On Monday, Mike Ilitch and the Detroit Tigers made their second free agent signing worth over $100 million this offseason, signing Justin Upton to a six year, $132.75 million deal which equates to 4,425,000 Hot-N-Ready Little Caesars pizzas per season. In addition to Jordan Zimmermann, who was brought in for five years and $110 million, the Tigers already had Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander signed for over $100 million total with Victor Martinez and Anibal Sanchez each being paid more than $15 million per season. Despite being in a smaller market (ninth in average ticket sales in 2015), the Tigers have been spending with the best of them over the past few seasons and it doesn’t look like there will be a respite anytime soon.
The reasoning behind this is fairly obvious. In a normal situation, a team in the situation the Tigers were going into 2015 should have been looking to compete one more time, then rebuild and that is exactly what former GM Dave Dombrowski was planning on doing. With the base of Verlander and Cabrera, it wouldn’t have to necessarily be a full blow it up and start over rebuild, but they definitely needed to get younger and spend a few years out of contention to make the most of the final years of the Cabrera deal.
This doesn’t take into account the owner, Mike Ilitch, however, or the fact that the Tigers haven’t won the World Series since 1984 and only two since 1946. Illitch purchased the team in 1992 and for awhile it seemed he didn’t care for the franchise, spending his time and money on the Red Wings, but starting in the mid-2000’s, there was a huge turnaround in player development and spending. Now at 86 years old, Ilitch is willing to spend irresponsibly and do whatever is necessary to bring that elusive world title to the Motor City.
|Total Owed in $M||2016||2017||2018||2019||2020||2021|
|If Upton Stays||$193.1||$164.4||$138.1||$111.1||$83.1||$52.1|
The chart above shows you through some of the permutations of the current Tigers contractual obligations from their guaranteed money (assuming Upton opts out), to how much they will owe if Upton does not opt out and how much they could owe if they use all options. While the number decreases significantly through time, it’s important to note that the $193.1 owed this year includes just 16 players (including $6 million to Prince Fielder to play for Texas) with the other ten roster spots needing to be filled by league minimum players.
Another aspect of future salaries is that while all arbitration eligible players except J.D. Martinez have been signed already for this season (he’s assumed to make $6 million for this exercise as that is the lowest amount the Tigers could pay for him), Martinez will be joined by eight other arbitration eligible players next year and they will max out with at least 11 of those currently under team control in 2018. In order to keep these players (which include important players like Anthony Gose, Jose Iglesias, and Bruce Rondon), the Tigers will have to pay their league value in arbitration or extend them through those arbitration years. Martinez will likely be the most expensive of the group as it wouldn’t be surprising to see him win his $8 million asking price this year, make more next season, and command one of those big money deals once he hits free agency in 2018.
With all the money spent, the real question is whether it even matters. Outside of Upton and Zimmermann, the roster is essentially the same as the one that finished last in the AL Central in 2015. Fangraphs recently came out with their projections for the 2016 season and they have the Tigers finishing second with a record of 82-80 and Upton will add the two wins necessary to surpass the Indians’ projected total of 84 wins, but take these lightly. Coming off a World Series win, it is hard to imagine the Royals being a below .500 team or to think that the White Sox will be just a .500 team with a rotation headed by Chris Sale, Carlos Rodon, and Jose Quintana. This division is about as close as any since divisions came into existence, and the signing of Upton will tighten that up even more, but in the end, the Tigers will have to pay for an extra year of contention.
One reason that win projection is suspect is that it doesn’t take injuries into consideration. Victor Martinez is the player most affected by this as he missed all of 2012 due to injury and much of 2015. He is now only capable of playing DH and the 32-year old Miguel Cabrera (who only played in 119 games last year) is nearing that point as well. Since both are under control through 2018 (Cabrera guaranteed through 2023 with two vesting options) and both are being paid more than $18 million per year, they will both have to play if healthy and that will likely lead to continuing declining defense.
In general, the danger in signing any free agent is that they generally have already surpassed their prime by the time they hit free agency. It’s possible that Upton may continue at a high level of play for two seasons and opt out for more money, but it’s also possible that his skills will decline as he nears 30 and they will be stuck with him for years.
Detroit must already regret the signing of Verlander and they will still feeling the pain from this and the other signings for years to come. While it may help them win a few more games right now, it probably won’t be enough to push them into true World Series contenders and the consequences will loom large. Just think about the 2019 season when a 31-year old Upton, 36-year old Cabrera, 33-year old Zimmermann, and a 36-year old Verlander will be set to make $105.125 million between them. For reference, eleven teams spent less than $105 million on their entire team in 2015 including the Astros, Pirates, and Mets, who all made the Postseason.