Fresh off their third straight American League Central title, the Detroit Tigers have had a busy offseason, trading off a pair of key pieces from last year's team after being ousted in the ALCS.
First, they shipped Prince Fielder and $30 million to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler, a deal that will wind up saving them a total of $81 million.
They then moved right-hander Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals for a trio of players making the minimum. He wound up signing for $7.2 million to avoid arbitration, and he's set to cash in on a big free-agent deal at the end of the 2015 season.
Despite those trades, the team figures to be in a good position to defend its title thanks to the additions of Kinsler and All-Star closer Joe Nathan, as well as the arrival of top prospect Nick Castellanos. Drew Smyly will move from the bullpen to the rotation and should more than hold his own replacing Fister.
So what was Detroit's reason for dealing those two players? It would seem to be with an eye on extensions for Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera. Scherzer is set to hit free agency at the end of the upcoming season, with Cabrera signed through 2015.
For the sake of this article, we'll focus on Cabrera, who is set to make $22 million each of the next two seasons. Few would argue he's the best hitter in the game today, and the team would no doubt love to keep the 30-year-old around beyond his age-32 season.
Cabrera has yet to reach free agency in his career, as he was signed to an eight-year, $152.3 million deal by the Detroit Tigers after he was acquired from the Florida Marlins back in 2008.
From what he's said to this point, he would like nothing more than to play out his career in Detroit, according to Enrique Rojas of ESPN Deportes (Spanish) in November of last year (translated via Bless You Boys' Al Beaton):
This is the city where I want to end my career. ... Thank God, I'm fine financially. Detroit has given me many things, I signed a big contract with them. ... Actually, the money is less important in this case. What we want is to win a championship in Detroit.
His importance to the team at this point is unquestioned, but there is some risk in re-signing Cabrera to an enormous extension.
ESPN insider Dan Szymborski wrote a piece back in November (subscription required) on why an extension for Cabrera would be a bad idea. The obvious argument is that there's a good chance we've already seen the best he has to offer. At some point, likely within the next couple of seasons, he will inevitably start to decline:
He's not likely to get more expensive, given that he's at the absolute peak of his game. The next team to sign Cabrera, whether it's the Tigers or another team, doesn't get to purchase his previous six seasons, they get the right to his next six seasons.
All good things come to an end and Cabrera's star is no exception. From stars to scrubs, the after-age-30 stories tend to be one of decline as players hurtle inevitably toward retirement. The lessons of previous superstars should not go unlearned.
It's a fair argument, but it was also written before the team freed up payroll by moving the aforementioned duo. Those moves would seem to indicate that the team plans on holding on to Cabrera one way or another, and there are advantages to extending him now.
The biggest may be the fact that the Tigers have no one to deal with in negotiations right now other than Cabrera and his agent. Two years from now, there will no doubt be a number of teams vying for his services.
Cano's agent, Scott Boras, has been peddling his sales pitch through the media recently, cautioning the Yankees that allowing Cano to become a free agent after the 2013 season would be extremely risky, not to mention expensive, the implication being that he would take Cano out onto the open market, where he would no doubt draw a lot of interest.
Boras ended up being completely correct, as the Yankees made a serious push to re-sign Cano this offseason but were eventually outbid by the Seattle Mariners, who gave him a huge 10-year, $240 million deal.
Another reason to extend Cabrera now is that it would give the team a chance to rework the final two years of his current deal and in the process perhaps convince him to trim a year or two off the back end of the extension.
A six-year extension seems like a reasonable landing spot for both sides, and front-loading the deal would allow Cabrera a substantial raise in the short term and set the Tigers up to pay more for his most productive remaining seasons.
Let's take for example this proposal for a seven-year, $170 million extension, which would take effect for the upcoming season and replace the final two years of his current deal.
|Potential Contract Extension|
|Current Contract||$22 million||$22 million||Free Agent|
|Projected Contract||$30 million||$30 million||$29 million||$28 million||$27 million||$26 million|
The Detroit Tigers' current payroll sits at $157.4 million, according to MLBDepthCharts, and will likely be around $160 million once the roster is filled out with pre-arbitration players. That means they could add that extra $8 million to their 2014 payroll without approaching the $189 million luxury-tax threshold.
For Cabrera, he's making an extra $16 million over the next two years and also has the security of four more years at $110 million being tacked on to the back of his current deal.
That should still allow them enough payroll room to re-sign Max Scherzer this coming winter, though Torii Hunter ($14 million) and Victor Martinez ($12 million) also have their contracts coming off the books, and decisions will need to be made about their futures as well.
More importantly, it keeps the Tigers from committing to Cabrera beyond his age-36 season. If they wait until after the 2015 season when he becomes a free agent, there will no doubt be someone willing to give him a long-term deal.
That would put the Tigers in a position where they are either forced to let him walk or forced to commit to him later in his career.
An argument can be made that coming to terms with Max Scherzer should be priority No. 1 at this point, considering he is a free agent at the end of the upcoming season. However, there is some value to at least exploring the idea of redoing Cabrera's contract this spring and locking him up beyond 2015.