DETROIT -- The Tigers had no interest in free-agent starter Zack Greinke. His new contract, on the other hand, was always a major interest for them, just as it was for Anibal Sanchez and Justin Verlander.
Now that Greinke has a deal, the rest of the free-agent market is left to follow. With Sanchez widely seen as the next-best starter available, he becomes the next target, and he now has a comparison contract. Meanwhile, the Tigers' offseason-long interest in keeping their Trade Deadline acquisition reaches a decisive point.
The belief going into last week's Winter Meetings was that a Greinke deal with the Dodgers would be good for the Tigers, because it would take this offseason's most aggressive spenders out of the market for Sanchez. The other potential suitors seemingly don't have the financial might that the Dodgers do with new television money coming.
Now that Greinke is a Dodger, however, it's no longer a safe assumption that Los Angeles will stop there. Though the Dodgers added another starter Sunday by reaching an agreement with South Korean left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu, creating a surplus of starters on Los Angeles' staff, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reported that the Dodgers could have interest in Sanchez and/or fellow free-agent righty Kyle Lohse. Whether that interest has a financial limit remains to be seen as the Dodgers' payroll reaches new heights, but if they're interested, they're going to be a major factor that might force Detroit to make a very difficult decision.
A more serious suitor could be the Rangers, if they want to make a pitch for Sanchez after losing out on Greinke. Their need for starting help is more tangible. So, too, could some other teams looking to make a front-line boost to their rotation.
Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski has kept his comments limited on Sanchez lately, other than to say they made their intentions clear at the start of the offseason. That was when Dombrowski said Detroit would like to re-sign him. The only major move the Tigers have made since then was the signing of Torii Hunter to a two-year contract.
Greinke's contract didn't get into the $160 million territory that had been rumored, but it still ranks as the highest average annual salary for a right-handed pitcher. CC Sabathia still holds the overall pitching mark at just under $25 million per year.
Sanchez isn't seen in that class, but Greinke's contract will still have a major impact. Sanchez is just four months younger than Greinke, but he has about 600 fewer Major League innings of wear and tear. The Tigers have never signed a pitcher to a contract as long as what Greinke is getting, but rumors were percolating before Greinke's deal that Sanchez could seek as long as a six-year contract.
If Sanchez leaves Detroit, the Tigers aren't expected to chase another free agent to replace. With Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly filling out the rotation, Detroit's pursuit is more about Sanchez than the rotation spot. Part of the reason the Tigers have invested so much in young pitching over the years is to avoid having to pay inflated prices for second-tier free-agent starters.
Never has that philosophy paid off better than with Justin Verlander, who blossomed from the second overall pick in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft into arguably baseball's best starter over the past two years. He was just a vote or two shy of back-to-back American League Cy Young Awards, and he became the first pitcher in his generation to win league MVP honors.
Verlander's time to capitalize on the market, however, is about to arrive. He's two years away from free agency, potentially hitting the open market in his early 30s. Verlander is eight months older than Greinke, and he has more innings, but he has done far more with them.
If the Tigers are going to sign Verlander to a long-term extension, their best chance might be this winter. The traditional thinking in the industry is that when a top starter gets a year away from free agency, it's easier to wait for the open market and take the risk of an injury. It made sense three years ago, when Verlander signed his current five-year, $79.5 million contract while two years away from free agency.
Again, Dombrowski has kept his comments limited on Verlander, other than to state the obvious that they'd like to keep him a Tiger for a long time. Moreover, owner Mike Ilitch loves having superstar players on his team, and Verlander is a homegrown superstar.
Max Scherzer, too, is two years out from the open market. He doesn't have nearly the resume, but he's coming off the best season of his career (though 2010 is close on the secondary numbers). Scherzer also has Scott Boras, an agent who eschews long-term contracts before a pitcher hits the open market.