Miguel Cabrera is set for life now. The Tigers rewarded his otherworldly offensive prowess with an eight year extension that will pay him over $30 million a year, a total of $248 million through 2023. Essentially, with the next two years of his existing deal added on, he’ll be making $292 million over the next ten years, with a potential for two more years and $60 million should he still be placing in the top ten of MVP races at the end of those ten years. It’s been declared as the biggest contract in the history of team sports (while true from a strict dollars perspective, if you look at it in the context of MLB’s recent rampant inflation brought on by increasing revenues, it actually isn’t).
Naturally, this contract extension was immediately ripped apart in most circles, particularly amongst rival executives (who will have to pay up for their players now – the horror) and the sabermetric community, who are going to hate any contract that’s longer than, say, five years (and typically with good reason). They’re almost certainly right, mind you – it’s hard to imagine the latter portions of this contract being viewed favorably.
But I’m going to play a bit of devil’s advocate, because while it’s easy to sit down and look at the numbers and say this contract is insane and the Tigers are insane for offering it, it’s much more complex than that. Let’s just assume that the contract lasts eight years and Cabrera isn’t putting up MVP numbers and that no enterprising BBWAA members decide to troll the Tigers by stuffing the ballot box for his candidacy in 2023. Throw the numbers out of your mind for a moment: how much will Cabrera actually end up being worth over the next ten years?
…well, we don’t know. We know what the aging curve is, and it’s not really great. For every David Ortiz, there’s a Ryan Howard. Cabrera has been remarkably durable so far in his career, but up until he hurt himself making the last out of the 2011 NLDS, so was Howard. And then there’s guys like Ortiz, whose career has been extended by virtue of him being a DH and only a DH, with only two injury-marred seasons in his rearview mirror. Or he could end up being Frank Thomas, who was effective into his late 30s but dealt with a number of injury-shortened seasons.
So we have to guess, and we’ll do it with something of a sabermetric base: we’ll take Cabrera’s WAR and subtract a half a win each year. We’ll also assume a win is worth about $6 million on the open market. Deadspin makes a nice handy little chart of this. What does it show? It’s still a crazy contract, but not as crazy as some say it is. If Cabrera is worth 34.5 wins and a win stays static at $6 million, he’s worth $207 million. If the value of a win inflates or Cabrera outperforms that figure, he’s worth more. What’s more, that projection uses the ZiPS projection of Cabrera’s 2014 WAR to start (5.7), a figure that he’s surpassed in each of the last four years. If we drop him a half win from his 2013 mark (7.6) for each of the next ten years, we get 48.5 wins, and if we assume a win is worth $6 million, we get…. $291 million over the next ten years. Funny, that.
These are, of course, estimates. We have no way of knowing how Cabrera will age, or how Major League Baseball’s economic reality will change by 2023, or how much a win will be worth in five years or ten years. A few points to address nonetheless: Mike Ilitch is 84 and, fairly or not, he’s not really worried about the Tigers’ 2021 payroll situation. Which raises another point: is it really frivolous spending if the owner can afford it without neglecting the rest of the roster? We don’t know who the next owner of the Tigers will be. We don’t know if they’ll be a free spender or a tightwad. And Mike Ilitch probably doesn’t care either way. Plus, there’s more money flowing throughout the league than ever before. We’re just entering the first year of the new national TV deal – a deal that will be renegotiated again before Cabrera’s new contract expires. While the exact expiration date is not publicly known, the Tigers’ local TV deal will likely also come up again before Cabrera calls it a career (it was announced as a 10-year deal when it was agreed to in 2008, which would take it through 2017). We can’t definitively say if this contract will be kneecapping the Tigers in 2023. The odds are that it will be, but a lot can change in baseball in ten years. (Ten years ago today, Jason Johnson was the ace of the staff, and Pudge Rodriguez had yet to play a regular season game in a Tigers uniform.)
Some of the reaction toward the deal seems to be spurred by the fact that the Tigers paid open market price for a player that was their property for two more seasons. (Indeed, the WAR figures above were based on the value of one win on the open market.) That may be true, and some will say the Tigers perhaps should have waited another year to extend Cabrera’s deal. That said, we saw what happened with Max Scherzer this spring, and if Cabrera hit the open market, he was more than likely gone. Detroit was not going to suddenly get a look into Cabrera’s future in the next two years. They wanted to keep him right now, and barring something horrible happening, they’d still want to keep him in 12 months, and they’d still want to keep him in 18 months, too. Barring a serious injury or a total crater, I don’t really see how putting things off until next year would somehow make the contract more team-friendly. Of course injuries and craters are always a risk, but Cabrera has been consistent and largely durable. It’s not like they just doled out this cash to a guy who’s been on and off the disabled list for his entire career, even if his body type is one that is regarded as having a less-than-graceful aging curve.
As for the rival executives who are reportedly livid over this extension: one, put your name on the record so we can see what kind of contracts you’ve given out. Two, you can bet that one of these livid rival executives would have offered Cabrera eight years had he hit the open market. There’s always a sucker out there if the player is good enough, so I say give me a break.
Will the Cabrera contract end up being an albatross late in its lifespan? No way of knowing for sure, but the evidence suggests it probably will. But this is a situation where it’s more complex than that, and if Cabrera ends up being a key cog in a World Series winner during the life of his deal, I’d bet that Tigers fans will be willing to deal with the ramifications of the deal in the early 2020s. I can understand the whinging from certain analysts, but as a fan who desperately wants to see the Tigers win a title, it’s hard to complain about the best hitter in baseball – the best hitter most of us have ever seen – being locked in as a Detroit Tiger for life.