By Ashley Dunkak
CBS DETROIT – Less than a week after tersely announcing that first-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer rejected their generous offer, the Detroit Tigers sealed a much bigger deal with a much more established superstar.
In fact, the Tigers gave defending two-time MVP and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera more money than any team has ever given any player. The new contract keeps Cabrera in Detroit for 10 more years and $292 million more.
Of course, as soon as the news broke, contemplation, analysis and criticism have quickly followed. Here are a few of the questions Cabrera’s monster deal raises for him, Detroit and for baseball as a whole.
Will Cabrera’s contract prove to be as disappointing as the mega-deals awarded to Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez and Prince Fielder?
The Tigers obviously hope Cabrera will continue his historic pace for four or five more years at the very least. Recent examples of gargantuan deals do not bode well for either party, unfortunately. The 10-year, $254 million contract the Los Angeles Angels gave to Albert Pujols is the obvious and immediate parallel.
Before signing with Los Angeles, Pujols had hit .320 or better in eight of 11 seasons and had never hit fewer than 32 home runs, sometimes hitting as many as 49. While his average dipped each year between 2008 and 2011, Pujols smashed 47 homers in 2009 and 42 more in 2010. In retrospect, perhaps the Angels should have looked twice at that declining average, however. Pujols hit .285 with 30 home runs in 2012 and batted just .258 with 17 homers in 2013. Pujols had dominated consistently for a decade when the Angels nabbed him, but he had begun to decline.
Cabrera, on the other hand, appears to be at the top of his career, with at least a few years remaining at or near this other-worldly peak. Cabrera hit .344 in 2011, .330 in 2012 and a career-best .348 in 2013. He hit 30 home runs in 2011 and hit a career-high 44 homers in each of the next two seasons. If Cabrera sits on the precipice of a significant decline, it is not evident from his statistics. Granted, it is unlikely he can sustain this level for too much longer, but based on what he has done the past few years, even slipping to a level of .300 hitting and 20 home runs seems like it would be attainable and still a solid value for the Tigers.
Alex Rodriguez got his 10-year, $275 million deal with the New York Yankees (the previous record for a contract) after the 2007 season. He had hit under .300 in three of the previous five seasons, but he hit 54 home runs and batted in 156 runs in 2007. Rodriguez had hit 47 or more homers in five of his last seven years when he signed that big deal. Again, it appears that his great power numbers may have blinded team executives to a less-than-rock-solid batting average. Rodriguez hit .302 in 2008 and did not break .300 in the next five years, and his power numbers fell, too, albeit more gradually.
Of course, Pujols and Rodriguez were both great players, and as their status grew, they walked more and ended up with high on-base percentages even if their batting averages were less impressive. Still, there were some signs in the years leading up to their contracts – particularly that of Pujols – that an end to the dominance might be near. With Cabrera, there is no evidence of a decline, though the fact he had surgery this offseason is a little disconcerting.
While 10 years is still an impossibly long term for a superstar to sustain the level expected of him, if anyone can come close to living up to the hype, it appears to be Cabrera. He is at the top of his game and so far above others in the game that even a considerable drop-off would still leave the Tigers with a very good player.
What does it say that the Tigers signed Cabrera to a record-breaking deal right after Scherzer spurned them?
Detroit had been planning on locking up Cabrera anyway, to be certain. However, it sure worked out nicely that just a few days after the Tigers made news that they had not decided to drop inordinately huge money on Scherzer, they proved themselves completely willing to spend big on a player who they feel is worth that kind of money.
Cabrera, a position player and one of the best ever, is on the field every day. Scherzer, like any pitcher, is only out there every five games, and he has a thin track record compared to those of other top hurlers in baseball. Clearly, the Tigers do not want to give Scherzer superstar money until he has more of a superstar résumé.
Detroit would likely have given Cabrera this kind of money anyway, but the timing seemed fortuitous for the team, particularly considering offseason speculation that the Tigers will not continue their free-spending ways in the future.
How are baseball people across the country reacting to this news?
Buster Olney of ESPN tweeted some dramatic feedback from other baseball executives, notably the ones who might now be on the hook for this kind of dough for future stars, so they have plenty of reason to gripe.
“Miguel Cabrera is highly respected/appreciated, but officials with other teams are appalled by Detroit decision to give him that many years,” Olney tweeted Thursday night. “Haven’t heard as much disgust over a contract from rival execs since the Jayson Werth contract. Industry is in shock over the Cabrera deal.”
Again, officials with other teams are likely staggered because they know they will need to shell out this kind of cash in the not-so-distant future, and since such deals almost inevitably get ugly (another example Detroit fans know all too well is the nine-year, $215 million contract of Prince Fielder), teams would prefer not to make them.
Now, they will be forced to do so. The next one will almost certainly go to young superstar Mike Trout.
Is there any precedent for a player actually keeping up these kind of numbers into his late 30s?
In modern history, not tainted by steroids, the answer is no. Barry Bonds obviously dominated well into his later years, but the prevailing opinion is that he took performance-enhancing drugs. You have to travel back to the 1940s and 1950s and check out the records of Stan Musial and Hank Aaron to see continued excellence in hitting for average and in hitting for power over two decades of a career.
Is this deal evidence that the Tigers will keep up their wild spending ways?
In short, not necessarily. Cabrera is a once-in-a-generation kind of a player, a surefire Hall of Famer. He anchors the offense of the Tigers. He is the face of the team. Plus, the rumors that Detroit will spend less in the future would start flying again if the Tigers did not ink Cabrera for life. After what he has meant to this team, the Tigers had virtually no option but to give him whatever he would sign for. On a much less significant note, after the Scherzer situation Detroit needed a redeeming moment, and extending the game’s biggest star can hardly qualify as anything but a public relations win.