The Detroit Tigers Can’t Afford to Sell

You’ve probably heard the expression, “Don’t throw good money after bad.” Simply put, don’t waste more money on what is already a losing proposition. There might be an argument that this wisdom has some relevance to the Detroit Tigers, that the Tigers have reached the moment where it’s time to focus on the future instead of the present.

Consider: the club possesses a near-$200 million payroll but sits just three games over .500. They’re 6.5 games out in the American League Central and four games back of the second wild card. Going all-in for a shot at a one-game playoff seems like poor planning for an organization that has failed to prioritize the long-term for much of the past decade. However, with the way they have positioned themselves, the Tigers don’t have much of a choice.

It might not appear as though the Tigers’ season has gone according to plan given where they are in the standings, but in terms of reaching the playoffs, they sit not too far off from where they started the season. The chart below shows the FanGraphs playoff odds from the beginning of the season to the All-Star break for the eight American League teams with at least a 10% chance (with apologies to fans of the White Sox, Royals, and Yankees, who are not completely out of it).

chart (4)

While the Tigers appear to be the odd team out in the chart above, they would require two teams to falter a bit — while continuing to play to expectations themselves — in order to reach the playoffs. Consider that, prior to the Mets’ loss Matt Harvey for the season — and also the loss of their last three games — the team’s playoff odds were 69%, but now sit 30 points lower. Subtractions and additions to talent level can make a big difference in projections over the course of the rest of the season. If the Tigers were a truly small-market team who’d experienced some success over the years, but might benefit in the near future by reloading at the trade deadline, then a selloff might make sense. The Tigers are not that team.

Over the last decade, as Tigers’ owner Mike Ilitch’s desires for a World Series title increased, payroll has risen dramatically. The chart below shows Opening Day payroll for the Tigers since 2006, when the team reached their first World Series in over two decades.


With extensions to Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, and Victor Martinez — along with big contracts to Anibal Sanchez and Prince Fielder, which turned into Ian Kinsler and a portion of Fielder’s contract — the Tigers’ payroll continued to grow. It went up another level this offseason when the team signed Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann to $100 million contracts. The move signaled that the Tigers were all in for 2016, but with the contracts the team has on the books, the Tigers are essentially all-in for both 2016 and 2017 — and they might have already mortgaged the 2018 and 2019 seasons, too.

Last week, when I looked at teams best positioned to take on salaries at the deadline, the Tigers were right there with the Los Angeles Dodgers among the teams with the most money committed to the 2017 season. The graph below shows how much money the Tigers have committed to the next five years, per Cot’s Contracts.


The commitments do go down, but they start at roughly $175 million and don’t go under $100 million until the 2020 season. Let’s take a closer look at a few of those commitments. The players listed below are owed money through at least the 2019 season. The players’ current age and rest-of-season projections are also included.

Tigers Payroll Commitments
Age ROS WAR 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Justin Verlander 33 1.8 $28 M $28 M $28 M
Miguel Cabrera 33 1.9 $28 M $30 M $30 M $30 M $30 M
Jordan Zimmermann 30 1.3 $18 M $24 M $25 M $25 M
Justin Upton 28 1 $22.1 M $22.1 M $22.1 M $22.1 M $22.1 M
Victor Martinez 37 0.5 $18 M $18 M
TOTAL $114.1 M $122.1 M $105.10 $77.1 M $52.1 M

Last season, with David Price and Yoenis Cespedes, the Tigers were perfectly poised to sell. Among the players they received in return were Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris, two starters who could be mainstays in the rotation for several more years. The Price and Cespedes types aren’t on the Tigers this season, though. Pretty much everybody on their roster is set to return next year. Even Cameron Maybin has an option if the Tigers choose to exercise it. So in order to sell, the team must take a different tack.

The players in the chart above are pretty close to untradeable. Cabrera is actually owed money through 2023, when he’ll be 40 years old. The $200-plus million owed to him makes him virtually untradeable. Justin Upton has struggled, but if he turns things around, he still has an opt-out after 2017 at 30 years of age, limiting his value. Zimmermann just signed a free-agent deal that guaranteed a no-trade clause over the first three seasons of his deal and escalates over the last three years. Dealing Victor Martinez would require the Tigers to pay a considerable portion of his salary; even then, he wouldn’t net much for the future. Verlander might fetch something in a trade, but would still leave the Tigers with roughly $100 million devoted to future payrolls and little hope of those figures declining. Most of the players have or should produce in the near term even if the long-term prognosis might not be beneficial.

This isn’t to say the team is bereft of trade assets. J.D. Martinez and Ian Kinsler are signed through next season at reasonable rates, and Kinsler features an option for the 2018 season. Jose Iglesias is controlled through 2018 while Nick Castellanos might be in the middle of a breakout season and hits arbitration for the first time next year. Add in Daniel Norris and Michael Fulmer and the team does have guys it could sell if it wanted to go on a long-haul rebuild. However, even if they sell everybody, they are still going to run large payrolls. With only a mediocre farm system, rebuilding could take four seasons or more. However, given the list of expensive players currently producing along with the players mentioned in this paragraph, the Tigers have a decent set of players to compete now.

Miguel Cabrera’s contract is bad because it pays him $32 million in seven years, not because it is paying $28 million now. A rotation topped by Verlander, Zimmermann, Fulmer, and Norris is, at a minimum, serviceable, and it might be more than that next season. Odds are the Tigers’ window is going to shut pretty tight by the end of next season, but there aren’t any real moves that would ensure the next window opens any sooner. The Tigers have a mid-level television deal with solid attendance numbers, but continuing to spend $200 million likely isn’t an option, and even if it were, it might not yield positive results. Given the long winter that is likely coming to Detroit over the coming seasons, you could make an argument that a marginal win this season or next might be more valuable to the Tigers than just about any other team. Spending more might not be chasing bad money with good money. It might be the last time in a while the team actually has an opportunity to throw good money after good.

Almost any move the Tigers make to get better this season and next season can be justified by their difficult road ahead. While it’s not clear they have the prospects to get a big deal done, there should be some end of the rotation guys available to help them get more quality starts. This is dependent on what the trading team wants and whether the Tigers can provide it, but the name that might make the most sense is a guy whose contract runs right through the end of the Tigers competitive window at a position where the Tigers could receive the biggest upgrade over in-house options: Jonathan Lucroy.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Jason Bmember
7 years ago

The Tigers are in a tough spot – good article. Particularly in that division, there is no behemoth that is likely to run away with the division and/or spend $200MM in perpetuity for the next 3-5 years. Coming into the season you could make a reasonable case for four of the five teams winning the division, which is more than I count in any other division.

The top chart is quite an eye test! Is Detroit the orange line, the orange line, or the slightly-less-orange line? (I kid, but it is a bit hard to take in. Might help if it were interactive rather than static and you could add, highlight, or remove teams.)

7 years ago
Reply to  Craig Edwards

Thanks – any time you guys have a chart like that that’s difficult to read, you should just add that link or a similar link in there for us.

Greg Simonsmember
7 years ago
Reply to  radivel

Maybe use dashed/dotted/etc. lines for different teams.

Also, the Tigers would need two teams in that chart to falter to make the playoffs. Detroit has the seventh-highest playoff odds.