What are Tigers' options for replacing Max Scherzer in rotation?
Earlier today, I examined the impact of Max Scherzer's record-setting seven-year deal -- the largest free-agent contract ever signed by a pitcher -- on his new team, the Nationals. It’s also worth considering the ramifications the move holds for his former team, the Tigers.
After turning down a six-year, $144 million extension offer from the team last March, the Tigers never really made a push to retain Scherzer, an increasingly vital component of a rotation that helped Detroit to four straight AL Central flags, two trips to the ALCS and one pennant. With $388 million committed to just two players (Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera) through at least 2019 (2020 for the latter), another stratospheric contract commitment was apparently asking too much even of owner Mike Ilitch, particularly with the team’s current commitments for 2015 ($164 million to just 14 players via Cot’s Contracts) already inching past last year’s Opening Day payoll ($163.6 million), which ranked fourth in the majors and set a franchise record.
Scherzer’s emergence as a frontline starter over the past two seasons helped the team offset Verlander's decline from ace-hood, the trade of Doug Fister, and the slow development of Rick Porcello. Now, however, the team must replace not only Scherzer's 220 1/3 innings of high-quality work (3.15 ERA, 6.0 WAR) but also the career-best performance of Porcello (204 2/3 innings, 3.43 ERA, 4.0 WAR), who was traded to the Red Sox in December in a deal that brought back outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, reliever Alex Wilson and pitching prospect Gabe Speier, a 2013 draft pick who didn’t figure to contribute at the major league level for a few more years.
Verlander hasn't gone anywhere. On the contrary, he's under contract through 2019 at a cost of $28 million per year as part of the extension he signed in March 2013. His price tag -- which also includes a $22 million vesting option for 2020 -- is alarming enough, but what's particularly troubling is that in 2014, his age-31 season, he posted a 4.54 ERA (his highest since 2008), his strikeout rate sank to 6.9 per nine (his lowest since 2006), and his average four-seam fastball velocity sank to 93.4 mph, his lowest since the start of the PITCHf/x era, down from a peak of 96.4 in 2009. He's lost velocity in each year since, but last year was the first time he dropped at least a full mile per hour from the year before.
Verlander did throw 206 innings, his eighth straight season of topping 200, but given that he's averaged 223 regular-season innings per year in that span (third in the majors by a whisker) — with an additional 19 postseason innings per year over the last four — it's fair to wonder if the innings are catching up with him. At the very least, he'll have to do a better job of making adjustments to account for his lost velocity, and right now, the likelihood of him rebounding to claim the mantle of staff ace and contend for another Cy Young award — he won in 2011 and has two other top-three finishes under his belt — seems low.
Behind Verlander in terms of payroll but ahead of him in current ability is David Price, who was acquired from the Rays last July 31. The 29-year-old lefty, who won the 2012 AL Cy Young, pitched to a 3.26 ERA last year while leading the league in both innings (248 1/3) and strikeouts (271), ranking third in walk rate (1.4 per nine) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.1), fourth in strikeout rate (9.8 per nine) and sixth in WAR (4.6). He's heading into the final year of his contract and will make $19.75 million in 2015, a record for an arbitration-eligible player. Barring an extension offer that's well beyond what the Tigers pitched to Scherzer last spring, Price will head to free agency and command a contract that could top that of his former teammate.
The other holdover in the rotation is Anibal Sanchez, who, after posting a league-best 2.57 ERA over 182 innings in 2013, slipped to 3.43 in 126 innings in 2014 and missed three weeks in April and May due to a finger laceration, then a month and a half in August and September due to a strained pectoral muscle. Sanchez, who turns 31 next month, is under contract for three more years at a cost of $16 million per year, with a $16 million club option and $5 million buyout for 2018. Over the course of a career covering parts of nine major league seasons, he's posted a 3.53 ERA (117 ERA+), but he's never topped 200 innings in a season, so it's difficult to view him as anything more than a mid-rotation piece.
Barring an additional move, a pair of newcomers acquired in trade will round out the rotation: 33-year-old Alfredo Simon, who came from the Reds in exchange for shortstop Eugenio Suarez and pitching prospect Jonathan Crawford, and 26-year-old Shane Greene, who came to the Yankees in a three-way trade that sent lefty Robbie Ray (acquired from Washington in the Fister trade) and infield prospect Domingo Leyba to the Diamondbacks, with Didi Gregorius going to the Yankees. Simon is coming off the first All-Star season of his career, not to mention his first full season in a rotation, and pitched to a 3.44 ERA in 196 1/3 innings, though his 4.33 FIP, .268 BABIP and 5.8 strikeouts per nine suggest that he could regress. He'll make $5.5 million in 2015, his final year before free agency.
An even less-proven commodity is Greene, an unheralded 15th-round draft pick out of Daytona Beach Community College in 2009 who came into last season ranked as the Yankees' 16th best prospect by Baseball America, having never pitched above Double A. Though he was roughed up for a 4.61 ERA in Triple A, he was pressed into big league duty by injuries and made a strong impression in the Bronx thanks to a much-improved slider and a relatively new cutter, posting a 3.78 ERA, 3.73 FIP and an eye-opening 9.3 strikeouts per nine in 78 1/3 innings.
That's not a bad rotation by any stretch, though it may not be enough to win the division again, particularly with the Indians' young core of pitchers maturing; the White Sox having added Jeff Samardzija, David Robertson, Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche in one of the majors' most productive offseasons; and the Royals having shown the world that they're ready to contend after so many years as an afterthought. What's more, the Tigers still have no shortage of question marks with regards to their defense (which ranked 13th in the league with -64 Defensive Runs Saved and tied for 13th with a .673 defensive efficiency), bullpen (13th in the league with a 4.29 ERA and 14th with a 33 percent rate of allowing inherited runners to score) and centerfield (with unproven Anthony Gose penciled in as starter). Upgrading those areas further won’t be easy, particularly given not only their 2015 payroll but also more than $100 million committed for 2016 and 2017 as well.
Payroll be damned, one obvious solution for an upgrade would be the addition of James Shields via free agency, with Simon either traded or moved to a setup role in the bullpen. Via Fox Sports' Jon Morosi, Shields' agent (Page Odle) has been in contact with the Tigers recently, and Morosi's colleague, Ken Rosenthal, has reported that the 33-year-old righty's price tag may be dropping. While Shields is believed to have received a five-year, $110 million offer, Rosenthal writes that "[s]ome execs now believe he is headed for a four-year deal, perhaps in the $70 million-$80 million range." That could make more sense for the Tigers, but Shields is both 14 months older than Verlander and one of two pitchers to outdistance him in innings over the past eight seasons; his 1,785 2/3 in that span barely beats Felix Hernandez (1,785 1/3) and Verlander (1,780 2/3), and he's got 59 1/3 postseason innings on top of that as well.
Beyond Shields, what remains on the free-agent market is back-rotation filler that may offer the Tigers either more certainty but with a lower bar for performance (Ryan Vogelsong, Kyle Kendrick) or a roll of the dice as far as health is concerned (Johan Santana, Chris Young). The latter may be the best option still available via that route. The 35-year-old righty pitched to a 3.65 ERA in 165 innings for the Mariners en route to AL Comeback of the Year honors, but he did so by working around a fairly unappealing combination of peripherals (1.4 homers, 3.3 walks and 5.9 strikeouts per nine, respectively) en route to a 5.02 FIP.
Beating his ERA projection via a low BABIP is nothing new for Young. Not only was his .240 mark the lowest among ERA qualifiers in 2014, but his career .255 mark is also 13 points better than the next lowest pitcher among those with at least 1,000 innings since 2004. The fact that Young hadn't qualified for an ERA title since 2007 and that he had thrown just 337 1/3 major league innings from 2008 to 2012 before spending all of '13 in the minors isn't exactly something that should fill anyone with confidence. That's particularly true for a team that could use a strong bet for 200 innings of above-average work.
Beyond that is the trade route, but the Tigers entered last year with the third-worst minor league system out of 30 teams according to BA, and their trades since then for Price, Greene, Gose, Simon and Joakim Soria have subtracted minor league talent, not added it. It's doubtful they've got a package that could convince the Phillies to part with Cole Hamels, whose $96 million owed over the next four years looks like a bargain by comparison to some of the aforementioned pitchers. Ironically, one pitcher who may make particular sense in trade is Fister, given that the Nationals now have six pitchers for five spots. The Tigers dealt him to Washington last year for Ray, Ian Krol and Steve Lombardozzi because they were concerned about affording him, but beyond 2015, they now appear to have more room to do so.
Another team worth talking to is the Cubs, who have Tsuyoshi Wada and Travis Wood slated to battle for one rotation spot, barring injury, and both have years of club control remaining. The 33-year-old Wada pitched to a 3.25 ERA in 13 starts after spending the first half of the season rediscovering his form following 2012 Tommy John surgery and will make $4 million in 2015, his final season before the first of four years of arbitration eligibility. Wood, who turns 28 on Feb. 6, pitched to a career-worst 5.03 ERA in 2014, but his 4.38 FIP was considerably better, and he's just one year removed from a 3.11 ERA, 3.89 FIP, and the first All-Star appearance of his career. He'll make $5.69 million in 2015 and has one more year of arbitration eligibility.
Beyond that, general manager Dave Dombrowski will have to get creative if he's going to upgrade the rotation any further, and given the potentially high cost for doing so, he may be focused elsewhere. Whichever route he goes, he's got his work cut out.