Tigers face decisions on their 40-man roster
Strategy on arbitration-eligible players, Rule 5 Draft comes into play for Detroit
DETROIT -- The Tigers don't face a deadline on tendering offers to arbitration-eligible players like Phil Coke and Don Kelly until Dec. 2. An early opportunity to make a decision, however, comes Wednesday at midnight ET.
It's the deadline for Major League teams to add prospects to their 40-man roster ahead of next month's Rule 5 Draft. It's also the date the Tigers dropped Ryan Raburn a year ago, ending the suspense with his status a week ahead of time and opening up a roster spot.
President/general manager Dave Dombrowski has a recent history of making moves with arbitration-eligible players ahead of the non-tender date. Before Raburn, there was Marcus Thames, whom the Tigers released shortly after the 2009 season. In between, Detroit did wait until the non-tender date to drop Will Rhymes in 2011.
Because the Tigers released Raburn early, the only non-tender move they made at last year's deadline was Daniel Schlereth, who wasn't even arbitration-eligible.
The Tigers are not in quite the same roster crunch this year as last. With free agents cleared off, their 40-man roster currently stands at 32. If they intend to leave a few spots open for potential free-agent additions shortly, however, they have some choices to make on the players they have, either at the big league level or in the Minors.
Coke enters his third arbitration year coming off a 5.40 ERA overall and a .299 average allowed to left-handed hitters. He made $1.85 million this season, and could be line for about a quarter-million more based on projections from MLB Trade Rumors. Left-handed relief, however, is not an area of depth in Detroit. If the Tigers trade a starter and move Drew Smyly back to the rotation, Coke would be their only seasoned southpaw, and he has a history of rebounds that includes his 2012 postseason as their makeshift closer.
Kelly, meanwhile, comes into the winter off a rebound season. When the Tigers brought the utility player back last winter, they took him off the 40-man roster and signed him to a Minor League contract with a Major League camp invite, thus avoiding arbitration. He has made $900,000 in each of the last two seasons.
The fact that Dombrowski mentioned Kelly as a left-handed hitter to potentially complement top prospect Nick Castellanos in left field suggests Kelly is still in Detroit's plans. Whether the Tigers could realistically drop him and re-sign him on another Minor League contract is more complicated this time around.
Those are likely the two major decisions facing the Tigers on the big league side. Deciding who to add to the 40-man roster from the Minors might be tougher. It's not about obvious prospects.
Jordan Lennerton progressed from a power-hitting first baseman in the Tigers farm system to a Futures Game participant and a Triple-A All-Star this season. In an organization with Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez, however, Lennerton is blocked as he heads toward his 28th birthday.
If the Tigers add him to the 40-man roster, they'd be dedicating a spot to someone who effectively would be an insurance player for them. If they don't add him, they'd risk losing him to the Rule 5 Draft -- one American League talent evaluator suggested his left-handed bat would make him a candidate -- and thinning their ranks of hitters at the upper levels of their system if they need to fill a void.
Those are the types of decisions the Tigers face. Another is Blaine Hardy, who went from Minor League depth signing to a late-season success as a starter at Triple-A Toledo and an Arizona Fall League participant. Combine his Mud Hens stats, including a complete-game one-hitter in August, with his bullpen stint at Double-A Erie, and the 26-year-old left-hander went 8-3 with a 1.67 ERA.
The Tigers re-signed Hardy to a Minor League contract in September, and will likely bring him to Spring Training, but he'll be Rule 5 Draft-eligible if Detroit doesn't add him to its 40-man roster. His late-season success could entice a team to take a Rule 5 pick on him.
Then there's Kyle Lobstein, whom the Tigers snared in last year's Rule 5 Draft before acquiring his full rights in Spring Training through a trade. He'll be eligible again next month, this time off a 13-win, 3.27-ERA season between Erie and Toledo, unless the Tigers add the 24-year-old lefty to their roster. They outrighted him off the 40-man roster after acquiring his rights in the spring.
None of the three was on MLB.com's midseason list of Top 20 Tigers prospects, but all could have a spot in the big leagues if the need arises next year. Four prospects on the list -- Erie outfielder Daniel Fields, Erie shortstop Eugenio Suarez, Class A right-hander Endrys Briceno and A-ball outfielder Steven Moya -- also are Rule 5 Draft-eligible and are likely to be added.
These aren't high-profile decisions, not in an offseason when the Tigers want to add a proven closer and have a starting pitcher they could trade. But for an organization that needs to preserve both Minor League depth and injury insurance at Triple-A, they're important choices to make, and they're coupled with decisions on arbitration-eligible players. This is how good teams fill the gaps between big-time signings and emerging prospects.