FielderIlitch

There’s still a lot of baseball to be played in 2012, and from the way things look to be shaping up in both the AL Central race (a half game out) and the AL Wildcard race (a half game up), the Tigers are going to be in the thick of the postseason battle from here on out.

But with the non-waiver trade deadline in the rear-view mirror, we can begin to create a fairly realistic picture of the payroll constraints the organization will face when we move to the offseason and into 2013. The first thing to do would be to determine the payroll cap. This number is obviously impossible to know for anyone not named Mike Ilitch, but we can probably come up with a reasonable assumption. Here’s a look at the club’s opening day payroll numbers since 2008 (the first years they eclipsed $100 million, numbers via Cots’ Baseball Contracts):

2012: $133,475,000

2011: $106,953,000

2010: $133,995,400

2009: $115,085,145

2008: $137,685,196

That’s an average of about $125 million with a peak just north of $137 million. The conventional wisdom around town is that Mr. I wants a World Series ring badly and is willing to stretch the payroll to achieve that goal. However, it doesn’t appear that there’s much room to stretch the budget beyond this season’s $133 million opening figure. Attendance has been good and TV ratings are reportedly very high, so perhaps the club will once again approach the $138 million mark (as they did in ’08), but I think it’s unreasonable to expect sizeable growth. It’s probably more than safe to assume a 2013 opening day in the same $133-$134 million range that we saw this year.

So, down to the nitty-gritty, seven players hold contracts that include 2013: Prince Fielder ($23M), Miguel Cabrera ($21M), Justin Verlander ($20.1M), Victor Martinez ($13M), Joaquin Benoit ($5.5M), Omar  Infante ($4M), and Ramon Santiago ($2.1M). Add in Octavio Dotel ($3.5M) and Jhonny Peralta ($6M) who have club options on their contracts that will undoubtedly be picked up, and we come up with an easy $98.7 million with nine players down (this includes a $500K buyout that I’m assuming will still be owed to Brandon Inge).

Alex Avila, Doug Fister, Brennan Boesch, and Austin Jackson will be arbitration eligible for the first time after reaching the three-year MLB service plateau. Arbitration level salaries can be somewhat tricky to guestimate, but the general rule of thumb is that a first-year arbitration player will earn about 40% of what he would make on the free agent market. I’ll throw out the following numbers:

Alex Avila: $4 million

Doug Fister: $5 million

Austin Jackson: $5 million

Brennan Boesch: $1 million

Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, and Phil Coke will be second year arbitration eligible players where the rule of thumb is 60% of their would-be free agent value. I’m going to take the simple route and (more or less) add 50% to what they earned this year as first-year arb players.

Max Scherzer: $6 million

Rick Porcello: $4.5 million

Phil Coke: $1.5 million

I’m not exactly sure how close any of these numbers will end up being, but whatever. I’m rolling with it. I’m also going to assume Ryan Raburn a would-be third year arbitration eligible player is a non-tender candidate. We can also throw out $1 million for a re-signing of Gerald Laird (unless he takes his .746 OPS and decides he can get more money and a starting job).

That gives us 17 players worth a total of roughly $126.7 million, which leaves around $7 million remaining for eight players.

The pitching staff could be rounded out by naming Drew Smyly the fifth starter, and retaining Al Alburquerque, Brayan Villarreal, Duane Below, and Darin Downs (or Luis Marte) in the bullpen. All five of these guys – and any number of pre-arbitration players – would make the league minimum which is right around $500K. This would leave the team without a “true closer”, but I would be more than confident in Joaquin Benoit if he was willing to take the role.

We’re left with a need of three position players and an expected bank of $4-$5 million. Andy Dirks surely will get one of the spots at league minimum, so the big question marks exist with the final two spots. At least one more outfielder would be needed along with a player with the ability to play at least one (non-first base) infield position. Internal candidates for these two spots include the obvious choices of Danny Worth and Quintin Berry, but also prospecty players like Nick Castellanos and Avisail Garcia. Filling these spots internally would yield an opening day payroll figure of around $130.7 million.

The team could also look to go shopping in the free agent market to find another starting pitcher, a back-end bullpen arm, or a corner outfielder, but we’re probably only looking at $3 or $4 million of available space if they’re to maintain payroll from 2012. They could squeeze an additional $4 million (so $8 million total) if they want to stretch out to the $137 million payroll figure of 2008, but there won’t be any big fish landed in free agency by the Tigers this offseason*.

*Of course, this is the same think I would have said last offseason and they ended up signing Prince Fielder.

This all but rules out an extension for Anibal Sanchez, who should be getting a contract worth $15 million per year or more, or a big-name closer, but we could see an Ocatvio Dotel-type reliever added, or possibly a Jeff Baker-like platoon bat or two. There likely won’t be money available to do much more than that.

Matt Snyder is the editor of The Tigers Den. He can be reached on Twitter @snyder_matthew.