Are the Detroit Tigers Entering Their Last Hurrah as Big-Payroll MLB Franchise?

Ian Casselberry@iancassMLB Lead WriterDecember 19, 2012

Will the Tigers continue to pay for stars like Justin Verlander?
Will the Tigers continue to pay for stars like Justin Verlander?Leon Halip/Getty Images

The Detroit Tigers began this season with the fifth-highest payroll in MLB at $132,300,000. 

According to Cot's Contracts, Detroit carries three $20 million annual salaries on its player budget for 2013, with Prince Fielder set to earn $23 million, Miguel Cabrera at $21 million and Justin Verlander down for $20.1 million.

With his new five-year, $80 million contract, Anibal Sanchez will make $16 million per season. Other players slated for eight-figure salaries on the Tigers' payroll are Victor Martinez at $13 million and Torii Hunter with $12 million. 

Owner Mike Ilitch badly wants to win a World Series. Most everyone mentions Ilitch's age when speaking of his hunger for a championship, the underlying implication being that an 83-year-old man might not have much time left on this earth and wants to win before his clock runs out.

That belief gained strength when a frail-looking Ilitch accepted the American League championship trophy after the Tigers swept the New York Yankees in the ALCS. You could almost hear the thoughts being voiced out loud. How much longer does Ilitch have? The Tigers have to win for him!

Such a perceived urgency has led to the assertion—a powerful one among Tigers fans—that Ilitch will spend as much as he has to and get any player necessary to push Detroit toward an elusive World Series title. 

He showed it by signing Fielder to a $214 million contract last year. It was further demonstrated by inking Hunter to a two-year deal. Then Ilitch agreed to pay a pitcher that will be fourth in the Tigers' rotation a salary that ranks among MLB's top 20 pitchers

Those championship ambitions burn that much hotter with the Tigers coming so close to getting that trophy this season. (San Francisco Giants fans will point out that it wasn't close, since Detroit was swept. I'm referring to getting to the World Series in the first place.) 

But will the Tigers still write big checks for star players after Ilitch no longer owns the team, whether it's because he decided to sell or because he moved on to that Little Caesar's Pizza Station in the sky? 

ESPN's Buster Olney posed that question in a recent column (insider subscription necessary), pondering whether or not the Tigers' next owner will be willing to bankroll a $150 million payroll in one of MLB's mid-level markets. 

To clarify "mid-level," Forbes ranks the value of each MLB team every year. In 2012, the Tigers ranked No. 17 with a value of $478 million. But that's an increase from a No. 21 rank and $385 million value—a 24 percent increase—in 2011, so shelling out big cash for top talent has yielded some benefits. 

Tigers fans certainly appreciate Ilitch's efforts. Detroit ranked ninth in MLB team attendance this season, according to ESPN.com, drawing more than three million fans to Comerica Park.

Those that weren't taken out to the ballgame watched at home in big numbers.

According to Sports Business Journal, Tigers broadcasts on Fox Sports Detroit drew the highest average local TV rating in MLB this year. The local audience average of 168,000 homes tuning in was the third-highest figure among major league teams. (By the way, Detroit is still the 11th-ranked TV market in the United States.) 

The appetite among Tigers fans is as voracious as it's ever been. Ilitch will keep feeding the beast because of it. 

Yet the perceived narrative among national media is still that Detroit is a shambling, rusted husk of an industrial city fueled by a dying auto industry that was virtually destroyed when the economy plummeted four years ago. 

How, the question seems to be, can a crumbling metropolis possibly continue to support an MLB franchise that's spending money like a top-10 market? 

That led to rumors in 2009 started by someone at ESPN—whether it was Olney, Peter Gammons or even Bill Simmons—that Detroit's economic conditions would eventually force the Tigers to trade Cabrera. Speculation was that the future Triple Crown winner would be dealt to the Boston Red Sox

Such a notion was shot down almost immediately, spurred by resentment over the inherent belief that most MLB teams simply existed to be farm teams for East Coast powerhouses like the Red Sox and Yankees.

Detroit sports fans have always had a chip on their shoulder about being overlooked and underestimated in favor of big cities like New York. I call it The Midwest Inferiority Complex. 

While Olney's concern about the future of the Tigers in a post-Ilitch era is a valid question, I can't help but wonder if this stems from the same underlying feeling that Detroit is eventually going to crumble into the Detroit River and flow out into Lake Erie. 

One presumption that Olney seems to be making is that there will be a "next owner" after Ilitch. There's no reason to think that the Ilitch family—or more specifically, the Ilitch Holdings company—could not continue to own the Tigers.

It's possible that Ilitch's wife or children simply have no desire to be in the baseball business. Also, Crain Detroit's Bill Shea points out that Ilitch has used money from his family's other business to help fund these exorbitant player salaries in recent years. Perhaps that won't be the case once the patriarch moves on. 

The Tigers also get $40 million annually from their contract with Fox Sports Detroit. Compare that to the billions that other MLB teams are now getting from their TV deals and the Tigers obviously don't have the same revenue source to tap into. 

Yet when Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski addresses the possibility of Cabrera retiring as a Tiger, indicating that the team would like to sign him to a contract extension beyond 2015, the implication is that big contracts and massive payrolls aren't disappearing from Comerica Park in the near future. 

Something that would obviously help keep the money rolling is a World Series title. If the Tigers manage to get that championship in the next two to three seasons, Detroit's demise as a MLB powerhouse could be pushed deep into the future. 

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