Having signed Max Scherzer to a one-year, $15.525 million contract to avoid arbitration this past winter, long-term extension talks between the Detroit Tigers and reigning AL Cy Young winner – and Scott Boras client – have recently been scrapped. In reportedly turning down what Dave Dombrowski called “a very substantial offer that would place him among the highest-paid pitchers in the game,” (Fox Sports‘ Jon Morosi putting the deal at six years, $144 million, placing Scherzer on the same pay trajectory as Cole Hamels), the 29-year-old may well have done the Detroit Tigers a favor.
History tells us long-term extensions for aging top flight pitchers aren’t often fiscally prudent. In 2013 alone we witnessed the end for numerous such signees; Johan Santana’s 6 year, $137.5M deal finally ended with him recovering from shoulder surgery (again), the lefty having provided only 109 starts and 717 innings to the Mets during their pact. Barry Zito remained largely healthy over his 7/126 contract with the Giants, but he provided less than 2 cumulative WARP in the time, all while rocking a 4.47 ERA. Roy Halladay retired with a whimper and a 6.82 ERA in 2013, having battled injuries throughout his two final years in Philadelphia – both costing $20M apiece. Even C.C. Sabathia showed worrying signs of ineffectiveness last year, and he still has another $96 million owed to him by the Yankees over the next four years. With Justin Verlander (7 yr/$180M, plus a 22M option in 2020) and Anibal Sanchez (5 yr/$80M, plus a 2018 option) already locked up through their thirties, and considering the outlined inherent risk in doing so much, did the Tigers especially need to add another long-term extension to the already-dangerous mix?
Thankfully for the Tigers, the quandary has at least for now, resolved itself; Scherzer will let his 2014 performance dictate his market value next winter, risking potential injury or decline in his search for a better deal. If he comes close to his performance over the last two years (during which time he’s been worth 11 WAR, per Fangraphs, and at 2.99, had the seventh best FIP in the majors), he’ll be a very expensive 30-year-old, a commodity that some team – unlikely to be the Tigers it seems – will happily overpay. Detroit will by then have another extension to worry about anyway.
With Scherzer – and presumably the money they cleared for him in trading away Prince Fielder and Doug Fister – off the table, Detroit management must now focus on what to do about Miguel Cabrera (and apparently already has). Set to make $22 million in each of the next two seasons, the twice-defending AL MVP will be a free agent after his age-32 season in 2015 should the Tigers not re-sign him before then – a decision which, mostly because of Albert Pujols, isn’t quite the slam-dunk you’d think.
It can’t be denied, the 30-year-old has been the best hitter in baseball over the last couple of seasons (though he’s been a huge negative both in the field and on the basepaths, hence why Mike Trout is technically more valuable). He’s beloved by the fans in Detroit, his presence in the lineup instantly elevating their team’s offense into elite territory. But he’s also bound to command a massive payday, potentially a problem – as ESPN writer Dan Szymborski pointed out back in November:
The next team to sign Cabrera, whether it’s the Tigers or another team, doesn’t get to purchase his previous six seasons, they get the right to his next six seasons. All good things come to an end… and Cabrera’s star is no exception. From stars to scrubs, the after-age-30 stories tend to be one of decline… The lessons of previous superstars should not go unlearned.
The “previous superstars” reference could hardly be less veiled – the respective career trajectories of Cabrera and Albert Pujols are eerily similar, something Jason Catania noted:
Pujols is right-handed; so is Cabrera. Pujols was a highly rated prospect who broke into the major leagues playing third base and outfield before settling in at first base; ditto, Cabrera. And Pujols enjoyed immediate, overwhelming success in his first full season—at the tender age of 21—triggering a decade of incredible, consistent production in which he hit for both league-leading average and power… Same goes for Cabrera.
With the similarly hefty sort of frame that Cabrera currently boasts (he might actually have been in better shape), the decline began for Pujols in his age-31 season, his last with the Cardinals. He hit just (!) 299/.366/.541, a great season in a vacuum, but all career lows for Pujols – who averaged .328/.420/.617 with 40 homers, 41 doubles and an OPS+ of 170 in his time with the Cardinals. Of course, it was then, entering his age-32 season, that the Los Angeles Angels signed him to a 10 year, $240 million contract; since then Pujols’ production has been marred by injury, his two year triple slash line falling to .275/.338/.485 in addition to his underlying skills continuing to trend in the wrong directions (he’s had an increasing strikeout rate, a decreasing walk rate and worsening plate discipline for the past five seasons now).
Cabrera – if allowed to get there – will be hitting the free-agent market one year older than when Pujols did back in 2011/12. Though there’s been no offensive drop-off so far, injuries began to worryingly take their toll last year; by the end of the season, problems with his hip, abdomen, and groin had slowed his previously torrid output at the plate to such an extent that Cabrera managed only four extra-base hits over 32 games in September and October. With ten years of experience under his belt too, 2014 will mark the exact same point in his career as when Pujols began to decline in 2011 – the season prior to his mammoth new contract.
The Tigers are all in. But for all their big moves and expenditure over the past few years, they’ve only two ALCS losses and one World Series trip to show for it – a sweep at the hands of a Pablo Sandoval-powered Giants in 2012. With Scherzer unsigned, Dave Dombrowski may have dodged a bullet, but in the wake of such perceived failure, the pressure to lock up Cabrera will only increase. With two years left on his deal though, the Tigers would do well to observe history – like perhaps they did in not ponying up for Scherzer – and ride out the public outcry for a new contract. After all, as Szymborski wrote, “He’s not likely to get more expensive, given that he’s at the absolute peak of his game.” If the Pujols-like slide begins, tough as it might be to quit while they’re ahead and cut ties with their franchise player, Detroit would thus avoid the albatross contract currently weighing down the Angels and be able to earnestly rebuild.
The clock is ticking; Detroit’s championship window is still open, but it could soon be fast closing. Whether the Tigers will accept as much remains to be seen.