The Tigers have recently experienced some of the greatest sustained success in Major League Baseball. In the nine seasons since bottoming out with 71 wins in 2005, Detroit has won 85 games seven times, made the playoffs five times and won two pennants.
They generally have been the unanimous favorites to win the American League Central, and have done so the past four seasons, yet a championship has eluded them. The Tigers' window for winning is about to slam shut due to an aging roster, bloated long-term contracts, and an ever-increasing level of competition in the American League Central. 2015 is a key season in Detroit, because this may be the end of an era.
The Tigers have been a free spending team during their successful run. Thanks to owner Mike Ilitch's deep pockets, Detroit's opening day payroll has been north of $100 million since 2008. The team set a franchise-high mark last year at $163 million, and has committed hundreds of millions of dollars for the foreseeable future to players over the age of 30.
|Player, Age as of Opening Day||2015||2016||2017||2018||2019||2020|
|Victor Martinez, 36||$14m||$18m||$18m||$18m||--||--|
|Justin Verlander, 32||$28m||$28m||$28m||$28m||$28m||$22m (Vesting Option)|
|Miguel Cabrera, 31||$22m||$28m||$28m||$30m||$30m||$30m|
|Anibal Sanchez, 31||$16m||$16m||$16m||--||--||--|
|Committed Payroll by Year||$80m||$90m||$90m||$76m||$58m||$52m|
The Tigers most recent / most expensive investments have been in players on the wrong side of the aging curve. Victor Martinez is the oldest player on the team with a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract. VMart had a career year in 2014, and was handsomely rewarded with a three year deal worth $18 million per annum. His age 35 season consisted of a 4.4 fWAR, which is the best mark he put up since his age 28 season in 2007, and a career-high wRC+. His performance is unlikely to continue, and Martinez is a prime candidate to regress in 2015 and beyond.
Martinez slugged .565 and hit 32 home runs last season, which is more than his previous two seasons combined, when he hit 26 home runs. With a home run to fly ball rate at the 16% mark, it can be expected that number likely will be halved (close to his career average), yet the Tigers paid him as if he's in his prime rather than his late 30s.
The Tigers have committed significant money to two pitchers as well. Beyond the Box Score's own Scott Lindholm conducted an excellent study in pitcher performance by age, and the results do not bode well for Justin Verlander or Anibal Sanchez. Verlander's contract goes until 2020 and guarantees him $28 million for the duration of it. Incredibly, this is the second longest contact on the team, second only to Miguel Cabrera.
Cabrera has been the best hitter in baseball for the better part of a decade, his most recent contract extension of eight years / $248 million does not start until 2016, meaning the Tigers will be paying Cabrera $30 million from 2018 to 2021, and $32 in 2022 and 2023! He has an $8 million buy-out in 2024, but this is the type of contract that can potentially cripple an organization, especially if Cabrera's bat slips at all.
The Tigers are a team that have committed a significant percentage of their projected payroll into their seasoned veterans. Not only will this team have internal problems spending on younger players for future rosters, but the talent and competition within the division is younger and much improved over past seasons.
The Royals have never been big spenders but put together a magical run in 2014. Kansas City lost James Shields and made the puzzling decision to bring in Kendrys Morales. Even if the Royals take a significant step back in 2015, they have an excellent bullpen, and are no longer the pushovers they once were in the division. The Royals won 86 games in 2013, and won 89 games and a pennant last season. The days of the 65-win Royals are behind us, and even if this team regresses, they are going to win 75 games. After all, even the 2008 Rockies got to that mark.
Unlike the Tigers, the Indians have never had an opening day payroll north of $85.5 million. Granted the Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn contracts do not look like good moves, but neither player will make more than $15 million per year. The Indians have a strong young core with the emergence of Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and 2014 breakout Michael Brantley. Brantley is under team control until 2018, and his entire contract only adds up to $30 million (about what Miguel Cabrera will be making per year for another nine seasons). Cleveland is a team on the rise, and is actually projected as even with the Tigers.
The White Sox have managed two excellent offseasons in a row. Last year, they signed Jose Abreu, who amassed a 5.3 fWAR, and was a tour de force in the American League. Abreu alone changed the offseason for Chicago that was otherwise uninteresting. This year, the White Sox improved all aspects of their team. They improved the lineup by signing Melky Cabrera, the rotation by inking Jeff Samardzija, and they solidified the bullpen with David Robertson. Like the Indians, they do not have swollen contracts on the books for the foreseeable future, and should be able to content for a wildcard, if not for the Central title.
The Twins are the least formidable of the Tigers' opponents, but are trending in a positive direction as well. With number two prospect Byron Buxton, and ‘pelotero' Miguel Sano, the Twins have drafted well enough where it looks like the team could potentially contend in another couple seasons. The Twins could be competing at the .500 level just when the Tigers bloated contracts start to blow-up.
The Tigers window is rapidly closing, and although they have a strong team today, they may well turn into the current version of the Yankees tomorrow ---- an aging team, hindered by bloated contracts for aging stars fighting for a wildcard spot. 2015 is a big year for Detroit, because moving forward, they are going to have competition nipping at their heels, and they likely will not have the appetite or the payroll flexibility to spend their way out of it.
Steven Martano is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano.