Here’s a story you probably missed during the sports weekend. On Sunday, the Detroit Tigers lost to the Toronto Blue Jays 6-5 on Jose Bautista’s walk-off single in the bottom of the 19th. Detroit blew consecutive games at the Rogers Centre, as Joe Nathan and Joba Chamberlain couldn’t hold onto one-run ninth-inning leads. Earlier this month, when the Tigers acquired David Price from the Rays at the Trade Deadline, most baseball pundits penciled Detroit into the ALCS against Oakland — as if it were a mere formality.
Well, here we are August 11 and the Tigers’ (63-52) lead in the AL Central over the surging Royals (63-53) is down to half a game.
Admittedly I’m a Tigers fan and the blind, irrational loyalties of fandom will probably cloud the remainder of this post. Anyways, instead of thinking about a fourth consecutive ALCS and (hopefully) the team’s first World Series since 1984 my mind is focused on the Phillies. Yes, the Philadelphia Phillies.
Ruben Amaro Jr.’s financial handiwork has given us another contender for the hallowed ‘worst team money can buy’ tag, as the 2014 Phillies $177 million Opening Day payroll has produced a no-hope team with a 53-65 record, filled with veterans on bloated, big-money contracts. The Phillies aren’t even comically inept, lovable losers; rather a team saddled with huge contracts spent on veteran players seemingly without any direction — in other words the worst type of underachievers, especially in a sport like baseball that unfurls over six, long months.
For reasons only he can explain, Amaro Jr. stayed pat at the deadline, leaving the team with $124+ million already committed to 2015 on Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, Jonathan Papelbon, A.J. Burnett, Carlos Ruiz and Marlon Byrd. The average age of those eight players is 34.3. Hamels, who the team tried to move through waivers last week, is the youngest at 30. Okay, to cut Amaro Jr. some slack, he did trade Roberto Hernandez (a pending free agent) to the Dodgers.
The point here isn’t to bury the Phillies, rather use them as a cautionary tale for spending big money without thinking for the long haul.
The Tigers’ future salary commitments aren’t quite as dire as the Phillies, however Detroit is locked into between $82+ million from 2015-17 on four players: Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez (placed on the DL along with Joakim Soaria on Sunday) and Ian Kinsler — all four north of 30. Detroit is also on the hook for $10 million next year with Nathan, who’ll turn 40 on Nov. 22. Now that Price is in Motown at least until the end of 2015, the odds of Max Scherzer re-signing in Detroit are about as slim as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles winning Best Picture. Victor Martinez, the team’s best offensive player in 2014, is also a free agent. In a minor miracle, Detroit offloaded Prince Fielder’s mega-deal to Texas last winter, alleviating some of the future headaches.
The Tigers becoming the American League version of the Phillies might not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, but there are enough parallels to make a fan take pause, especially in light of a brutal weekend series. (19 inning, 6.5-hour games have the ability to do that to people.)
Given that Tigers’ owner Mike Ilitch is 85 years old and wants to see a title, the team — and general manager Dave Dombrowski — are operating forever in win-now mode even if it means trading Austin Jackson to acquire Price, leaving the team without a viable everyday centerfielder (saying nothing of Drew Smyly’s development down the road).
Granted, it’s not as if the players Dombrowski’s dealt to acquire his current, top-heavy roster usually tend to amount to very much. Jacob Turner, the key piece to acquire Sanchez two summers ago from the Marlins, was just waived by Miami and claimed by the Cubs. The best player among the prospects dealt for Cabrera turned out to be Andrew Miller, now a lefty specialist with the Orioles.
Acquiring proven, big-league “stars” is a strategy that’s worked so far for the Tigers, rather than relying on a farm system to churn out cost-effective homegrown talent. Eventually that strategy will catch up with the team and the window will close on the World Series run due to age and the ever-improving squad in Kansas City. (The Phillies found this out, winning the World Series in 2008 with a payroll around $98 million, nearly doubling it to retain the key contributors from that team as it got older.)
More worrisome is the lingering health issues plaguing Cabrera. At first glance the back-t0-back MVP looks fine, but his current .872 OPS would be the lowest compiled in a full season during his career. Cabrera had off-season “core muscle” surgery and still doesn’t look 100 percent at the plate in terms of power, posting just a .222/.341/.306 line in August.
Then there’s the well-documented struggles of Verlander (91 ERA+, 6.6 Ks per 9 in 2014) the past two seasons. The Tigers are on the hook for another $140 million through 2019, making him by far the most expensive fourth starter in baseball history. (Fun, arbitrary comparison: Chris Sale’s contract from 2013-17 is for $32 million, slightly more than Verlander will earn in 2014 alone.)
And then there’s the imposing bottom half of the Detroit lineup, consisting most days of Torii Hunter, J.D. Martinez, Nick Castellanos, Alex Avila and either Andrew Rominie or Eugenio Suarez, sometimes the immortal Don Kelly. The less said of the Tigers bullpen aside from Chamberlain’s beard, the better. Take away the ESPN-approved, marquee star players and there isn’t a whole lot else on this roster, which would be okay if baseball was like the NBA and you could win titles with three mega stars surrounded by complimentary pieces.
Unless you’ve been watching this team all summer, day-in, day-out you expect them to be around come October based on the track record and its name recognition value. Chances are, yes, Detroit makes the postseason — Fangraphs still projects a 74.2 percent chance of the Tigers winning the Central. The Wild Card route is still a fallback and you’d like Detroit’s chances if it could start either Scherzer or Price in the one-off game. That is if the team survives its current stretch of 54 games in 55 days due to a backlog of rain outs in April. As it stands today the Tigers are only 1.5 games better than either Toronto or Seattle and 2.5 better than the Yankees in terms of the Wild Card. You’d have to like the Greg Holland/Wade Davis late inning options in Kansas City as the pennant race intensifies over the Tigers choices at the back end of the pen.
Maybe the worrying about the Tigers morphing into the American League version of the Phillies is premature and unfounded since the Phillies did, after all, win the World Series in 2008, something the Tigers have yet to achieve in this current window of success and spending.
This has been Yardwork.