But they could be coming in October… This is a part of our million-part series “reactions to Lynn Henning’s columns”, but it won’t follow the familiar pattern or the familiar break from that pattern. I’m not going to be disputing any of Lynn Hennings claims or even – as we occasionally find ourselves doing – agreeing with the man. I’ll be pondering some of the statements made by the experts in baseball finance that Henning interviewed.
If you haven’t read it, you’ll find a link to the story here.
Without any need for quotes, what it boils down to is the allegation that Mike Ilitch is playing with fire vis-a-vis the Detroit payroll. He’s spending up to the absolute limit that the team can afford to spend – provided the team performs up to expectations and the resulting revenues are as high as Tigers revenues can conceivably be. Terms like “over your head” and “brinksmanship” are thrown around. But… that’s an interesting point. We know Ilitch is not running this team as a business, he’s running it as a toy and not expecting it to pad his pockets any more than you would expect your fancy new Aston Martin to do so. But… Mike Ilitch’s own pockets are not limitlessly deep and he does, more or less, expect the baseball organization to at least come pretty close to paying it’s own way. Last year, for example, the Tigers are reckoned to have lost a tiny sum despite the World Series run. Ilitch predicted a bit of to b va bump in revenues and promptly spent it. But, as Henning’s article draws attention to, teams with lots of talent and high expectations can stumble and if a team in the Tigers financial situation were to do that – the team could lose a LOT of money. Like last year’s Angels, if the Tigers miss the playoffs (much less suffer a 2008-type implosion) they’d lose a significant amount of money.
The 2008 Tigers – despite raking in a lot of money from season ticket sales before the implosion began – saw revenues fall by enough to cause a $26 million loss for the year. The team let some high-priced guys go after ’08 but lost $29.5 million in 2009 after Brandon Inge‘s invisible (to home plate umpires) kept the Tigers out of the postseason. Ilitch, though he wanted a championship every bit as much then as he does now, felt forced to make the sort of offseason moves we tend to see from the Rays instead of the sort of moves we tend to see from the Yankees. That’s basically the way it works: break even? We’re the Yanks. Gush red ink? We’re the Rays. We also know with the benefit of hindsight that it turned out to be a very good Rays-type move. The Tigers dealt away their second-best hitter and second-best pitcher for a couple of left-handed relievers and a couple of high-risk youngsters with similar ceilings to Granderson and Edwin Jackson. But AJax and Max Scherzer contributed immediately – at bargain prices. Granderson and EJax have contributed 21.8 WAR over the past 3 years. Scherzer and Ejax? 22.4. And, of course, the team was able to save enough money (and win enough games) to turn a profit in 2011 (though they still lost a lot of money in 2010). That trade has defined the recent trajectory of the franchise: if Austin Jackson had been no better than Brian Hunter and Max Scherzer no better than Seth Greisinger we would be in the middle of a downward spiral with payroll and fan expectations ratcheted down every year.
So, in a sense, the Tigers current payroll and personnel structure IS a house of cards. The team cannot afford to continually lose $30 million every season, even if Ilitch doesn’t plan to make a positive profit. The franchise can only afford it’s present payroll if the team rakes in the cash that comes with winning (and selling 3 million tickets and lots of jerseys, etc…). They’re going to struggle to come up with the cash to hold the team together even if they don’t struggle to win pennants BUT if the Tigers fail to make the playoffs – and season ticket sales suffer – they won’t be able to do anything to stoke the fires with offseason acquisitions and we’ll enter again into that vicious cycle: salary dumps leading to disillusioned fans leading to salary dumps. The fans always want you to get rid of the guys that aren’t earning their pay – but you can’t get a return for them so… the guys that get dumped are the teams’ best that nobody wants to see leave.
I have serious concerns that IF the Tigers were to miss the postseason this year, which could really only happen if some cogs got hurt or just had terrible seasons, we would see some guys dealt that you really, really don’t want to see dealt just to save cash. Those trades could work out well – but I don’t think that’s the norm. If that happens, we’ll be looking back on this offseason as one of hubris and irrational exuberance. The Tigers had offseason goals and/or needs and signing Anibal Sanchez and Torii Hunter does make the team better than they otherwise would have been. But… you can’t argue that it was the most cost effective way to go about it. The Tigers needed to improve their outfield defense and – hopefully – do so with a guy more likely to hit like 2011 Boesch than 2013 Boesch is. Hunter’s 1.8 projected WAR (from Steamer) is loads better than last year’s right-field production, but worse than Melky Cabrera (who signed with the Blue Jays for about half as much) and not very different from Alfonso Soriano – and I’d figure the Twins would have given him up (and payed 80% of his salary) for nothing more than a Jose Ortega. Instead of signing Anibal Sanchez to that $80 million deal the Tigers could simply have made Drew Smyly the default 5th starter and signed a swingman like Tom Gorzellany. We’d probably expect 1 win less from our Tigers if they had been “cheap” this offseason, but still have them pegged as heavy favorites in the AL Central. What’s more, saving $20 million in payroll expense would set the Tigers up to make a tidy profit if everything were to go as well as we all expect but only a small loss if the wheels were to come off.
The Tigers are – more or less – the best team that their revenue stream can possibly buy. We Tigers fans love that, these are good time. Optimism continues to abound. This season might give Mike Ilitch that championship he’s been dreaming of. There’s no reason, yet, to worry if maybe there are too many eggs in this particular basket. But any time the Tigers lose a series to some cellar dweller, those nagging doubts will start back up in the back of my mind.