March 28, 2014

The Tigers gave Miguel Cabrera an eight-year, $248-million contract extension, and though he's one of the greats, it was a bad move.
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There is a reason the Detroit Tigers just reportedly gave Miguel Cabrera an eight-year, $248-million contract extension. It isn't a good reason, and it sure isn't a logical reason, but there is a reason. I will get to that later in this column. First, two things need to be said:

1. Cabrera is one of the best hitters ever, at the peak of his skills. He is a great teammate who is beloved in the clubhouse and in the city of Detroit. He is also completely committed to his craft, and there is really no chance of his work ethic slipping because he just signed his last big deal. His pride is too great.

2. This contract will be a disaster.

Hey, it isn't Cabrera's fault. If somebody gave you a quarter-billion dollars, you would take it, too. Most people like money, but all people age, and Cabrera will be 40 when this contract ends -- it's an eight-year deal that kicks in when his current contract expires in two years. I've probably written as many nice words about the guy as anybody, but it just isn't sensible to think he will be an elite player for 10 more years.

I believe you should only compare the very best to the very best, and if you look at the careers of Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Mike Schmidt or Ken Griffey Jr., you see a clear decline in the early to mid-30s. There are exceptions (Hank Aaron and Ted Williams are two) but there aren't many.

Cabrera may play until he is 40, but at a $30-million-a-year level? Highly doubtful.

This is not just a bad contract -- we see those in baseball all the time. It might make the least sense of all the big baseball contracts in this millennium. That's a hell of a sentence, but look:

• Before the 2001 season, the Rangers gave Alex Rodriguez a 10-year, $252-million contract. It was crazy money, even crazier than it looks now because MLB revenues were a lot lower in 2001 -- in 2014 money, A-Rod probably got a $350-million deal. And of course, we now know that everything connected to A-Rod is dipped in sewage.

But in 2001, A-Rod was the rarest of free agents: a premier player at a premium position (he was a shortstop then) -- and just 25 years old when the season started. Derek Jeter signed a 10-year, $189 million extension a few weeks later. In the 10 years after signing that deal, A-Rod averaged -- averaged -- 42 homers and 124 RBI per season. He won three MVP awards, probably should have won four, and yes, I know, he probably hid needles inside his bats. The Rangers didn't know that at the time. There was at least some logic to what they did.

• Before the 2008 season, A-Rod opted out of that contract (he was with the Yankees by that point) and hit free agency. The Yankees insisted they wouldn't sign him, promised they wouldn't give him another crazy deal, pinky-swore that he was done as a Yankee ... and then gave him $275 million. Oops.

This is a disastrous contract. It was dumb on the day it was signed. But A-Rod was a free agent, he was the reigning American League MVP, the Red Sox had just won their second World Series in four years, and the Yankees are the Yankees. They don't operate in the same economic stratosophere as anybody else. They can afford to eat the back half of a big deal, and the proof came this winter, when they signed Jacoby Ellsbury, Masahiro Tanaka and Brian McCann, and re-signed a few other guys, and the bill came to almost a half-billion dollars -- and they did all this knowing full well they would still have to pay A-Rod $61 million (though they get out of his contract this year, because he is suspended).

This is also why the Mark Teixeira and Tanaka and Jason Giambi contracts are not relevant here. The Yankees should really be exempt from this discussion.

• Before the 2012 season, the Tigers gave Prince Fielder a widely ridiculed nine-year, $214 million contract. It was too much money. No doubt. But Fielder turned 28 in the first year of the deal, and for all the jokes about his size, he has been the most durable player in baseball. Since 2009, he has missed one game. Fielder will be 36 when the contract ends, and for the purposes of this discussion, the difference between 36 and 40 is enormous.

• Before the 2012 season, the Angels gave Albert Pujols a 10-year, $240 million deal. Pujols is an all-time great, one of only a few players in baseball whose career matches up well with Cabrera's. Pujols' contract looked a little batty at the time and looks utterly foolish now; in two years in Anaheim, Pujols has a .338 on-base percentage and has hit just 47 home runs. His total WAR is 6.7. This will not end well. It may not go well for a single year, though I suspect Pujols will have two or three very good years.

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But the Angels are in a huge market. They signed a 20-year, $3 billion local TV contract around the same time they signed Pujols. And the most important distinction between Pujols and Cabrera is that Pujols was a free agent.

The Angels were bidding against every other team in the league, and the contract began immediately. This is also true of the Mariners' 10-year, $240-million deal with Robinson Cano. I don't like the Cano deal and don't see how it works out for the Mariners in the long term. But in both cases, the teams understood that they had to outbid everybody to sign a player coming off an MVP-quality year. There is a reason Scott Boras likes his players to test free agency. That's where the biggest money is ... or usually is.

That is why this Cabrera deal is so illogical. What was the urgency here? Cabrera turns 31 next month. He has two years left on his contract. Even if Cabrera has another MVP-type season, as I suspect he will, would his price have been that much higher in a year? And even if the price did go up, why couldn't the Tigers just let Cabrera walk as a free agent? That's what the Cardinals did with Pujols, and one World Series appearance later, I'd say it worked out pretty well for them.

The Tigers assumed all the risk of this contract, and they didn't have to do it. They could have enjoyed two years of Cabrera's peak wCithout worrying about how he will age. That is every owner's dream.

Well, almost every owner.

This brings us to the reason the Tigers did this. His name is Mike Ilitch. He owns the Tigers. He is a former Tigers farmhand. In Ilitch's telling, a knee injury put an end to his Major League dream, and whether it was the injury or a talent deficiency, the point is that this is how Ilitch sees it. He made silly money selling pizza and won four Stanley Cups with the Red Wings, but he still has this baseball void he wants to fill.

Ilitch bought the Tigers in 1992 and the team stunk until 2006. The team appeared to lose a lot of money. Ilitch's wife and kids would have been very happy to see him cash out. He wouldn't do it.

There is no delicate way to put this: Ilitch wants to win a World Series before he dies. He is 84 years old and his health has been a concern the last few years; recently, he missed the jersey retirement ceremony for Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom because of health issues. If Ilitch was willing to lose money all those years when the Tigers were bad, you better believe he is willing to lose money to make them really good.

That was the impetus for the Fielder signing, the Pudge Rodriguez signing, the Magglio Ordonez signing and the Justin Verlander extension. Of those, only the Verlander extension made sense to other teams. But Ilitch doesn't care if his fellow owners think he is fiscally responsible, and the Tigers have won a lot of games in the past few years. It has been worth it to the owner.

Ilitch wants Cabrera to be a Tiger for as long as he owns the team. Ilitch wants to win the World Series, he has no interest in regrouping for a year, and he has a limited understanding of sabermetrics or statistical studies of aging ballplayers, even when the player is as undeniably great as Cabrera.

Years ago, Ilitch's general manager, Dave Dombrowski, would say that when you spend too much of your payroll on one player, it rarely works out. Dombrowski did not get dumber. He surely knows how risky this is. But Dombrowski has learned Ilitch will overpay for anybody he really wants, and he wants Cabrera more than anybody he has ever employed. The contract does not make sense because the player will get old. It happened because the owner already has.

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