December 18, 2012 at 5:05 pm

Lynn Henning

Tigers roll dice with long, expensive contract for Anibal Sanchez

Detroit -- Mike Ilitch's hockey teams turned Detroit into a travel-brochure haven during those giddy years when Hall of Famers-to-be wanted to play for the best money on the best team in the NHL.

Ilitch has since financed a parallel to those Stanley Cup jewels of the NHL's pre-salary cap era.

The Tigers are hot. They pay well. They win. Players get along. And the front office and manager's quarters are loaded with seasoned guys whom players trust and respect.

But to justify a lavish deal for pitcher Anibal Sanchez that front-office chief Dave Dombrowski agreed Monday was "risky," the Tigers understand a World Series championship is the only way to thank Ilitch.

Sanchez mentioned all of that during a news conference at Comerica Park, a few days after Ilitch had OK'd an $80 million contract, spanning five years with a sixth-season option.

"Thank you, Mr. Ilitch, to let it happen," Sanchez said after letting his signature dot a deal that could keep the 28-year-old right-hander in Detroit through 2018.

"I know the players, the front office; we almost get the ring," he said, referring to the four-game tumble to the Giants in the World Series. "Now I have a pretty good team. We'll (bring) the ring to the city."

Calculated risk

That would be helpful. Ilitch isn't spending a likely $155 million-plus in 2013 because he loves the challenge of pounding a New York-style payroll into an economically twisted Midwest town's baseball team.

He is spending big because he wants to win the grand prize. He lives to win a World Series and is savvy enough to know a pitcher as skilled as Sanchez can help pull it off.

And what a wager he is making, what trust he is showing his lieutenants, in signing Sanchez. Baseball's best and brightest admit there is no greater gamble than to invest a fortune in long-term bucks for that most fragile of sports species, the pitcher.

"It's a risk," Dombrowski said as he, Sanchez, and Sanchez's agent, Gene Mato, sat at a dais inside the Tiger Club. "Pitching is a risky business. That's just the way it is.

"From a club perspective, we would prefer a shorter window. There are things that can happen."

Oh, can they ever. Sanchez already has had Tommy John surgery. He has had a torn labrum. Arms are like the transmission on an old car. They can go anytime, any place. And if there are any serious ills at any point during this deal, the Tigers could be stuck paying an albatross of a contract.

But the Tigers and Ilitch knew this when they offered Mato and Sanchez $80 million to say no to the Cubs and other teams also in love with Sanchez's slick blend of power, command, and finesse.

Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones was debriefed by his bosses. What was intrinsic, what were the subtleties Sanchez had revealed after the Tigers pried him from the Marlins in last July's trade?

"He's kind of unique," Jones said. "He has quality stuff. He can be overpowering. But he also does a lot of pitching.

"He's comfortable throwing breaking stuff when he's behind. And he's got a good change-up. So, he's not your prototypical power pitcher, even though he can dial up that fastball. Really, he does it all."

Amen, Tigers manager Jim Leyland said.

"He's got a little bit of something for everybody," Leyland said during a phone conversation. "We've got a good pitcher."

In fact, Sanchez throws four pitches rather than the conventional three. He works the plate. He throws strikes. He gets hitters to swing and miss, which is convenient when your infielders seem always to be in a generous spirit of gift-giving.

The next move

What the owner and his GM finally decided at last week's Christmas party, held in the same room as Monday's news conference, led to a deal getting done four days later.

Dombrowski conceded Monday's mathematical realities. The Tigers have six starting pitchers. One will soon be traded and the Tigers have never disputed that conversations have focused on Rick Porcello. He is expected to be dealt, probably soon, which was all but advertised when Dombrowski happily announced there had been "numerous" calls from opposing GMs interested in Detroit's starting pitching surplus.

The Tigers believe they have a greater chance at getting deeper into games with less stress when their rotation features Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Sanchez, and left-hander Drew Smyly, who pitched with such consistency and polish his rookie season.

Sanchez's decision to stick in Detroit, pitching for a Tigers brand that has soared in status during the past six years, now permits a Porcello trade that should help gild an already handsome roster.

Which leaves one little thing. Finishing business in October.

Until that matter is wrapped up, an owner dreams, all as he lends his name to another round of astonishing paychecks.

To justify a lavish deal for pitcher Anibal Sanchez, center, that front-office chief Dave Dombrowski, right, agreed Monday was “risky,” the Tigers must win the World Series. / Robin Buckson/Detroit News
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