DETROIT -- The math has changed on the Tigers' payroll with Prince Fielder's trade to Texas for Ian Kinsler. The math on Detroit's rotation has not. No amount of payroll shedding is likely to eliminate that issue.
And until the Tigers figure out if they can realistically put together a contract extension for Max Scherzer, the rotation question is going to loom over their offseason dealings.
They still have six starting pitchers for five spots, just as they did when team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski pointed it out a month ago. Young lefty Drew Smyly would open next season in the bullpen if the Tigers don't trade a starter.
Three of those starters are on track for free agency in the next two years, beginning with Scherzer next offseason and continuing with Rick Porcello and Doug Fister after the 2015 season.
The Tigers can't sign them all to long-term extensions. The going rate on quality starting pitchers on the open market makes that all but impossible. If there's a clock ticking on the Tigers' run as a perennial contender, it's in those situations. No matter which bats they put into their lineup, their championship hopes rest on the arms in their rotation.
It's a big enough issue that Scherzer's situation was one of the first questions that came up in the late-night Wednesday conference call that Dombrowski held with reporters announcing the Fielder trade.
Asked if the freed-up payroll makes an extension for Scherzer more likely, Dombrowski said, "I'd say it makes it perhaps more possible. As we've talked about in the past, we're in a situation where we have a lot of stars on our club. They're well-paid stars and you can only be in a position where you have so many of those type of players.
"Does it make it probable? I can't say that. But it makes it more possible going forward. … Max is a player we'd like to keep in our organization and a player I know would like to stay here."
Indeed, Scherzer made his openness in a new deal known last week.
"I love it here in Detroit," he said on his Cy Young Award conference call. "We've got a team that's capable of winning every single year right now. Who wouldn't want to be a part of it? I realize I have it good here in Detroit. But it also takes two."
He meant two parties. It's also going to take millions of dollars. And that's where the math becomes a balancing act that even mutual interest might have challenge to pull off.
The Tigers ended the season with a payroll somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 million, and shed around $18 million with Joaquin Benoit, Jhonny Peralta, Omar Infante, Brayan Pena and Ramon Santiago becoming free agents. Their savings from the Fielder trade will be spread out, starting with an expected $8 million in each of the next two years and expanding from there.
Part of the savings is expected to be taken up by the $30 million the Tigers will send to Texas to help offset Fielder's contract over the final five years of his contract, beginning in 2016. Spread out evenly, it would reduce the difference between Fielder and Kinsler to $2 million in 2016 and $5 million in 2017 before Kinsler's contract expires.
Much of next season's savings are expected to go toward pay raises for seven arbitration-eligible players -- at least $15 million as estimated by MLB Trade Rumors' projections, including a $50,000 raise for Phil Coke under his deal agreed to this week.
That reduces the savings for 2014 to about $11 million, before any player additions. Add in scheduled raises under current long-term contracts -- $7 million for Anibal Sanchez, $2 million for Torii Hunter and $1 million for Miguel Cabrera -- and the difference between 2013 and 2014 is smaller, perhaps negligible, though a $1 million drop in Victor Martinez's salary will offset part. And that's before the Tigers sign a closer.
From that view, at least in the short term, the savings the Tigers gained do more to absorb already-expected increases with the same roster. To go beyond their previous offseason game plan will most likely involve raising payroll. The trade allows the Tigers more room without nearing Major League Baseball's luxury tax threshold, but it doesn't guarantee the plan.
Scherzer has the potential to hit the market next winter as baseball's top free agent.
"There are frankly fewer players in free agency," Scherzer's agent, Scott Boras, said earlier this year, before Scherzer finished off his Cy Young season. "There's no pitcher in this marketplace like Max in free agency this year."
Though the Tigers have more resources available than before, the lure of free agency hasn't changed. By all indications, talks haven't begun in earnest. When they do, though, the challenge will be for the Tigers to convince Scherzer to pass up free agency just a year away.
If the Tigers can't work out a deal with Scherzer in the coming months, they'll be faced with the question of whether to keep their dominant rotation intact for one more year and take a Draft pick as compensation if they can't re-sign him, or gauge what kind of return other teams would give up for one season of Scherzer.
The challenge of that is why so many teams, including the Tigers in most instances, try to figure out their long-term plans for pitchers with two years left before free agency. Coincidentally, that's where Porcello and Fister are now.
Porcello, for all his ups and downs, is on track to become a free agent at the tender age of 27, his prime pitching years still well ahead of him. Fister would be 32. Neither has had a significant arm injury, and both have put up innings.
A long-term deal for Scherzer, who will turn 30 next July, would pair him up with Justin Verlander and Sanchez as Detroit's terrific pitching trio for several more years at about the same age. It could also leave the Tigers with the back end of the rotation to eventually fill unless they could also work out a deal with Porcello or Fister before they hit free agency.
If Scherzer isn't re-signed, the Tigers have a chance to take that money and shore up the middle of the rotation, with Verlander and Sanchez at the top. But they would have a hard time replacing the dynamic arm that Scherzer has brought.
That's the conundrum the Tigers faced before Wednesday's trade and still face afterward. One way or another, Smyly is in line to fill a gap. That's about the one certainty they have.