Considering the Tigers' efforts to add young talent to their system, Tuesday night's midnight deadline for offering arbitration to their own free agents means more than a procedural move. It's a larger-scale question, weighing the reward of Draft picks against the risk of being stuck with another weighty salary.
That goes especially for Polanco, the two-time Gold Glove second baseman for whom the Tigers believe they have a replacement ready.
Under the player ranking system developed by Elias Sports Bureau for Major League Baseball, Polanco qualifies as a Type A free agent. If the Tigers offer him arbitration, Polanco rejects it and then signs with another club, the Tigers would receive at least a Draft pick sandwiched after the first round. They could receive the signing team's first-round selection if that pick isn't in the top half of the first round next summer.
Rodney and Lyon are both Type B free agents. The Tigers would receive a compensation pick sandwiched at the end of the second round next summer if they offer arbitration to either player and they sign elsewhere. They would not get the signing team's selection.
It's a rule that gives teams some return if they have no chance of re-signing a star player. Given the emphasis teams place on young talent nowadays, it's a valuable piece of planning for a lot of clubs. But in the recent market, where some players could earn more money in arbitration than they could on the open market, it comes with risk.
Once arbitration is offered, a free agent has six days to decide whether to accept it. If he accepts, he guarantees himself a one-year contract, with the salary to be determined by an arbitrator in February or settled by both clubs beforehand.
Polanco, Rodney and Lyon all are looking for multiyear deals. Lyon's agent, Barry Meister, told MLive.com last week that Lyon will sign a multiyear contract somewhere. But that doesn't guarantee that they'll all get that kind of security. If anything, the relief market last year showed that deals can be unpredictable.
Polanco's situation is particularly intriguing. Teams tend to be reluctant to give up Draft picks. Having to surrender a first-round pick could be a big detriment for teams looking to sign Polanco.
Team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said last week that the Tigers haven't told any of those free agents, or fellow free agent Adam Everett, that they won't try to re-sign them, like they did with Aubrey Huff and Jarrod Washburn. That's an indication of some level of interest in bringing them back.
Whether they would want to do that through arbitration is another matter. Not only is Polanco coming off his second Gold Glove Award in three years, but he also set a career high with 72 RBIs to go with 10 home runs and a .285 batting average.
His just-finished four-year, $18.4 million contract was a valuable deal for the Tigers after acquiring him from the Phillies in 2005 for Ugueth Urbina. An arbitration offer could bring him significantly more, but a multiyear contract would provide more security for the 34-year-old.
By contrast, Scott Sizemore would make the league minimum $400,000 salary as a rookie next year if he were to take over at second base. On a team where payroll is an issue, and Dombrowski is using the term "fiscally responsible," those differences make an impact.
In Rodney's case, coming off a career breakout season with 37 saves, arbitration could similarly earn him a big raise, though he's expected to be paid quite well as a free agent. He made $2.7 million this past season.
If history is a reference, the Tigers declined to offer arbitration to their Type A free agent last year. Shortstop Edgar Renteria, whom Detroit had already decided not to bring back, ended up surprising many by signing a two-year, $18.5 million deal with the Giants. Still, that was a different situation.
Detroit's last compensation pick was a first-round sandwich selection for reliever Jamie Walker, who signed quickly with the Orioles after the 2006 season before the Tigers had to decide on arbitration. They used that pick in 2007 on high school right-hander Brandon Hamilton, who went 5-5 with a 7.09 ERA with Class A West Michigan this year.