Tigers Take After Yankees with Big-Money, Free-Agent Spending

Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander

After losing in miserable fashion in miserable weather on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees bounced back to win the final two games of the series against the Astros. Now the Yankees leave cold New York for even colder Detroit where there’s snow in the forecast at Comerica Park.

With the Yankees in Detroit for a three-game series, Rob Rogacki of Bless You Boys joined me to talk about the contracts for Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, the free-agent spending on Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmerman and if the Tigers will return to the postseason.

Keefe: When I looked at the Tigers’ payroll for this season and $198 million, I was surprised when you consider they have lost or traded Max Scherzer, David Price, Prince Fielder and Yoenis Cespedes in the last couple years. But I admire what Mike Ilitch does with the Tigers and his willingness to spend and overspend his money to try and bring in the best players to win a championship for Detroit. Let’s take a look at some of that money.

Justin Verlander had a no-hitter going on Opening Day before eventually earning a no-decision. Verlander is coming off of an injury-plagued 20-start season last year, which came after his worst season (4.54 ERA) since 2008. He just turned 33 years old and is owed $28 million this season, $28 million in 2017, $28 million in 2018, $28 million in 2019 and a $20 million vesting option in 2020.

After watching what CC Sabathia has become over the last three years after he was a dominant ace for so long, I can relate to what Tigers fans are either going through or inevitably going to go through with Verlander.

Were you in favor of the seven-year, $180 million extension he signed three years ago?

Rogacki: There is always a certain level of concern when locking up a player for that long, especially when the Tigers were a couple years from the contract even kicking in when he initially signed the deal. However, Verlander was the best pitcher in baseball when he signed the deal, and keeping a Hall of Fame caliber player in Detroit for his entire career means more to this city than just his on-field performance.

While Verlander’s recent down-turn makes his $28 million price tag look like a payroll anchor, it hasn’t stopped Mike Ilitch from continuing to spend on payroll. I have been advocating for a couple years now that Verlander’s struggles were injury-related, and his strong finish to 2015 (and sharp debut in 2016) are reinforcing that belief. He may not be the best pitcher in baseball anymore, but Verlander is still capable of going toe-to-toe with anyone on his best day.

I’m still not sure what to expect from this Tigers team, but their first three games have been promising. We know that they will hit, especially if Victor Martinez remains as healthy as he looks so far. When healthy, this team is the most talented club in the division.

That’s the key, though. Health. The Tigers have struggled with injuries over the past couple years, and lost Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, Anibal Sanchez, and Justin Verlander to the disabled list at times last season. All four are crucial to the Tigers’ chances this season, and if they falter again, this team could once again find itself looking up at the Royals in the AL Central.

I said that the Tigers would go 85-77 on our site a week ago, and haven’t seen enough to change that prediction yet.

Keefe: When it comes to Miguel Cabrera, we’re talking about even more money. He’s owed $28 million this season and next, $30 million from 2018-2 and $32 million in in 2022-23 with $30 million club options in 2024 and 2025.

Cabrera has been the best hitter of this generation and has led the league in hitting in four of the last five years, including last year. When the Tigers signed Cabrera to the eight-year, $248 million extension two years ago, I agreed with it and I still do. If Robinson Cano could get $240 million then Cabrera is worth double that. And if you’re not going to pay Miguel Cabrera, who are you going to pay?

What were and are your thoughts on the Cabrera deal?

Rogacki: Like you said, if you’re going to give any player in the game $240 million, handing that money to one of the best hitters in our generation seems like a safe bet. Cabrera has stayed productive through a few injury-riddled seasons recently, but is coming off of his first healthy offseason since 2012-2013. As we saw on Friday, he is still one of the elite contact and power hitters in the game, capable of driving the ball to all fields. His contract is somewhat of a necessary evil, but Tigers fans have embraced him as their own, and he will be revered for decades, whether or not he eventually brings home a championship.

Keefe: Five years ago, it looked like Justin Upton might be the best young player in baseball. He hasn’t kept up that production and has fallen off a bit, but he’s still only 28 years old (he turns 29 in August).

The Tigers gave him a six-year, $132.75 million deal this offseason to be their left fielder and the fill the middle-of-the-order production they lost when they traded Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets.

What were your thoughts on the Upton deal?

Rogacki: Maybe this is a homer-ish answer, but I thought Upton’s contract was the best big-money deal signed last offseason. Not only was he a necessary move for a club that otherwise planned to start Tyler Collins in left field, but the Tigers gave him an opt-out clause after two years, a “get out of jail free” card of sorts for their payroll. While the final numbers (six years, $132.75 million) look gaudy, this will ultimately turn into a two-year, $44 million contract for a slugger in the prime of his career.

Keefe: Also this offseason, the Tigers gave five years and $110 million to Jordan Zimmermann to fill the void in the rotation left by Max Scherzer before last season and by David Price after they traded him to the Blue Jays at last year’s deadline.

Zimmermann has spent his entire seven-year career in the National League. Does giving that much money to someone who has never pitched with regularity in the American League worry you?

Rogacki: Zimmermann’s history in the National League doesn’t worry me as much as his injury history. He is the first person in baseball history to receive a $100 million contract after having Tommy John surgery, and the Tigers don’t have an opt-out clause in his deal to escape that contract.

Luckily, Zimmermann’s deal is relatively modest compared to some of the massive deals that were signed this offseason. He’s a fair margin better than Jeff Samardzija, who signed for $90 million in San Francisco, or Wei-Yin Chen, who got $80 million from the Marlins. If he can stay healthy for the entirety of his deal, the Tigers will be in great shape.

Keefe: Last season was the first since 2010 that the Tigers didn’t make the playoffs and their first losing season (74-87) since 2008. After dominating the AL Central for the last few years, it’s seemingly become the Royals’ division with everyone else jockeying for position behind them.

What are your expectations for the Tigers this season?

Rogacki: I’m still not sure what to expect from this Tigers team, but their first three games have been promising. We know that they will hit, especially if Victor Martinez remains as healthy as he looks so far. When healthy, this team is the most talented club in the division.

That’s the key, though. Health. The Tigers have struggled with injuries over the past couple years, and lost Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, Anibal Sanchez, and Justin Verlander to the disabled list at times last season. All four are crucial to the Tigers’ chances this season, and if they falter again, this team could once again find itself looking up at the Royals in the AL Central.

I said that the Tigers would go 85-77 on our site a week ago, and haven’t seen enough to change that prediction yet.

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