Miguel Cabrera’s Terrible and Understandable Contract

Yesterday, the Tigers agreed to make Miguel Cabrera the highest paid player in baseball history. If you look at the entirety of their future financial commitments to him as one single entity rather than two separate agreements, then this is the biggest contract in U.S. sports history. Over the next decade, the Tigers have agreed to pay Cabrera $292 million, a staggering figure for any player, and even more stunning given the context in which it was handed out. Cabrera turns 31 in less than a month. He wasn’t eligible to hit the free agent market for another two years. The contract begins with his age-33 season, and yet, without the benefit of free agency as leverage, he got more for eight years than Robinson Cano got for 10.

As you might imagine, I have a lot of thoughts about this contract. They don’t all agree with each other. So, let’s just go through the things I believe about this deal.

Point: The Tigers simply didn’t have to do this.

The Tigers already controlled Cabrera’s rights for the next two seasons, and were completely within their rights to tell him that they were going to hold off on talking about a new deal until next winter. This isn’t a young player with breakout potential whose cost could dramatically increase as he gets closer to free agency. In reality, Cabrera’s value can only really go down, given that even he likely can’t put up another 192 wRC+ season. The Tigers already paid for the rights to his 2014 and 2015 seasons, and while Cabrera might have wanted a long term commitment, they didn’t have to give him one now.

Counter Point: Deciding not to extend is a decision not to re-sign.

It’s easy to say that the Tigers could have just let Cabrera play out these final two years and then let the market tell him he wasn’t worth 8/$248M, but in practice, elite players who aren’t signed to long term extensions simply do not re-sign with their original clubs when they hit the free agent market. It just doesn’t happen.

Over the last five off-seasons, there have been 30 free agent contracts signed with a total value of $50 million or more. Of those 30 free agent contracts, exactly one — Derek Jeter — re-signed with the team that passed on giving him an extension before he got to free agency. Every other premium free agent changed teams, and realistically, we could argue that Jeter wasn’t really a premium free agent after the 2010 season, landing a $56 million guarantee only because of his history with the Yankees.

There’s just no recent example of a team telling a superstar that they weren’t interested in a pre-free agent extension and still managing to keep that player around. Not extending Cabrera would have simply been a decision to let Cabrera leave after the 2015 season and finish his career with another team. It is incompatible with the facts to suggest that the Tigers could have let him play out his contract and then re-signed him once they had more time to evaluate how well he had started to age. It doesn’t happen. Players who are not offered extensions don’t stick around. If the Tigers told Cabrera that they’d negotiate with him in two years, history strongly suggests he would not have stayed in Detroit. If they wanted to keep him beyond 2015, they had to give him an extension at some point before he reached free agency.

Point: This second half of this contract is going to be a disaster for the Tigers.

As good as Miguel Cabrera is now, the history of big heavy guys in their mid-to-late 30s is almost universally awful. Guys the size of Miguel Cabrera just don’t age well, as their bodies begin to betray them and they spend significant periods of time on the disabled list. We may already be seeing the beginnings of Cabrera’s physical decline, and his September performance was a reminder of how human a superstar can be at less than 100%.

Even with the move back to first base and the ability to DH if need be, Cabrera is unlikely to remain a full time, everyday player for the length of his contract. Even if the hitting skills don’t diminish, the durability will, and the latter portion of Frank Thomas‘ career — 400 to 500 good but not elite plate appearances per year — should be a realistic expectation for Cabrera during his new deal. He might not even lose his natural ability to hit a baseball, but it’s hard to earn $30 million per year from the disabled list.

Counter Point: Mike Ilitch probably doesn’t care much about the long term ramifications.

The Tigers owner is 84 years old. We can talk all we want about the folly of signing Cabrera through his age-40 season, but perhaps more relevantly, the Tigers just signed Cabrera through Ilitch’s age-93 season. Without being too morbid, I think you can make a pretty solid case that an 84 year old should put a very low value on what will happen 10 years into the future. If anyone should place a significant value on the present at the expense of the future, it is the age bracket to which Mr. Ilitch belongs. As they say, you can’t take it with you, and no one is going to throw a huge parade honoring his late career fiscal responsibility.

If he wants to see the team win a World Series while he’s alive, letting Miguel Cabrera walk is a poor decision. This move is almost certainly destructive to the organization’s long term future, but it probably isn’t very destructive to Mike Ilitch’s long term future, and he’s the guy holding the checkbook.

Counter Counter Point: Team owners should act as organizational stewards, not self interested overlords.

The Tigers franchise will not pass with Mr. Ilitch, so there’s a very decent chance that he has simply spent someone else’s future money to help improve his own odds of seeing the team win a World Series. He’s within his rights to do so, and no one is going to shy away from buying a hugely profitable Major League franchise simply because of one large liability on the books, but there’s an ethical argument to be made that owners have a duty to protect the franchise’s best interests even if they aren’t aligned with their own personal best interests.

While buying a team gives you the ability to use it as your own personal toy, professional sports franchises aren’t really private entities; they exist for the shared enjoyment of many. And the city of Detroit and Tigers fans everywhere are going to pay a toll due to this decision. This contract may make all the sense in the world for an elderly owner, but that doesn’t make it the right move for the franchise, and if one believes than an owner should act as a steward for the organization, than this contract is still irresponsible even if it’s rational for Mr. Ilitch to sign it.

Point: The Tigers are rich, so they don’t need to worry about spending money as efficiently as possible.

The Tigers have an estimated 2014 payroll of around $160 million, so they certainly do not have to operate on the same kind of budget as teams like the A’s. They have a new TV contract coming, and the sport as a whole is flooded with cash, so even with this contract, it’s not like the Tigers financial solvency is being threatened. Part of the value of having a big budget is that it allows you to overpay for great players without it crippling the franchise. The Giants won two World Series titles with Barry Zito on the books, after all. As long as they keep running up payrolls of $150+ million, having one bad $30 million contract on the books won’t kill them.

Counter Point: Funds are never unlimited; wasting resources is never helpful.

Even with their $160 million payroll, the Tigers are going into Opening Day with Rajai Davis in left field and some combination of Alex Gonzalez or Andrew Romine at shortstop. The Tigers have two glaring needs to upgrade, and yet are still passing on available quality veterans due to concerns about their cost. There is no such thing as a team that simply has so much money that salary is not a prohibitive restriction to adding talent. The Dodgers have the most expensive roster in baseball history and are starting a replacement level scrub at second base. The Yankees are the Yankees and boast an infield that might not be better than the Astros.

Money is always a constraint, and the money that the Tigers have just spent on an aging Cabrera will be money that can’t go to other players to fill other needs. There’s always an opportunity cost to signing a player, and if that player doesn’t produce enough value to justify his salary, it is detrimental to the franchise. Even rich franchises. Having Miguel Cabrera is great until having Miguel Cabrera is why you also have Alex Gonzalez.

Point: This contract is a ridiculous overpay.

The point of a pre-free agent extension is that a team gets a discount in exchange for taking away the player’s risk of injury before he gets a chance to land a big contract in free agency. By giving Cabrera the equivalent of 10/$292M when he was two years away from free agency, the Tigers are implicitly arguing that his open market value this winter would have been something more along the lines of $325 to $350 million.

There’s no reasonable justification for that valuation, not when Robinson Cano topped at $240 million and only had a single bidder over $175M. One can rationally prefer Cabrera to Cano, but there’s no way that Cabrera is 30% to 40% more valuable. Or, to put things into the Tigers own valuation formula, there’s no reasonable argument that Cabrera is twice as valuable as Max Scherzer, even though their final offer to him was less than half of what they have now committed to Cabrera. If the Tigers are lucky, they’ll end up paying something like $9 million per win over the life of Cabrera’s deal, and that’s including the two years that they already had under control. If they really wanted to throw this kind of money around, they simply could have done better than signing up for Cabrera’s entire decline phase.

Counter Point: There isn’t one. This deal is a ridiculous overpay.

I understand why the Tigers wanted to keep Miguel Cabrera around for the rest of his career. He’s going to go into the Hall of Fame as a Tiger, and he’ll be remembered as one of the greatest players to ever wear the Detroit uniform. It’s hard to let those guys leave. The Cardinals are pretty happy they let Albert Pujols go, though, and in a few years, the Tigers will wish they had let Cabrera go too.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Emcee Peepants
8 years ago

They must have seen how well this worked out for the Phillies and Ryan Howard and just couldn’t help themselves.

Well-Beered Englishman
8 years ago
Reply to  Emcee Peepants

On the one hand, Miguel Cabrera is and always has been a much better player than Ryan Howard.

On the other hand, …yeah, you’re still pretty much right.

8 years ago

I think you could argue that the first half of this contract will pay Cabrera appropriately, and the second half will be as bad as Howard’s contract.

8 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy

they can always send him to the Rangers if it doesn’t work out.

8 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy

It won’t only be “as bad” as Howard’s contract, it will be much much worse.

You Fools
8 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy

Once he’s not worth it, Detroit will just start spiking his coffee with PEDs and get the rest of the deal voided.

8 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy

I don’t think much can get worse than the Howard contract. At least our doubt over Miggy is over his conditioning and aging. If he stays healthy there’s a chance he’s worth most of it.

I wouldn’t take that bet, but it’s still drastically better odds than the Howard contract everyone knew would turn out disasterous.

Brad Johnsonmember
8 years ago
Reply to  Emcee Peepants

That was my immediate reaction – this is the Ryan Howard signing except with an actually good player.

Tony Starks
8 years ago
Reply to  Brad Johnson

Ok at this point the Howard lines are getting a little tired. Yes, it was an awful contract and an awful baseball decision, but Howard was a very good player when it was signed.

In the four years before the contract was signed, he averaged .278 /.379 /.589 with 50 Hrs per year and 4 WAR/year.

8 years ago
Reply to  Tony Starks

Cabrera’s last four years have averaged .337/.425/.612 and 7 WAR per year. The difference between Howard’s peak and Cabrera is literally *another* good player.

So his point may have been something like, assuming some decline, Cabrera will *still* be a good player. Howard would (and did) turn to average and then below average.

Brad Johnsonmember
8 years ago
Reply to  Tony Starks

Per the things that we care about here at FanGraphs, Howard really was not a good player when he signed his extension. He was a playable player if that player was cheap (like Chris Carter), but that’s it. From a pure valuable standpoint, he wasn’t extendable.

Per things generic fans care about, he might have been a good player. Fans like the razzle dazzle of big HR and RBI more than the weighted run value of a player’s entire season. They don’t care if he’s playing an easy defensive position. They might care if he can’t hit left handed pitching.

Albert Pujols
8 years ago
Reply to  Emcee Peepants

Sounds good to me.

Mike Trout
8 years ago
Reply to  Albert Pujols

Thank you Miggy, thank you.

Brad Johnsonmember
8 years ago
Reply to  Mike Trout

Or not?