Tigers overpay Sanchez in title quest

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Anibal Sanchez has a contract that is nearly identical to the one teammate Justin Verlander is pitching under. (AP)

Anibal Sanchez has a contract that is nearly identical to the one teammate Justin Verlander is pitching under. (AP)

The American League’s most aggressive owners -- Arte Moreno with the Angels and Mike Illitch with the Tigers -- have each made huge, risky acquisitions in consecutive days. While Los Angeles’ courtship of outfielder Josh Hamilton came out of the blue, Detroit's retention of righthanded starter Anibal Sanchez was expected, though still shocking for its scope.

The Tigers signed Sanchez for five years and $80 million on Friday morning, according to a report by USA Today, to keep the man who made three quality postseason starts as Detroit reached last year’s World Series. He only went 1-2, though through little fault of his own, as he yielded just four runs in 20 1/3 innings (1.77 ERA).

Sanchez, who was acquired at the deadline from the Marlins, was a combined 9-13 last season with a 3.86 ERA in 195 2/3 innings, the third straight season he has thrown between 195 and 200 innings. In the five seasons he’s made more than 10 starts, his ERA has always been below 4.00, but only his rookie season was below 3.50.

In other words, almost every year you can count on almost the same above-average performance from Sanchez. But his new deal pays him like an elite starter -- at least as a No. 2, even though his production is more like a No. 3. Such is the cost of business in this market affected by inflation and diminished supply.

In fact, Sanchez’s contract figures are eerily similar to a group of more established, high-end starters who received comparable contracts in recent seasons. A.J. Burnett, John Lackey and C.J. Wilson all signed equivalent deals as free agents, and each was thought to be about a No. 2 starter at the time. Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver also signed similar contracts, and while each is more of a No. 1, none was a free agent at the time of signing.

Certainly there’s an implied disclaimer of past performance not guaranteeing future results -- look no further than Verlander, who had a poor 2008 and a very good 2009 before signing his extension, and of course by the second year of his contract developed into the game’s best starter.

As you can see, Sanchez’s ERA+, which is ERA adjusted for league and ballpark so that 100 is average, is the weakest of the lot, though he was two years younger than any of the pitchers who signed as free agents.

It’s probably an overpay -- though that’s generally been true of every free-agent deal this winter -- but Illitch is desperate for a ring and this move makes his rotation and his team better.

-- By Joe Lemire