It all started a decade ago, when Mike Ilitch handed a monster contract to outfielder Magglio Ordonez, signifying the Tigers attempt to return to the baseball elite. Ilitch went above and beyond his budget in future years as well, acquiring Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis in 2008 and immediately handing both players extensions. And in 2012, the Tigers made yet another big splash when they signed Prince Fielder to a contract worth over $200 million dollars shortly after the injury to Victor Martinez. $200 million dollars shelled out just because your designated hitter hurt his knee, and was likely to miss a year.
Ilitch then continued to keep fans hopes up when at the press conference announcing the signing of Jordan Zimmerman earlier this off-season, he dismissed questions about the luxury tax, quoting himself as saying, “If I think there are certain players that could help us a lot, I'll go over it. Oops, I shouldn't have said that,” obviously alluding to the league’s desire to have teams stay under the threshold, but his seemingly eagerness to win. Fans obviously loved that, and it likely gave many of them hope that even with the additions of Zimmermann, Cameron Maybin and Francisco Rodriguez, the Tigers had more in store.
But despite the optimism, and despite rumors that the Tigers are staying involved with remaining free agents like Yoenis Cespedes and Chris Davis, a big free agent signing still seems unlikely.
For one, can the Tigers really afford the addition of another contract worth 20 million dollars per season? In addition to the luxury tax implications this year (and at least next year too), it would be another long term contract that could pose problems for the Tigers down the road. And it doesn’t even account for the fact that J.D. Martinez is approaching the end of arbitration, which will mean either a much larger contract figure via an extension or in free agency, or letting him leave and creating yet another hole in the lineup. The Tigers purposely went out and filled holes with players that came with short-term contracts, avoiding a massive long-term investment, with the exception of Zimmermann. They are clearly not looking to add long-term salary.
Second, as has been noted quite a few teams in recent months, a shift in power in the Tigers front office has been occurring, and who is responsible for decisions is likely in flux. Yes of course, Mike Ilitch the person still has money in the bank. But Ilitch Holdings, which is run by Mike’s son Chris, is still a business operating to make a profit. Spending more than you can realistically make (and to be clear, adding $20 million in salary, plus the luxury tax costs, would most certainly result in the club’s total costs far exceeding what it could make) is never wise. If it were a one-year decision, Ilitch could likely cut a check out of his own bank account to cover the balance, and that would take care of it. But a long-term contract isn’t just a one-year thing, and long term responsibilities are something that a business will weigh carefully.
Third, and putting it rather bluntly, Tigers fans have become a bit spoiled with Ilitch’s willingness to spend, balance sheet be damned. The aforementioned moves that broke the budget are unusual for almost every other team in baseball. The Tigers currently have an outfield with Martinez in right, and some combination of Maybin, Anthony Gose and Tyler Collins in center and left. Balancing matchups, that’s a solid trio. It’s not a complete All-Star cast, but it can certainly be competitive, especially when you account for the fact that most of the investment in the lineup exists in the infield and that’s where a good portion of the production should come from.
Finally, there’s nothing stopping the Tigers from deciding to make an acquisition at midseason. Even if you assume the above trio that will make up left and center field is only replacement level (I think they’re better), a top quality corner outfield is worth about four wins over the course of the year. You’d be sacrificing two wins in the first half of the season to evaluate whether the rest of the team is able to compete for a World Series title. If in fact they are, and that big bat in the lineup is still needed, the Tigers can make a trade at that point to upgrade that spot.
So, everyone can remain optimistic that a decision can come down from above, and the Tigers will decide against better financial judgment to make another large investment in a big-time player. But the information we have available indicates that won’t be the case, and that doesn’t necessarily handcuff the Tigers, or prohibit them from competing this season.