Mike Ilitch Gives His Money to Justin Upton

The first of them cracked. Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes remained on the free-agent market, and all around the league, teams indicated they didn’t want to make the necessary commitments. The players wanted five or six or seven years. The teams wanted to give one or two or three. It was enough to make you think there could maybe be a potential bargain, but the market just doesn’t turn out like that. More often than not, a team gives in, and few should be surprised the team that gave in Monday was the Tigers. As always, all Mike Ilitch wants is to win. He’ll now get to watch his team try to win with Upton every day in left field.

The agreement is for six years and a little over $130 million, with Upton also having the opportunity to opt out two years in. That’ll give Upton the chance to hit the market again at the same age that Cespedes is now, and as we’ve written so many times, the opt-out clause has good value to the player. But at the same time, this is the Tigers — Ilitch’s Tigers. On one hand, Ilitch makes these analyses complicated. On the other hand, you could argue they couldn’t be simpler. Upton’s a good player. Ilitch was willing to pay for a good player.

I got into this a little bit the other day when discussing Peter Angelos, Chris Davis, and Davis’ new contract. A contract can only ever really be evaluated when there are limits. When there aren’t limits, salary basically doesn’t matter. Contract terms don’t matter. Our evaluations are at least in part about efficiency, operating under the assumption teams want to be efficient. When teams don’t think about the money very much, though, it can make you feel silly for worrying. Not that there are many teams for whom money is disposable, but here’s Ilitch after the earlier Jordan Zimmermann signing:

At age 86, he still wants to win, and he’s still pushing to do it.

“That’s all I think about,” Ilitch said. “It’s something that I really want. I want it bad. We’re doing everything we can to make sure we get as many of the best ballplayers out there.”


“This year, I like the way Al and [manager Brad Ausmus] are going after everything,” Ilitch said. “I’m telling them, ‘You have to go out and get me the best players. I don’t care about the money. I want the best players, and that’s it.'”

What is there to do, then, other than observe that the Tigers had a hole in left field, and now they don’t, because they signed a good left fielder? Obviously we’re not in a situation where the money is irrelevant, and there’s no telling how much longer the Tigers are going to operate in this way, but for now, the owner is willing to pay for what the team needs. It makes the problems seem less problematic. It makes it sound like, down the road, the Tigers might be willing to just spend their way out of any tricky situations. It’s as good a solution as any.

Now, you can’t easily spend your way out of where the Tigers might be headed. Every time someone writes about the Tigers, they have to talk about the massive future commitments, and they have to talk about the relatively thin farm system. It’s true that the Tigers’ future looks decidedly less bright than the Cubs’ future does. You need to have those prospect reinforcements, because they’re just not widely available. But at least last season, in a down year, the Tigers did well to bring in some promising youth. And for all the Tigers’ potential problems, Upton doesn’t really look that much like an albatross. He’s four days younger than J.D. Martinez. Upton shouldn’t yet be considered part of the problem.

Here’s where we are now: with Upton, the 2016 Tigers don’t seem a whole hell of a lot worse than anybody else in the American League Central. Upton plugs what had been a hole, and the team obviously addressed the rotation with Zimmermann and the bullpen with a number of guys. Ilitch should at least see a better season, that could be a division-winning season, and 2017 shouldn’t look too much worse with no one critical coming off the books. That’s the locked-in Upton window, before the opt-out, and it’s not every day you get to sign a high-profile free agent still in his 20s.

Last week, Dave drew a parallel or two between Cespedes and Adrian Beltre. I think there’s a different parallel between Upton and Beltre, at least the Beltre from a few years ago — both these players were pretty good, but they felt like disappointments, given expectations and prior achievements. It’s easy to focus on the ceiling that Upton has only brushed, but he isn’t a defensive liability, he’s stayed mostly healthy, and he has a career 121 wRC+. The last three years, he’s been as good a hitter as Adrian Gonzalez. Upton is an important player, even if he’s not always a great player, and that makes him a good fit. He’s powerful, and he’s not a free-swinger.

There’s also a neat little park factor here. I won’t begin to pretend this was a factor in Detroit’s Upton acquisition, but, take Ian Kennedy. Kennedy signed with the Royals, and he’s demonstrated some hard-contact tendencies. The Royals think he’ll be a good fit for the defense and ballpark, because the defense can flag down liners, and the ballpark can contain some deep flies. All right, now, Upton has demonstrated a strikeout-proneness. He’s whiffed about a quarter of the time for his career, but Detroit has the most strikeout-suppressing environment, by our numbers. It’s a difficult factor to figure out, but the park has reduced strikeouts, without meaningfully reducing homers or walks. It’s a small thing, but it’s a thing. Upton could start making a little more contact.

As a last point, I want to get into a bit of the unknown. When we’ve talked about opt-out clauses, we’ve talked about their player-friendliness. It can be hard to make an opt-out look friendly for a team. But Upton and Cespedes lingered on the market for a while — Cespedes is still out there — and with both of them, there’s talk about makeup concerns. I don’t personally know if they’re valid, but something we haven’t talked about enough is potential motivation. We can’t do anything to really study it, yet maybe this way, the Tigers expect better production than they might’ve had they given Upton a straight-up six-year deal. There’s that allure of the free market again, and the Tigers’ whole focus is on the next two seasons. An opt-out clause can be only so motivating when it’s already basically an expensive player option, yet this is one more twist to the opt-out-clause conversation. Maybe this increases the likelihood of Upton playing near his best.

It is easy to get yourself lost here. There’s so much to talk about you can stray from what’s important — Upton’s a flawed player on what’s still a flawed team, and the opt-out means the Tigers are carrying the potential long-term downside. That’s nothing new for them, and this doesn’t help that picture, and the new youth probably isn’t enough on its own. Especially if Daniel Norris doesn’t develop, and if Shane Greene doesn’t bounce back. The way I figure, though, much of what was troubling was preexisting. The Upton contract isn’t throwing too much money at an aging player. It’s throwing money at a good player, at a reasonably young player, and the person whose money it used to be doesn’t care what happens to it so long as some wins can follow. Mike Ilitch is a man on a mission, dammit, and the mission can’t last forever, yet it’s still going now. The bleak future is still a bleak future. The Tigers still need to prepare for lean times. That’s just a secondary concern. For Ilitch, I can’t imagine it’s any concern at all.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
output gap
8 years ago

When Ilitch passes away it’s likely that his estate will get to write down the value of the Tigers by some amount of dead money. Since Ilitch has an enormous embedded capital gain, this is kind of like estate planning.