I have to admit that when the Tigers make a big free-agent signing or a trade my first thought is, "Will the team be better this coming year?" Then the next immediate question I ask myself is, "How will it affect the future of the franchise?"
As soon as I heard that the Tigers were re-signing Anibal Sanchez, I was excited since that meant the Tigers would be bringing back the same starting rotation that went to the World Series in 2012 and also help to lessen the impact of trading away the Tigers' top pitching prospect, Jacob Turner, last season.
Then, when I heard the contract numbers, I got concerned about the team's payroll and structure. Five years for $80 million is a huge amount for a third or fourth starter who has already undergone Tommy John surgery as well as had some other injuries in the past.
Sanchez pitched incredibly in the playoffs and looks to be past his injuries, but with pitchers there is no sure thing.
Detroit Tigers fans are lucky that we have such a strong team to root for, especially since we're considered a mid-market team located in the Midwest. The past few years have been exciting watching this team compete in the division and make the playoffs, but pretty soon, tough decisions will have to be made.
Luckily, Tigers management has also been shrewd in locking up the right players and making smart decisions like the Curtis Granderson trade. The fanbase was unhappy at the time with trading away such a popular and proven player, but in the three seasons since, this deal shows that the front office knows how to scout and when to let go of players.
The other big factor is owner Mike Ilitch.
Ilitch understands what the Tigers mean to the city of Detroit, has a deep love of baseball and wants to win a World Series in his lifetime. However, he's getting older and I've started hearing the obvious questions from writers about what will happen with the team payroll when he's gone. Everyone assumes that his children will take over the Tigers and Red Wings, but they may not be as accommodating with the team's large payroll or will want to sell the team altogether.
This is why the Prince Fielder deal (which I endorsed) and the Sanchez deal make me nervous.
The team's best players—Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera—have deals which are set to expire at the end of 2014 and 2015 seasons, respectively. I strongly believe both players love playing in Detroit but also see the Tigers spending a lot of money on free agents from other teams and not being inclined to offer "hometown" discounts to stay. Eventually the team will need to start asking players to accept the hometown discount and the players could resent it.
With the new local TV contracts going through the roof, the deals will keep going up, which is why the Tigers would be wise to tie up both players now rather than wait for them to get closer to free agency.
The problem is that both players will be on the wrong side of 30 and want a long-term deal. Part of the reason a mid-market team like St. Louis is so successful is that they take care of their homegrown stars, but also realize that they can't commit big dollars and long deals for players in their 30s.
Even if Verlander and Cabrera re-sign, you have to ask yourself if the Tigers will be too "talent heavy,"since players like Austin Jackson, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer will be approaching free agency and looking for their first big deal.
This scenario won't come as a surprise to the Tigers front office since they are obviously aware of each player's contract status as well as a plan for the team to stay in contention in the future. However, these would be the key moves I would make as GM to keep the Tigers in contention:
- I would hold on to Rick Porcello since he's only 23 and can still develop into a solid starter. Pitching is the No. 1 key in fielding a winning team, and most teams encounter some type of injury to a starting pitcher throughout the year. One of these days, it will click for Porcello and he'll develop a solid off-speed pitch that he'll use with confidence in games. It's also telling that other playoff capable teams are interested in him. If scouts were concerned, then interest wouldn't be as heavy.
- The next decision I would make would be very controversial and fans wouldn't be happy, but after next season I would take calls about Cabrera. I'm not saying to trade him but I would listen to every offer that comes in. He is durable, but playing third base is lot harder than playing first or designated hitter, and he would require a deal that will be worth more than Albert Pujols'. He would still be two years away from free agency and would bring in a lot of young talent and prospects, especially from big-market teams like Boston and the Dodgers. By potentially trading Cabrera, it would allow the Tigers to commit to other team-controlled players for long-term deals
- I would sign Verlander to a five-year deal as he's proven he's a true ace who can handle pitching over 200 innings a season. He's also shown how smart he is by adjusting his style from when he was younger—realizing what is needed to get outs. His competitive edge and addiction to winning will help him continue to learn to adjust his style as he ages and loses a few miles off his fastball.
- The jury is still out on whether or not to try to extend the deals for Jackson, Fister or Scherzer, as they need to show consistency before the team commits to longer term deals.
I understand that the majority of Tigers fans will disagree with my opinions so I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Feel free to reach me on Twitter at @brettkaplan.