Max Scherzer has gotten off to a great start in his defense of the 2013 Cy Young Award, but after rejecting a likely substantial contract extension a month ago every time he walks out to the hill is perhaps one less time fans have to see him pitch in a Tigers uniform. It seems more and more likely with each passing day that Mike Illitch, Dave Dombrowski and Co. will not extend Scherzer and will instead let him test free agency.
After inking Miguel Cabrera to an eight-year extension worth $240 million through 2023 earlier this month, it would seem foolish for the Tigers ownership to try and squeeze another enormous contract onto the roster. If Scherzer were to hit free agency we could expect his contract to fall somewhere around Cole Hamels’ $144 million or Zack Greinke’s $147 million deal, somewhere around $24 million/year. Scherzer could get more, depending on the strength of other free-agent pitchers, amount of years a team wants to give him, and how much Scott Boras whines. That would mean Detroit is committing close to $75 million for three players, a burden for any team. Could there be an alternative, from the Tigers’ perspective, to signing another pitcher about to hit his 30’s to a $24+ million deal?
We know the Detroit organization has been in win-now-at-all-costs mode for years, but they just finished an off-season in which they made a very real effort to get younger and more flexible. We’ve seen a number of teams, the Braves and Rays among them, extend their young players to relatively team friendly deals a few years before they hit free agency. It just so happens that the Tigers have two perfect extension candidates on their roster.
Austin Jackson is perhaps one of the more underrated players in the Major Leagues. He’s been an above average center fielder by both DRS and UZR, an above-average base runner, has slashed .279/.345/.420 in his career good for a .336 wOBA, and been worth 15.0 WAR in just over four seasons with Detroit. He’s in his age-27 season and by all looks is just entering his prime years. Currently, Jackson is playing on a $6 million dollar deal and is due to hit free agency in 2016. If Detroit’s ownership believes he’ll continue to improve his plate discipline — Jackson struck out in 21% of his plate appearances last year although his .77 BB/K ratio is a significant improvement over the .28 mark he put up in his rookie year — and his power (.140 career ISO), then they should seriously think about locking him up sooner rather than later. If new manager Brad Ausmus continues to be more aggressive on the base paths with this team than his predecessor, Jackson could have the 20/20 season a lot of fans were hoping for, which would send his price through the roof if he’s left to test free agency.
When you remember Rick Porcello was a first-round pick in 2007 and the hype around him was such that he was expected to be Justin Verlander 2.0 in the Tigers rotation it’s hard not to be a little disappointed with the outcome of his career so far. When you also remember that he only pitched 125 innings in the low minors, came up at age 20, and has seen his ERA and FIP improve yearly as well as a surge in his strikeout rate and a decline in his walk rate it’s easy to see how he could eventually reach his mid-rotation ceiling. Porcello is still only 25 years old, playing on an $8.5 million deal and, like Jackson, is a free agent after the 2015 season.
An extension for Porcello would give the Tigers a rotation of Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Porcello, and Drew Smyly for at least three years after 2014. Jackson contributes a middle of the order bat along with premium defense in center field. If Scherzer were to sign with another team, the Tigers could extend both players for at most a few million over what Scherzer would make per year and that would be made up by the $14 million coming off the books from the Torii Hunter contract who is unlikely to re-sign. Instead of committing $75 million to three players, Detroit can commit that to two superstars, two above-average players with the potential to put up some star seasons in their prime, and perhaps another outfielder to cover for Hunter. If the Tigers are really committed to roster and payroll flexibility they will let the reigning Cy Young winner walk and lock up two young talented players entering the prime years of their career.
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