February 3rd, 2010

How to fit Verlander and Cabrera on same payroll

verlander10.jpgFor all of you who emailed the inbox asking which big-name free agents the Tigers could pursue next winter after losing so much payroll in expiring contracts, there’s the Lee Corso line: Not so fast, my friend.

Assuming the report becomes official Thursday or Friday and Justin Verlander gets his contract extension at somewhere around five years and $80 million, the Tigers will have accomplished the monumental task of keeping their ace for the long term. That’s the good news. Their next challenge will be how to manage their roster around it.

If the $80 million figure is correct, assume that around $60 million will be laid out in the final three years from 2012-14, the free-agent years that the Tigers will have bought out. The first two years will be far less because they’re buying out arbitration years. Add that configuration to the Tigers payroll, and in those final three years, Verlander would be the second Tiger making $20 million or more per year, joining Miguel Cabrera. His contract hits the $20 million salary this year and stays there the next, followed by two years at $21 million and 2014-15 at $22 million each.

Just three teams are currently on track to have two players making $20 million a year at the same time: The Yankees have four (of course), the Mets two (Beltran and Santana), and the Phillies will have two of them in 2011, when the salaries on Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay both pick up. The Cardinals will come close if they sign Albert Pujols long term to go with Matt Holliday’s contract at $17 million per year. The Cubs come really close with Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano both making around $19 million this year and two seasons after that.

Once the Cardinals re-signed Holliday this winter, the big question that followed was whether they could afford to keep him and Pujols long term and still field a contending team around them. That’s in St. Louis, where the payroll hasn’t doesn’t top $100 million. The Tigers have topped $100 million the last two years, and it’s looking like their payroll could actually be higher this season than it was in 2009, despite trading Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson and letting their free agents go. You’d have to not count Gary Sheffield’s salary from last year to get to that high total, but still, you get the idea.

cabrera2.jpgDave Dombrowski didn’t talk about slashing payroll this offseason, insisted they weren’t gutting, but he talked about making adjustments given the realities of this economy. Here was surely one adjustment, making room for Verlander’s salary this year. In the context of the economy, and the idea that Michigan will take longer to recover than other areas, finding a way to field a contending team while supporting the salaries of Verlander and Cabrera isn’t as easy as finding free agents willing to play for a contender.

There was a line of thought not long ago that a team cannot win if one player takes up more than 15 percent of payroll. Assuming the numbers above, Verlander and Cabrera could combine to make anywhere from $40 to $45 million from 2012-14. Even if the Tigers hold payroll around $120 million per year, Verlander and Cabrera would take up at least a third of that.

The Tigers have two choices: They can either look to trade Cabrera at some point in the future, or they can invest heavily in their farm system and through trades to start cranking out young talent to put around these guys. It sure looks like they’re trying to do the latter. In this scenario, they would use free agency to fill in a few holes here and there, not to build a team. In other words, you don’t go signing Orlando Hudson when Scott Sizemore is ready to do the job. You might add Johnny Damon to fill a leadoff hole, but you do it as a short-term patch until your younger guys are ready.

Time will tell whether they can pull it off. If they can, it’s going to be a very exciting team to watch. Toiling around the Internet, I found a Tom Verducci piece on SI.com from 2007 listing his top 10 franchise players under 25. Cabrera was first, Verlander eighth.

UPDATE: I asked Dave Dombrowski about this after the Verlander press conference Thursday. His answer kind of reflected what we’re talking about.

“To me, it’s important to have star players if you can. Now, star players cost a lot of money also. So you also have to balance them with other players. But by the moves that we made, we are able to look ahead and be in a position where we can keep that and build around them.

“You can look four years, five years down the road, and I’m sure we’ll be scratching our heads and saying, ‘OK, where does this come?’ But we’ve put ourself in a position to deal with that by what we’ve done and having enough young players come. We all know there’s a new basic agreement after the 2011 season, so how that will come into play, I have no idea. But we’ve put ourself in a position where we think we can have a couple of quality players, some young players coming that are good young players, and be in a position where we have set the foundation for our club to build around for a long time.”

Also confirmed that Verlander will make $20 million a season from 2012-14. He gets a $500,000 signing bonus, a $6.75 million salary this year and $12.75 the next.

Kennedy reportedly eyeing Indians, Nats

Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle reports that she talked with free-agent infielder Adam Kennedy, who told her that he’s in talks with Cleveland and Washington. Nothing is going down, he said, until fellow free-agent second baseman Orlando Hudson signs somewhere. Whatever happens there, though, it doesn’t suggest the Tigers are particularly high on the list of potential destinations, especially when paired with Dave Dombrowski’s remarks this week that they’re not close on any signings right now.