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.
Details are still coming in, but if what everything we’ve heard is true, the Tigers have traded first baseman Prince Fielder and $30M to the Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler. The money will help Texas pay for the rest of Fielder’s contract, as he is still owed $168 in base salary.
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…