DETROIT -- The Tigers have not heard an arbitration ruling since Dave Dombrowski took over as president and general manager. Their latest test to that perfect record begins now.
The first step in the Tigers' arbitration process came Tuesday, when the half-dozen remaining eligible players filed. That move from starters Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer, outfielders Andy Dirks and Austin Jackson, reliever Al Alburquerque and catcher Alex Avila was procedural and expected.
The next, and more important, step comes Friday, when the team and players are scheduled to exchange arbitration figures. Those are the two salary numbers between which an arbitrator must choose if a case goes to a hearing. More importantly, they offer a middle ground in which the two sides can negotiate.
Six of last year's seven arbitration-eligible Tigers reached agreements on one-year contracts just before the deadline to exchange numbers, including Avila, Jackson and Porcello. The one Tiger who didn't, Scherzer, settled just before a hearing in February, keeping Detroit's record perfect for another year.
The goal is to avoid a hearing once again. The either/or setup of an arbitration hearing is a major game of financial risk, which is why many teams have followed the trend and avoided a hearing at nearly all costs. This year, however, might be Detroit's toughest yet to reach that goal.
The Tigers avoided arbitration with two other eligible players, reliever Phil Coke and utility man Don Kelly, before last month's deadline for tendering players a contract. A non-tender was never an option with the remaining six.
Avila, Jackson and Porcello are eligible for arbitration for a second time, and all will draw raises from the deals they reached last year around this same point. The question will be how large the raise.
Avila, who turns 27 later this month, is coming off his worst offensive season since taking over regular catching duties in 2011, batting .227 with 11 home runs, 47 RBIs and a .693 OPS in 2013. Those stats, however, came from two vastly different half-seasons. Avila hit .303 with an .876 OPS after the All-Star break before struggling in the postseason, and he's expected to catch a heavy workload out of Opening Day in 2014 as the Tigers hope to get more of last season's stretch-run form out of him.
Jackson also turns 27 just ahead of Spring Training, and also is coming off a relative down year, having batted .272 with 30 doubles, 12 home runs and 49 RBIs in 2013. However, he's the cornerstone of the Tigers' outfield and is expected to play a crucial role in Detroit's revamped lineup, whether he continues to bat leadoff or moves down in the order with Ian Kinsler now on board.
Porcello, meanwhile, enjoyed his best all-around season since his rookie campaign of 2009, from a 4.32 ERA to a 1.28 WHIP ratio. With Doug Fister traded to Washington, the 25-year-old Porcello is expected to move up in the rotation to a bigger role, just behind the vaunted trio of Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez.
The most intriguing arbitration case, however, will be Scherzer, who hits arbitration for a third and final time coming off an American League Cy Young Award-winning season. His 21-3 record was the best from a Major League starter since Roger Clemens in 2001, but it only told part of his success. His 214 1/3 innings, 240 strikeouts, 0.97 WHIP ratio and 6.7 Wins Above Replacement all marked career highs in a season that saw him turn potential into reality at age 29.
Scherzer's status has been the Tigers' biggest question since season's end, with the opportunity looming to become the top free agent on next year's market. Whether the Tigers can find a deal to keep him in Detroit is their tallest task left. Before that, however, simply settling this year's salary could be a task in itself.
The Tigers' history under Dombrowski suggests they'll try to avoid arbitration before delving too deeply into long-term talks, though in some cases over the years, the two have gone in hand in hand. A one-year extension could then be factored into a longer-term deal if the two sides can reach one.