The Detroit Tigers find themselves at a crossroads as this offseason begins. With players like Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander — stars who can still contribute but who are on the wrong side of 30 — the Tigers’ window for contention with this group is closing. Ian Kinsler is another player who’s bound to experience age-related decline. Meanwhile, outfielder J.D. Martinez — one of the best hitters in the game over the past three years — is a free agent after 2017. All in all, it’s difficult to see this team contending beyond next year without an overhaul. Given those constraints, it makes a lot of sense to go all in next year. The aging core’s decline, along with the addition of some new free-agent signings, should make the team decent once again; a little more help would make them contenders.
However, Detroit’s practice of running with the big markets in terms of payroll and addressing weaknesses through free agency might be coming to an end. Based on what Buster Olney wrote last month, it appears as though, while everyone is technically available, that the Tigers aren’t prepared for a full rebuild. Here are some of Olney’s comments as they relate to Verlander:
But remember, the Tigers don’t want a full-blown teardown. They want to try to win next season, and Verlander was their best pitcher in 2016. (And yes, he can block any trade, and the future Hall of Famer could ask any interested team to guarantee his $22 million vesting option for 2020.)
The Tigers aren’t likely to make the playoffs next year by only half-committing to their roster, and they already have around $175 million in contract obligations. Moving Ian Kinsler or J.D. Martinez makes them worse in 2017, and if a larger and larger percentage of their payroll is allocated to declining players like Miguel Cabrera, the club isn’t any more likely to contend in 2018 and beyond. If they aren’t going all in next year — and it appears they aren’t — the quickest route to the playoffs is to tear it all down. To do that, the team needs to move Miguel Cabrera, and that might best be done by packaging him with Justin Verlander.
Justin Verlander would fit well with just about any team. He put up 5.2 WAR this past season, rebounding after a couple merely above-average seasons. Given the lack of free-agent options, he would be in high demand were he available for trade. He has three years and $84 million left on his contract — a somewhat lofty figure, yes, but not unreasonable for an ace-level pitcher. While we don’t know how the new CBA will affect free-agent prices, standard inflation would put the cost of a win this offseason at $8.5 million. If the luxury-tax cap is increased, that could free up room for spending among the wealthiest clubs and push the value as high as $9 million per win.
For the sake of argument, let’s put Verlander’s contract and a 4.5 WAR projection for next season together to find his contract’s surplus value.
|Year||Age||WAR||$/WAR||Est. Contract||Actual Contract|
|2017||34||4.5||$9.0 M||$40.5 M||$28.0 M|
|2018||35||4.0||$9.5 M||$37.8 M||$28.0 M|
|2019||36||3.5||$9.9 M||$34.7 M||$28.0 M|
|Totals||12.0||$113.0 M||$84.0 M|
Verlander also has a $22 million vesting option for 2020, but absent serious decline or injury, that option isn’t likely to hurt his appeal to interested clubs. Given the assumptions used above, Verlander offers close to $30 million in surplus value; even at $8.5 million per win, he still projects to produce more than $20 million in surplus. Despite a high salary, Verlander would command a good return should Detroit decide to move him.
Miguel Cabrera’s value is a bit murkier. He’s still owed $220 million over the next seven years, including an $8 million buyout for 2024 when Cabrera will be 41 years old. Miguel Cabrera was still incredibly productive in 2016, putting up a 152 wRC+ and a five-win season. Still, if we make the same assumptions as we did with Verlander, Cabrera’s contract comes up in the negative.
|Year||Age||WAR||$/WAR||Est. Contract||Actual Contract|
|2017||34||4.4||$9.0 M||$39.6 M||$28.0 M|
|2018||35||3.9||$9.5 M||$36.9 M||$30.0 M|
|2019||36||3.4||$9.9 M||$33.7 M||$30.0 M|
|2020||37||2.9||$10.4 M||$30.2 M||$30.0 M|
|2021||38||2.2||$10.9 M||$23.5 M||$30.0 M|
|2022||39||1.4||$10.9 M||$15.3 M||$32.0 M|
|2023||40||0.7||$10.9 M||$7.1 M||$40.0 M|
|Totals||18.8||$186.4 M||$220.0 M|
If you want to discount for present-day value, the negative $33.6 million figure here is reduced to around $14.0 million. While it might seem strange to imagine a reality in which Miguel Cabrera’s contract — given how ridiculously large it is and how many years remain on it — is somehow on par with market value, it’s important to note that it has to be evaluated in the context of how that market is changing. If revenues and free-agent contracts continue to escalate, Cabrera’s deal will look more reasonable by comparison. With all that said, if Detroit is looking both to (a) cut payroll as other teams are increasing it and still (b) contend in the near future, removing this contract from its books would certainly help.
So what can we expect from Cabrera in the future? To answer that question, I looked at comps for him, identifying 11 players over the past 50 years who, from ages 30 to 33, produced batting figures within 10 points of Cabrera’s 163 wRC+, recorded at least a 140 wRC+ in their age-33 seasons, and also produced negative defensive numbers. The list has some truly great players on it, including Willie Stargell, Jeff Bagwell, Harmon Killebrew, and Willie McCovey. Of that group, only Sammy Sosa, Frank Howard, and Ken Singleton cratered from age 34 to age 40. Most of the players approached the WAR projection for Cabrera used above, with Stargell coming in a little higher and Edgar Martinez aging as well as you could imagine, ultimately putting up 32 WAR and a 144 wRC+ in his mid- to late-30s.
It would take some bullish optimism to expect Cabrera to become Edgar Martinez, and while he is likely to hit better than most in his 30s, the length of his contract means his trade value will never be higher than it is right now. Indeed, as soon as next season, he might be untradeable. By combining him in a deal with Verlander, you create a package that could get a decent return in trade value while also removing $60 million in payroll over the next three seasons — and half that figure from 2020 to 2023, when the team would likely have little to no interest in paying Cabrera his salary. The Tigers could include some money, like they did with Prince Fielder, to net a better return and legitimate pieces for the future.
The team that might be interested in this sort of deal is one who both wants to win now and possesses a ton of money. The team should also likely be in the American League, with the designated hitter available. Out West, the Texas Rangers are a candidate to have interested in both Cabrera and Verlander, after Prince Fielder’s retirement and as Yu Darvish enters the final season of his contract. The Seattle Mariners, who might see their window closing with Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano, could add both players to make a big run in 2017. Looking East, the Yankees, now without A-Rod or his salary, could accelerate their way back to contention with the pair.
The obvious answer, however, is the Red Sox — especially considering both Dave Dombrowksi’s prior work in Detroit and his penchant for going big. Some team could make a 10-win talent jump in 2017, and that has to be enticing, even with the onerous future salary obligations. Detroit would take a big step back in 2017, but they would then be free to trade Ian Kinsler and J.D. Martinez for prospects, pay most of Victor Martinez’s salary to obtain some salary relief, and potentially trade Justin Upton or Jordan Zimmermann if they recover their value next season. Those prospects, plus cutting their salary obligations in half, could make them ready to contend by 2019 — or perhaps even 2018 — with a return to a healthy payroll and a division without any looming powerhouses.
Rebuilding or tanking or whatever you prefer to call it isn’t a fun process, but Detroit has competed at a high level for over a decade, and that’s difficult to maintain for any franchise. It might feel better to hold out hope for contention with an average squad, but the bill for that sustained contention is coming soon. Detroit might be in for an ugly, Phillies-like run for 2018 and beyond if they don’t start moving now. They might cost themselves a relatively slim shot at contention next year, but moving now could accelerate their return to contention if they are willing to give up on next season.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.