Grand Cards: Apocalypse Now: The Plan

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Apocalypse Now: The Plan

While I was busy all day yesterday, Mack Avenue Tigers, the Detroit Tigers Weblog and Tigers by the Numbers apparently channeled my thoughts and put in some leg work to reach the same conclusion: This trade doesn't make sense.

Which just begs the question: what is the Plan for the organization on this?

Michael Rosenberg over at the Free Press doesn't think they have one.
But this is what I find disconcerting about the Tigers: The plan keeps changing. They seem to be caught between doing what their owner wanted three months ago, what he wants now, and what he might want next year. They are caught between their GM's past mistakes and his need to make up for them as quickly as possible.

And you're not alone. Taking a look at The Haul from the trade this seems like a money move all the way. Assuming all four players make the major league roster, you essentially fill up two holes in the bullpen, and swap for a cheaper starting pitcher and center fielder. But even with that, you need to ask why. Granderson and Jackson were not going to break the bank next year. From MAT:

The Tigers appeared set to have a payroll around $125 million, $130 or so if the Tigers want to play a closer. At the Detroit Tigers Weblog, Billfer projects that payroll at around $115M right now. The savings in 2010 of $9 or $10 million is truly not that significant -- about 8 percent. Now it's true, Granderson will cost $8.25 million in 2011 and $10M in 2012. But given the Tigers' payroll nosedives to $43 million in 2011 obligations, this doesn't appear to be a contract the organization needed to shed to assure its long-term health.

This is a club with a TV contract worth 400 million over 10 years, that receives anywhere from $20 to $35 million in revenue sharing (thank Scott Boras for sharing that), that likely brought in $60-65 million in ticket revenue (based on the average ticket price of $25 per Forbes, and 2.56 million tickets). Assuming the minimums, that's $120 million in those three revenue streams alone in 2009. (Hat tip to Billfer and Phil Wezner of TigsTown for getting the first line of research on the topic).

So, I'm sorry. I just don't buy it being caused by money. In the big picture, the savings weren't that great, and could just as easily have been accumulated by trading Edwin Jackson, moving catcher Gerald Laird and non-tendering lefty specialist Bobby Seay. And if a billionaire baseball fan/owner can't absorb a loss for 2010, then he'd better stop enjoying the nice press given to him.

So yeah, maybe money would have gotten a little tight for Mike Illitch next year, but it would be a one year problem. A big ol' chunk of that comes off the books after 2010--conveniently right when Granderson starts to get more expensive, which is something that was obviously an intentional move by an intelligent GM at the time.

Here's what I said about it last month, when the Granderson trade rumors first started:
Here's where things don't add up for me.

In 2009 the Tigers:

This all comes amidst the worst economic recession in decades, with all indications that everything is now turning up--even in Michigan.

Billfer and Kurt fill that out even more by adding in specific revenue sharing numbers and TV contracts etc. and I just keep coming back to the same conclusion: This couldn't just be about money, because they're not saving enough of it, especially when they had opportunities to save/earn more last season.

So then, the plan must be about rebuilding the organization. Great! The Tigers do need to do that, with no heir apparent at SS or 3B apparently. So it's a good thing that they got...a SP, two RP and a center fielder who will attempt to fill the whole that you created your center fielder. Hmmm.

Let's harken back to a fangraphs article that I linked a month ago:
This just doesn’t pass the smell test. Granderson is a star and a massive bargain. When you’re cutting costs, you don’t start with the guy producing the highest return on investment on the roster. It doesn’t make any sense.

Arrgh. I'm generalizing, but you can run a franchise in one of two ways: There is the "win at all costs" attitude that the Tigers have adopted in recent years. There is also a Moneyball-style approach that the A's, Twins, and everyone who has ever made money in life tend to follow. It involves making smart investments, picking up undervalued assets and generating a better-than expected Return on Investment.

That was Granderson. Trading Granderson was you buying Apple stock and selling before the iPod came out. Let me give you one more dose of pessimism before I turn the tables. MAT again:
And this is the problem with the trade. The Tigers spent 2008 and 2009 drafting several relief pitchers with low-to-middle major league ceilings who were close to the majors. Perry was a 2008 first-rounder. Cody Satterwhite was the second-round pick. Weinhardt a ninth rounder. Oliver a 2009 second-rounder. (In theory, he is a starting pitcher, but he translates much better as a reliever and will keep the role warm only until 2009 first rounder Jacob Turner matures a season or two later.)

The Tigers' cup overfloweth with relief pitching -- either that or with wasted draft picks, your call. And yet, relief pitching is notoriously fickle. They're failed starters basically. If they weren't failed starters, they have a higher value to the team as, well, actual starters. Sure, there are crazy teams like the Astros out there who overpay for it, but as a rule you can put together an effective bullpen fine without spending like crazy. And, oh yes, I'm not sure this bullpen screams at me "best in the league." Actually, I'm sure it doesn't.

Yet, this was the haul for the trade?

So, remind me again, exactly, how did this trade benefit the organization in the long run?

The Tigers knew that they wouldn't afford to bring back either Fernando Rodney, Brandon Lyon or both, which opened up two bullpen slots. Perhaps by adding two arms to the mix of young talent they have in the minors the Tigers are taking a shotgun approach to filling holes on the roster. With this many options, they can't miss. We can only hope.

So that brings us back to the plan. What is the plan? To me, it is clear that there has been a transition from "win now" to "win soon," but concedes 2010 in the process. That's ok--that's what rebuilding takes. But the big concern that I have, is will this team be ready by 2011? If not, you need to wonder if they wouldn't have been better off holding on to Granderson and filling some of the holes in Free Agency in 2011 once Illitch's pocketbook is millions of dollars heavier.

On the flip side, maybe this is the organization-changing move that was both warranted and prudent. From Steve Kornacki at
Detroit will trim about $7 million in payroll by adding these four and trading its two All-Stars. Granderson will make $5.5 million in 2010 and Jackson likely $4-5 million after arbitration. None of the players coming to the Tigers have more than two years of major league experience and aren't arbitration eligible. Each will likely make about the league minimum and could come in under $3 million as a group.

But the savings will become greater with each year.

Granderson is due $18.25 million in 2011 and 2012, and his club has a $13 million option for 2013 with a $2 million buyout.
Jackson will become a free agent after 2011 and his agent is hard-bargaining Scott Boras. If he keeps pitching like an All-Star, you do the math.

Meanwhile, the Tigers won't have to offer anything beyond arbitration to their four new players over the next five years.
The savings will be significant for a team in a financially-strapped town.

Detroit4Lyfe has an excellent breakdown of the implications of the trade and at one point says this:
There's potential here that the Tigers can wind up with a better pitcher than EJax, a better OF than Curtis, and two quality relievers to boot. The key word there is potential, but that's all in addition to saving enough money where they can go out and buy needed players in a few years should these guys not pan out.

To which I say, humbug. The problem with potential is that there is a risk premium associated with it. The new guys are cheaper because they're not proven and might not work out. If you're going to assume that they might not work out and can replace them with the money you've saved, why not just keep the proven commodity and use the massive savings elsewhere in your organization to fill holes elsewhere. And, thanks to Detroit4Lyfe's nice breakdown, I certainly don't think that we're in a position to say that Austin Jackson will be better than Granderson? Oh, he's younger sure, and the Tigers will have him for longer, but a side-by-side comparison of stats reveals far less power and way more strikeouts, among other things. But you know what? It's in the eye of the beholder, as they like the trade over there. Perhaps my bias is clouding things in these parts.

An important argument support of the trade is that the Tigers do trade 5 years of team-controlled salaries for 22 years with this deal. And the players aren't schlubs. 22 years of team control is as good of a rebuilding step as any. Let's take it from maestro himself in the Free Press:

“It’s difficult to make deals when you know players. I used to do this on a regular basis (most notably in Florida). We just haven’t done this in Detroit as much. It’s tough to trade people who you know and like and represent you well. You’ll always get some people who second-guess that part of it.

“But I remember in the winter of 1984, I was with the White Sox. I was the assistant GM, and Roland Hemond was the general manager. We traded La Marr Hoyt (who had won the Cy Young in ’83) to the San Diego Padres. We had scouted very thoroughly, and the young guy we got back who was the key guy was named Ozzie Guillen.

“I remember Roland was crucified. He was absolutely crucified.”

Guillen, a shortstop, became the next season’s American League rookie of the year. He had a long and distinguished playing career with the White Sox and now manages them.

Meanwhile, the 28-year old Hoyt was out of baseball one All-Star appearance and four seasons later. Bravo for your apt comparison, sir.

So this leaves me with one thought: The Tigers are in rebuilding mode. They have 26 year old Miguel Cabrera locked up long term He is the centerpiece. They NEED TO, absolutely no question must, sign Justin Verlander to a longer term contract. Scherzer is 25. Porcello is 21 (!) and there are a few highly touted arms in the minors that could break through to the majors in the next 2 seasons. Meanwhile, there will be a rookie at 2B, possibly a rookie in CF (can I put in a vote right now for starting Jackson at AAA? Raburn can play in Center.) and a general youngening and cheapening of the entire team.

That's the plan. It has to be. Personally, I thought that Granderson and Jackson fit into the plan, although I like the Scherzer add. Even so, I still wonder whether the Tigers gained so much in this trade that they are better of as a rebuilding club than they would have been with Granderson in the mix. I'm not so sure.

And that's where I have to defer to the professionals, for now. Dombrowski built a champion in Florida, then dismantled it and put together the pieces to build another Champion. I don't like this trade. I don't. And personally, I won't be happy with a six-year rebuilding process, which is what it took in Florida (1997-2003). But, as much as I'd like to have him on the short leash for this, I think that he has squarely set himself up for a rebuild, with no turning back. You can't half-ass a rebuild by trading the face of the franchise. No allegiances, no remorse, just baseball. And that can hurt.

But I hope he's right.