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Detroit Tigers Spending Habits Have Dangerous Precedence

Detroit Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski stated earlier in the week that bringing designated hitter Victor Martinez back to Detroit was his “top priority.”

Mission accomplished.

Martinez inked a four-year, $68 million deal on Wednesday, securing the team’s best hitter from 2014 and providing Miguel Cabrera with the lineup protection that he needs. The Martinez deal means that the middle of the Tigers lineup should remain strong through the 2018 season — even with Martinez at age 39 and Cabrera at age 35 at the conclusion of 2018.

With two aging stars, though, the major concerns obviously lie with their ability to maintain the skill level that earned them their large contracts. Major League Baseball players typically reach their peak in their late twenties, and see substantial decline by their late thirties.

However, one positive that Martinez and Cabrera have is that they play with the designated hitter and have the luxury of extending their careers as a DH. Consistently hitting without creating a defensive liability will help the Tigers get the most value out of Martinez in the next four years and Cabrera after that.

Even so, in the last two years of Martinez’s contract, the duo of Cabrera and Martinez will command a considerable amount of money from the Tigers. In 2017 the Tigers will pay the duo a combined $46 million, and $48 the following season. It’s not uncommon for two players to take up so much payroll, but the Tigers also have significant sums of money tied up in other players through 2017 and beyond. Justin Verlander will make $28 million in 2017, Anibal Sanchez will earn $16 million, and Ian Kinsler will bring in $11 million, adding up to $101 million with Cabrera and Martinez’s contracts. If Sanchez and Kinsler’s individual options are picked up for 2018, that salary number will jump to $102 million that season for just those five players.

Sound familiar? The Philadelphia Phillies employed a similar method of team-building last decade, and saw it pay off in the form of five straight National League East division titles from 2007-2011, National League pennants in 2008 and 2009, and a World Series title in 2008. Their core of shortstop Jimmy Rollins, first baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Chase Utley, and starting pitchers Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Cole Hamels were the cornerstones to their five-year run, and each earned sizable contracts as a result.

Those large contracts are now a tremendous burden to a Phillies franchise that hasn’t finished above .500 since 2011. Entering next season, Rollins, Howard, Utley, Hamels, and Lee will make a combined $93.5 million — add closer Jonathan Papelbon to that mix and their six highest-paid players will rake in $106.5 million in 2015. Consider that outside of Hamels the other five will all be at least 34 years old on Opening Day in 2015 (Hamels will be 31), and it’s becoming painfully clearer by the day that the Phillies’ strategy of high spending and a “Win Now” attitude can have dire consequences once age begins to set in.

For the Tigers, their World Series window is already beginning to close. Verlander has struggled the last two years, Cabrera has been slowed by injuries, and the team’s farm system is void of any Major League-ready reinforcements in the case of long-term injury. Dombrowski has also chosen to rely on unproven talent stepping up to fill out the bullpen and the outfield. J.D. Martinez and Rajai Davis turned into steals in the outfield in 2014, but the bullpen struggled to find an identity and effectively do their jobs. It looks as if Dombrowski will use the same strategy in 2015 with the recently acquired Anthony Gose in centerfield and low-cost options like Joel Hanrahan in the bullpen.

The Phillies have shown that the “Win Now” and spend big strategy can work , but they have also shown how damaging a series of large contracts can be once age becomes a factor. The Tigers have set themselves up to win once again in 2015, and that’s something for Ilitch and Dombrowski to be proud of. But that winning culture may not last much longer than one or two years if the Phillies are any indication of future performance.

The thing is, little of that matters to the Tigers front office at the moment. For now, the team is primed to win a fifth straight division title of their own, and bring a World Series title back to Detroit for the first time since 1984.

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