DETROIT -- The Tigers don't usually begin trying to avoid arbitration with eligible players until after the New Year, when most of the offseason roster work is complete. When they announced a one-year deal with Phil Coke a couple weeks ago, it was a departure from the norm.
It also was a statement: While the Tigers want to keep this current group intact as much as possible, there's a price. As Monday's midnight deadline to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players approaches, also the last opportunity for teams to essentially release those players without financial obligations, it's a reminder of just how big of a factor arbitration is for this team right now.
Detroit has eight remaining arbitration-eligible players, who could collectively raise the team's payroll by close to $15 million based on arbitration projections from MLBTradeRumors.com. Coke is not one of them, having reached an agreement last month on a non-guaranteed one-year deal that does not represent a major raise over his $1.9 million salary from this past season, even if he reaches incentives on games pitched that push his salary above $2 million.
The Tigers can drop the price tag simply by not tendering a player a contract, essentially making him a free agent immediately. For the majority of those players, it's not even a consideration. The list includes three-fifths of the rotation in Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello, and key position contributors Austin Jackson, Alex Avila and Andy Dirks. Mercurial strikeout artist Al Alburquerque is eligible for arbitration for the first time, but is expected to have a role in a revamped Detroit bullpen.
The one intriguing decision could involve Don Kelly, who had to win his old job back last Spring Training on a Minor League contract after the Tigers took him off their 40-man roster a few months earlier. The Tigers set their roster a couple weeks ago with him back on it.
Kelly has made the same $900,000 salary the past two years, but his uptick in playing time and hitting in 2013 puts him in position to push for a raise in arbitration, though MLBTradeRumors.com projects his salary to remain the same. The 33-year-old came back to the Tigers last winter for a chance to win a World Series, and ended up playing a bigger role than expected while Austin Jackson and Miguel Cabrera dealt with nagging injuries.
Kelly's versatility is well-known, and he currently stands as a left-handed bat on the bench of a team that has a righty-heavy lineup in the wake of the Prince Fielder trade. The one factor that could change his role is the positional shuffle around the Tigers' infield and outfield, notably if fellow left-handed-hitter Andy Dirks becomes the primary reserve outfielder.
The roster picture, especially in left field and third base, remains a big question, which makes any finality of a decision on Kelly tricky. The Tigers could keep him on the roster and then take a wait-and-see approach in Spring Training. Detroit did that this past spring with Brennan Boesch, releasing him from camp in mid-March for one-sixth of his salary.
Considering the massive contracts moved in the Fielder trade for Ian Kinsler, Kelly's situation won't have a major impact on the Tigers' payroll, no matter the decision. His role in the makeup of the Tigers' bench, however, is a little more significant.