Giants last May 26 after allowing eight runs on eight hits over 4 1/3 innings.

Tigers get Shane Greene in three-team trade

The Tigers saw Shane Greene shut down their offense for 15 innings of two-run ball as a Yankees starter last August. Come Spring Training, they’ll be seeing him in a Tigers uniform.

After several days of Tigers pitching rumors heading towards next week’s Winter Meetings, Detroit added a young starter, acquiring Greene in a three-team trade that sent left-hander Robbie Ray and infield prospect Domingo Leyba to Arizona.

The Diamondbacks sent shortstop Didi Gregorius — a prospect the Tigers had interest in acquiring a couple years ago — to the Yankees.

The deal comes just a few days shy of the five-year anniversary of the three-team trade between the same squads that brought Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson and Phil Coke to Detroit. Their latest deal isn’t likely to have nearly the same impact, at least in Detroit. Essentially, Detroit became the middle man in the deal, providing Arizona what they wanted in return for Gregorius. In return, the Tigers changed their mix of young arms, subtracting Ray and adding Greene to the back end of their rotation.

Barring another move, what was expected to be an in-house competition to fill Max Scherzer’s spot in the Tigers rotation — if the Tigers can’t re-sign Scherzer — is now Greene’s spot to lose.

“He threw the ball well in his first year at the Major League level,” team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said in a release, “and we feel he will be a very nice addition to our starting rotation.”

If the Tigers bring back Scherzer, they’ll have the flexibility to flip another starter if the price is right.

Greene, who turned 26 last month, went 5-4 with a 3.78 ERA in 15 appearances — 14 of them starts — with the Yankees this past season. Two of those wins came at Detroit’s expense. He blanked the Tigers on five hits over eight innings Aug. 7 in The Bronx, sending Detroit to a 1-0 loss despite a solid start from Rick Porcello.

Three weeks later, Greene took the mound at Comerica Park had tossed seven innings of two-run ball with a walk and eight strikeouts in an 8-4 Yankees win. Detroit hit into 19 ground-ball outs combined over the two outings.

Take away those two outings, and Greene gave up 31 earned runs on 71 hits over 63 2/3 innings, with 25 walks and 68 strikeouts. He also went 5-2 with a 4.61 ERA in 15 games for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. One scout who watched Greene at his best called him a power sinkerballer comparable in style to Porcello, without the same selection of secondary pitches that Porcello has built over the years.

Greene is 40 days older than Porcello, but has 14 Major League starts to his credit. Porcello, who turns 26 on Dec. 27, has spent six seasons in Detroit’s rotation, and is eligible for free agency next winter, as is David Price. Greene has at least three years before becoming arbitration-eligible.

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