And that’s because it really doesn’t make sense for either side.
In the case of the Tigers, they need pitching, and a lot of it. For a team that finished 28th in MLB in ERA at 4.64, and 29th in FIP, they’re not just one pitcher away right now. And while in all likelihood it’s not practical, a case can be made that the Tigers need to add not one pitcher, but an order of magnitude greater than that, and add ten pitchers to the staff.
That might sound facetious, but for a 12 man pitching staff, how many pitchers showed they clearly earned a spot on the 2016 staff? Justin Verlander for one, and Anibal Sanchez is another based on track record, not really his 2015 health or success. Yes, other guys like Blaine Hardy and Alex Wilson were effective, and Daniel Norris showed potential, and are likely to be a part of the staff. But you could still make a case that there are legitimate upgrades available on the market.
And while the Tigers have money to spend, it’s not endless. With already $110 million committed to a handful of players plus buyout and other payments, and a number of arbitration-eligible players that are going to get raises, the Tigers committed payroll before they hit the shopping market will probably be around $130 million. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Tigers entered 2016 with a projected payroll of just shy of $175 million (they ended up paying less with the trades of Price, Cespedes and Joakim Soria). If you assume a similar payroll, the Tigers have somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 million to spend.
Being realistic, the Tigers are going to have to add a pair of starting pitchers, a closer, and at least a couple of middle relievers. With the way MLB free agency has evolved, a middle of the rotation starter costs upwards of $10 million per season, a good closer will command similar, and a solid middle reliever will probably run somewhere between $3 million and $5 million. Those five needs added up get you to around $40 million.
Now you start talking about David Price. He tossed 220 innings in 2015 with a 2.45 ERA. He’s 30 years old, has a Cy Young to his credit and has been incredibly durable throughout his career. He’s going to command a contract similar to what Max Scherzer received last off-season, which topped $200 million in aggregate, and while there was some creativity with how he’d be paid, the average annual value of the deal worked out to $30 million. The Tigers simply can’t afford to give three-fourths of their available spending money to a single player, with so many holes to fill.
There also remain questions about just how interested Price would be in returning to Detroit. Of course money talks, but his year in Detroit was plagued with controversy, from the occasional complaint about the chilly temperatures to not handing manager Brad Ausmus the ball and apparently taking himself out of another game, it wasn’t a smooth ride. And with the announcement that Ausmus will return in 2016, and the city of Detroit not relocating further south, those things will still be present next year.
Given that, it’s hard to see a Price return to Detroit making sense on either side.
Cespedes might be a slightly different story from a need and interest standpoint. Cespedes said all the right things in his few months with the Tigers, indicating he’d like to return to Detroit. He has indicated the same to New York Mets media as well, but let’s assume his desire to return is sincere.
The need is there for the Tigers. After shipping him out, they split time in left field between a handful of players – Rajai Davis, Tyler Collins, and even a little bit of Steven Moya in September. Davis however is a free agent, Moya doesn’t look ready to face big league pitching and succeed, and Collins production was more in line with that of a backup or platoon outfielder.
But, then there’s the cost component again. As one of the best free agent hitters on the market, it’s reasonable to think Cespedes, also 30 years of age, is going to command a deal that would approach $100 million over six or more years. That’s a large commitment to make to another player, especially when you consider the Tigers already have a lot of money committed to a lot of hitters right now (Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler all have long-term deals), and are likely going to need to hand out a large contract to keep J.D. Martinez very soon.
The other thing to keep in mind… offense by and large wasn’t the Tigers problem in 2015, even despite the injury issues that limited Martinez and Cabrera. The Tigers were middle of the pack in runs scored at 689, but posted a .324 wOBA, good for third in baseball. In addition to hoping for some better health for Cabrera and Martinez, you’ve got young players like Jose Iglesias, Nick Castellanos and James McCann, all of whom the Tigers will hope for continued improvement and increased production out of.
So the Tigers need a left fielder, but they probably don’t need an All-Star left fielder. And with a large list of needs on the pitching side, that will have to remain the priority, which means they can’t easily carve out $15 million of that available $40-$45 million for Cespedes. Filling left field could come from a trade, or a bargain signing to platoon with Collins, or maybe even bringing Davis back. But signing Cespedes at that amount probably doesn’t make much sense with where their payroll is, and even if we assume Cespedes wants to return, it’s unlikely he’d give the Tigers a discount to return.
The Tigers still want to compete, and have a number of core players at the age where they should have a window. But given the Tigers needs and available funds, committing to another large, long-term salary for Price or Cespedes just doesn’t make sense.