You can’t blame Mike Ilitch for wanting to win. The 85-year-old pizza magnate has owned the Detroit Tigers franchise since 1992 but has seen just eight winning seasons, half of which have come in the last four seasons. His franchise is starved for another championship; the loyal fanbase in Detroit has waited more than 30 years for a World Series title.
So what was his solution? Throw money at the problem.
Over the past few years, Ilitch and Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski have gained the reputation of spending big to win ASAP. Since the beginning of the 2008 season, the Tigers have had top 10 team payrolls each season, and have been in the top five in six of those years. Among the contracts that the Tigers have taken on since 2008 include:
- Up to eighteen years of Miguel Cabrera’s services for just over $300 million in base pay, and potentially $60 million more
- A total of up to 11 years and $220 million for Justin Verlander
- Five years and $80 million, with a $16 million club option for Anibal Sanchez
- Four years and $68 million for aging designated hitter Victor Martinez
- Nine years and $214 million for Prince Fielder, to whom the Tigers will be paying a total of $150 million from 2016 through 2020 following his trade to the Texas Rangers
These contracts have brought in and kept some of the best players in baseball – stars that a team can build around. These contracts also become burdensome once a player begins to show signs of wear and regression. Contracts like Verlander’s seven-year, $180 million deal and Cabrera’s eight-year, $248 million deal are signed when the player is in his prime and providing the most value to a team. As the players age, develop injuries that suddenly take longer to heal (see Verlander’s core muscle, or Cabrera’s legs), and begin to slow down, their values decrease and the money gets tied up into paying former stars on their falls from glory. It’s at this point that teams like the Tigers cannot unload these contracts, better players are harder to sign without the financial flexibility, and the team begins to struggle.
This is where the Detroit Tigers currently reside.
To their credit, the Tigers have been one of the most successful teams in Major League Baseball since the start of the 2011 season, winning 366 games as of the start of the 2015 season. All four seasons resulted in playoff appearances, including a World Series appearance in 2012.
But none of those appearances ended with a parade down Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit. For a team with the star power that they possessed, not winning a championship meant that they failed as a team. Their best shot came in 2012 when Cabrera became the first hitter to win the Triple Crown since 1967, Fielder hit 30 home runs and posted his only .300 batting average, and Verlander led the league in strikeouts and ERA+ while finishing second in Cy Young Award voting. But after defeating the New York Yankees to win the American League pennant, the heavily favored Tigers were swept by the San Francisco Giants. Their strategy was to spend big to win big, and it had failed.
So Ilitch and Dombrowski doubled down. They re-signed Sanchez, inked Torii Hunter to a two-year, $26 million deal, and signed Verlander to his $180 million extension. After losing to the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS in the 2013 postseason, the Tigers gave Cabrera the richest contract in baseball history at the time, traded Fielder for Ian Kinsler, and traded for David Price midway through the season. Another failure – this time a first-round sweep at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles.
The theme here is that throwing money at the problem has not worked.
Now, the Tigers are stuck watching the likes of Alfredo Simon, Shane Greene, and (until recently) Joba Chamberlain try to bring Detroit back to the promised land. The Tigers offense has done its job for the most part, with Cabrera hitting .350 to lead the league, Jose Iglesias and J.D. Martinez making their first All-Star team, and Yoenis Cespedes providing some pop in the middle of the order. However, outside of Price and Joakim Soria, the pitching staff has been mediocre at best. As a result, the team sits at 44-44 at the All-Star break, nine games back of the Kansas City Royals and 3.5 games out of the second wild card spot.
Meanwhile, the Tigers farm system is ranked as one of the worst in the league with few glimmers of hope waiting in the wings. No “next in line” top-flight starter is in their system, no future face of the franchise is waiting to be called up – and the worst part about it is that likely won’t change anytime soon.
The reason is two-pronged: finding a team to take one or some of the Tigers’ massive contracts of their hands is highly unlikely, and the front office is too obstinate to find out. Barring another Fielder-Kinsler deal, finding a trade partner for a contract like Sanchez’s or Victor Martinez’s will be difficult, as teams don’t typically look for long-term solutions at the trade deadline. It’s not even worth mentioning moving Verlander or Cabrera. It’ll never happen.
But some Tigers could find themselves elsewhere by August. Heading up to the July 31 trade deadline, the Tigers could move Cespedes, Soria, or even Price – but that’s if the front office wants to. Dombrowski has stated several times in recent weeks that he believes the Tigers are still in contention and can once again reach the playoffs, meaning the likelihood that one or more of the aforementioned trade chips leaves is small. Keeping these players for the rest of the season means that the rebuilding process of the minor leagues can’t begin, and the cycle of throwing money at the problem continues.
The time has come for Ilitch and Dombrowski to admit defeat and start anew. As their aging stars continue to command absurdly large paychecks, gambles like Simon, Greene, Chamberlain, etc. will continue to roll into the clubhouse. Some may pay off – look at J.D. Martinez and Iglesias – but until the contracts of Cabrera, Verlander, Kinsler, Fielder, Sanchez, and Victor Martinez come off the books, the Tigers front office will be almost entirely dependent on their stars to carry the team well past their primes.
After four years of strong baseball without a World Series title, the Tigers’ run may be at its end, its window for bringing a championship back to the Motor City closing. But the residual effects of the contracts offered by Ilitch and Dombrowski and the money paid to eventual fallen stars may very well linger throughout the rest of the decade in the form of mediocrity and missed playoffs.
Detroit Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski stated earlier in the week that bringing designated hitter Victor Martinez back to Detroit was his “top priority.”
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.
The Tigers are coming off of a somewhat disappointing season, in which they failed to run away with the AL Central division like they were expected to do all season. Although they eventually wound up in the AL Championship Series, the Tigers barely made it past the Oakland Athletics in the AL Division Series, only to have the bullpen fall apart in the late innings.
The expectation for the Tigers in 2013 was to win the World Series, and they failed to do so. Most of the pieces were there, but clutch hits and a solid bullpen eluded them when they were needed most.
Heading into 2014, those expectations will remain the same: World Series or bust. Two-time reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera has had an entire offseason to recover from his abdominal surgery, and the pitching staff once again features three potential aces in Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, and 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer. Combine that with a new and improved bullpen, and you have a team primed for another late postseason run.
The Tigers finished the 2013 season with 93 victories and an American League Central crown. They rallied to knock off a pesky Oakland Athletics team in the ALDS, and hung with the eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox in the ALCS. For just about any other team, 2013 would have been a rousing success, and a source of optimism for years to come.
Just not for the Detroit Tigers.
After hitting three home runs in Yankee Stadium over the weekend (including two off of Mariano Rivera, the best closer of all time), Detroit Tigers’ third baseman Miguel Cabrera upped his home run total for 2013 to 36. As of the morning of August 12, Cabrera sits six long balls behind the Orioles’ Chris Davis for the American League lead. With a commanding lead in batting average (.365–Mike Trout is next at .330), and the slimmest of leads in RBI (110 to Davis’ 109), Cabrera has a legitimate chance to capture his second consecutive Triple Crown–a first in Major League Baseball.
Let’s put this in a bit of perspective. According to Baseball-Reference.com, 89,929 batters have played Major League ball since 1871. Of those nearly 90,000, only 14 players have led their respective league in batting average, home runs, and RBI in the same season. Of those 14, two have accomplished the feat twice (Rogers Hornsby in 1922, 1925 and Ted Williams in 1942, 1947). With a second Triple Crown win this season, Cabrera would become the first do ever do so in consecutive seasons, capping off two of the best offensive seasons in baseball history. And as it turns out, this season’s Triple Crown would be one of the best ever.
ESPN projects that based on Cabrera’s current stats and averages, the Tigers’ third baseman would complete the season with a .365 batting average, 50 home runs, and 154 RBI. If Cabrera were to overtake Davis for the home run lead, and claim his second consecutive Triple Crown, here is where those numbers would rank among all Triple Crown-winning seasons:
.365 BA: 8th of 17. While the number appears to be middle-of-the-road, keep in mind that four Triple Crowns were won with a batting average above .400, and Cabrera’s 2013 mark would be the highest AL Triple Crown-winning batting average since Ty Cobb’s mark of .377 in 1909.
50 HR: 2nd of 17. Only three players have hit more than 44 HR in a TC-winning season, and only Mickey Mantle of the 1956 Yankees topped 50, swatting 52 in his Triple Crown campaign. Cabrera would sit in second place, one ahead of Lou Gehrig in 1934, two ahead of Jimmie Foxx in 1933, and six ahead of his own mark in 2012.
154 RBI: T-3rd of 17. Only four Triple Crown seasons have hit 150 RBI as the high-water mark, and none have done so since Joe Medwick for the 1937 St. Louis Cardinals had 154 to lead the National League. Cabrera’s pace would put him in a tie with Medwick for 3rd place, 11 RBI behind Lou Gehrig’s 165 in 1934 for best all time.
Even though Cabrera is on pace for one of the greatest offensive seasons in baseball history, it is worth noting that Triple Crowns don’t always translate into World Series rings. In the 13 seasons in which a player won a Triple Crown in the World Series era, only Mickey Mantle with the 1956 Yankees and Frank Robinson with the 1966 Baltimore Orioles have gone on to win it all. That said, it never hurts to have the Triple Crown winner in the middle of the lineup.
Miguel Cabrera is already the best hitter on the planet right now. Winning a second consecutive Triple Crown would cement his legacy as one of the greatest of all time.
Many years after his father ruled the field in Detroit, Prince Fielder has returned to play first base for the Detroit Tigers. The power-hitting first baseman signed a 9-year $214 million contract on Tuesday, giving the Tigers one of the most formidable offenses in the Major Leagues. What does this mean for Detroit next season? What about after? Read more…