Detroit Tigers: Miguel Cabrera’s contract is just a small part of the problem
The economic uncertainty of MLB due to the COVID-19 pandemic plus Miguel Cabrera’s bloated “legacy contract” are the two main culprits why the Detroit Tigers refuse to spend big money in free agency this year.
So far it has been extremely quiet for the Detroit Tigers in free agency and unfortunately, this is something Tigers’ fans have grown far too accustomed to under the ownership of Chris Ilitch. Since February 2017, when Chris took over for his father Mike Ilitch, the Tigers’ payroll has plummeted from $200 million in 2017 to just $65 million projected in 2021 (as of 12/20/2020). Now that the Tigers have the 5th lowest payroll in Major League Baseball, fans are getting impatient with the team refusing to spend money on free agents. But why won’t Ilitch spend entering the 2021 season?
This is a combination of the economic uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic plus the fact that Illich is perhaps taking precaution to invest any long term money into any player, especially players in or entering their thirties such as George Springer (31), DJ LeMahieu (32), Marcell Ozuna (32), J.T. Realmuto (29), and Trevor Bauer (29). Cabrera’s contract is limiting the ceiling of this team because one, they are paying him way too much money so Ilitch doesn’t want pay any more to big-name free agents, and two, his contract also serves as a precautionary tale of not what to do again, and that overly pays for big-name players.
First, and I must state, this is not a shot at Miguel Cabrera or another tiresome article about how stupid it was to extend his contract. Instead, this article offers to add further explanation into the financial and psychological realities of the Tigers organization entering 2021. As my colleague at Motor City Bengals, Chris Brown, astutely stated in one of his latest articles, the Tigers have money issues.
In March 2019, before the pandemic, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale correctly stated “Miguel Cabrera is on a team going nowhere this season, a franchise building for the future, but one that’s paying an enormous disproportion sum of money for his performance of the past.” As it stands right now, Cabrera’s contract makes up $30 million of the total projected team payroll of $65 million entering the 2021 season.
In that same article, Cabrera justified his contract by stating to Nightengale “I’m not going to apologize. Why should anyone be sorry? I don’t see any teams losing money. They all have it.’’ But now, in 2020, what if the owners actually are losing money? Or at least, not making anywhere near as much money as they projected and planned for when these contracts were signed? Then Cabrera’s contract looks even worse than it did two years ago.
Entering the 2021 season, many questions are still left unanswered such as how many games are going to be played? If or when fans are going to be able to attend games? How many fans will be able to attend games? Therefore, it is understandable why Ilitch will not spend this offseason.
The pandemic has been responsible for accelerating the end of many things. For MLB, one of those causalities will probably be the “legacy contract.” Legacy contracts such as Bryce Harper in Philadelphia (13 years, $330 million), Manny Machado in San Diego (10 years, $300 million), Nolan Arenado in Colorado (eight-years, $260 million), and Miguel Cabrera in Detroit are now fully unsustainable.
For the foreseeable future, the Detroit Tigers, like many organizations, will be even more risk-averse and financially conservative. Unfortunately, most big-name free agent contracts are the exact inverse so until the economic landscape is more clear, Cabrera’s contract will continue to put a low ceiling on the free agents Detroit could obtain.
Evaluating free agency in 2021 is like looking into a foggy telescope but one thing is for sure, Ilitch has proven that so far he is afraid of big contracts in free agency and the pandemic gave him even more reason not to spend.
Eventually, he will open up his checkbook but I believe he is going to wait as long as he has to and this will depend on the development of the young arms in Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Matt Manning along with the bats of Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene. Based on these players’ developmental arch, one could argue Illich might wait until 2022 or even 2023, to spend big, around the same time Cabrera’s contract is finally coming off the books.