A couple days ago I spoke briefly about the odds of Magglio Ordonez bouncing back from a down year, finally surmising that I expect him to do so. However, Ordonez playing well puts the Tigers front office and management in a bit of a bind as Ordonez has a 15.0m option for next season that vests if he reaches 135 starts or 540 plate appearances.
On a positive note the Tigers have a massive amount of money coming off the books next year as the bad contracts for Jeremy Bonderman (12.5m), Dontrelle Willis (12.0m), Nate Robertson (10.0m), Johnny Damon (8.0m), Brandon Inge (6.6m), along with smaller deals for catcher Gerald Laird (3.95m), Bobby Seay (2.475m), and Adam Everett (1.55m). That's a total of 57.075m. Should Ordonez's option not vest, that would bring the total to a whopping 72.075m.
With the Tigers opening day payroll this year just over 130.0m, one wonders how long that sort of spending can be maintained without seeing returns. By most accounts, Tigers owner Mike Illitch is eating a fairly substantial loss with attendance down and the state of the Detroit economy in a less-than-ideal spot.
That was true this off season as well, when the trades of Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson were seen as payroll cutting moves. That notion however was largely invalidated when the Tigers then went out and spent a combined 22.0m on free agents Jose Valverde and Johnny Damon over a total of three years.
That doesn't necessarily mean that the Tigers wont be cutting payroll in the near future however, and the invaluable Kurt Mensching of Bless You Boys said the following when asked about the Tigers payroll;
"[Then], either Tigers underestimated what that would do to attendance (for a club that would still be paying out about $115 million at the major league level) or owner Mike Ilitch didn't feel like wasting a year. Either way, the decision was made to invest a bit more in the product and make a run at the division, thus boosting sales and enjoyment. I think that's valid. You're already spending $115m to lose, why not add $15m to try to win?"
It makes perfect sense I suppose. If the Tigers can gain an additional 15.0m in revenue this season by being competitive (or at least by improving the notion of their competitiveness to the fan base) then it's certainly worth the investment in a financial sense.
That brings us back to the issue of Ordonez. There are a few questions to answer; first, how many wins is 15.0m worth? The second, if he isn't playing well enough to be worth 15.0m, should the team try and platoon him with another outfielder - perhaps Ryan Raburn - to keep him from reaching that option.
The first part of the equation is actually fairly easy to answer - or at least to ball park. We know that a win (on the WAR scale) is worth approximately 4.5m. So simple math: 15.0m / 4.5m = 3.33 wins. To be worth 3.33 wins, he'd have to post an OPS in the neighborhood of .875 and play around league average defense. That's hardly out of the question for him.
But what if he isn't, what if we're approaching mid-season and his OPS is around .820? What then? The team could try and turn to Raburn to hold Ordonez under the 540 PA mark, and of course deal with the inevitable union grievance later.
But therein lies the problem for the Tigers. Ordonez isn't likely to out play the value of his deal either this year or next, but trying to prevent that option from vesting isn't easy. With a payroll that is likely to tighten, even with all the money coming off the books, the Tigers might not really want Ordonez's option to vest, even if that is what is best for the teams competitiveness. That might not be an easy notion for a lot of Tigers fans to digest, but it's certainly not without validity.