January 28, 2014 at 2:50 pm

Lynn Henning

Despite warning, expect Tigers to extend Miguel Cabrera's deal at a premium

Miguel Cabrera is a Hall of Fame-bound hitter who offers somewhat safer projections through his 30s than a pitcher affords (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)

Tigers Nation is preoccupied these days with Max Scherzer. He is the trendy talking point among those debating whether the Tigers should, or will, extend Scherzer’s contract as it moves closer to its 2014 finish line.

Considering the Cy Young Award trophy Scherzer recently tucked into a home he and his new wife Erica share, it’s almost enough to make Detroit’s faithful forget about another man whose contract issue is sneaking above the eastern horizon.

Miguel Cabrera.

The Tigers are not tipping hands — about Scherzer, Cabrera, or about anyone, except for pro forma, Chamber of Commerce-approved assurances they “hope to have Max” and “hope to have Miguel” as Tigers staples “for a long, long time.”

This is the stock line offered by front-office chief Dave Dombrowski. His boss, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, will issue final pronouncements on whether Scherzer or Cabrera will be signed to gigantic commitments in tune with a hysterical marketplace that could bring either of the above $200 million or more once the new contract’s ink is applied.

A different case

Scherzer, as has been discussed, appears to have only a remote chance at staying in Detroit. He is a pitcher, six months from turning 30, and his agent is Scott Boras, who does not typically extend players whose paydays stand to poke as high into the stratosphere as Scherzer’s could ascend when he hits free agency.

Cabrera is another subject altogether. He is different, thoroughly different, from Scherzer. Cabrera is a Hall of Fame-bound hitter who offers somewhat safer projections through his 30s than a pitcher affords, even if the Tigers ignored all of that when last spring they handed Justin Verlander a whopping deal that could reach $200 million by the time it ceases, as late as 2020.

Cabrera is a monumentally important and talented everyday player. He has been the most vital Tigers regular since Al Kaline, since Hank Greenberg, and perhaps will go down as the greatest Tigers star since Ty Cobb.

That is, if he remains in Detroit. And — this is what everything hinges on — if he produces close to the standard one of baseball’s all-time most skilled hitters has thus far established.

This is where it gets dicey. This is where the Tigers must make decisions based upon careful calculations they no doubt have privately pondered and, for all we know, have all but decided upon.

Their options are linear.

They can choose to extend Cabrera this year and bypass all the drama and ceaseless chatter that would follow him into the 2015 season.

They can wait and see how the next two seasons evolve and take their chances on signing Cabrera at some point in 2015, or even as a free agent. Unless he is injured in some ominous way, they almost surely will make a one-year qualifying offer for 2016 and at least grab a first-round draft pick should they lose him to an outside bidder.

They also can listen to opposing teams in the interim and see if The Godfather is reprised with an offer the Tigers can’t refuse. This seemingly would be an idea worth considering if, for reasons in which baseball specializes, the Tigers have a lousy first half in 2014, fall out of contention, and begin to think about their future.

A personal guess is the Tigers will choose Door No. 1.

Cabrera is so extraordinary, so strong, so marvelously gifted as a hitter, the Tigers — and, presumably, Ilitch — will want the so-called face of their team to remain that face for years to come.

They know Cabrera is not only a dynamic athlete, and a for-the-ages hitter, he is a box-office Leviathan.

The Tigers’ annual attendance is very much underpinned by what they do during the months and weeks prior to Opening Day. It is the time when season tickets are bought or renewed.

When the Tigers secure season-ticket sales north of 20,000, they have a shot — depending upon how the team fares — to reach the hallowed 3-million mark that, astonishingly for a market of this makeup, has become almost a regular feature at Comerica Park.

Cabrera, at least the Cabrera who has regularly shown up since 2008, is heavy on the minds of those who pay handsome cash for their season seats.

The Tigers, via Dombrowski, have always said they can carry a couple of superstar salaries. Verlander owns one through the remainder of this decade. Scherzer is the player who appears most likely to move on. That theoretically would allow the Tigers to lock up Cabrera with one of those near-$200 million deals.

Ominous history

But is it the correct move?

Not if you buy into research done by one of baseball punditry’s best analysts, Dan Szymborski, who two years ago this month issued warnings about Prince Fielder’s contract.

Szymborski, who conceived the brainy ZIPS projection system, writes for ESPN Insider and unveiled a careful appraisal of Cabrera’s likely numbers and value to the Tigers as he moves deeper into his 30s (Cabrera turns 31 on April 18).

Szymborski uses as a base the acronym most favored by baseball’s intelligentsia, WAR (wins above replacement). He finds that from age 27-30, Cabrera is right there with the game’s all-time best players, with the 27th-highest WAR in big-league history.

Those players and Cabrera averaged just less than seven WAR per season, or as Szymborski explains, nearly twice what an All-Star-caliber player might contribute.

The problem, he explains, is that from 33-39 (Cabrera will turn 33 in the first year of his new contract) the average number for those same players declines to 2.3 WAR per season.

That isn’t a brand of performance commensurate with a player you’re paying $25 million or more. Szymborski cites Albert Pujols as an example of why the Tigers should think twice about handing over the U.S. Treasury in any Cabrera extension.

The Cardinals waited until the last moment with Pujols, didn’t like where the numbers were headed, and ultimately backed away from a contract that now could suffocate the Angels for years to come.

“The next team to sign Cabrera,” Szymborski writes, “whether it’s the Tigers or another team, doesn’t get to purchase his previous six seasons — they get the right to his next six seasons.

“From stars to scrubs, the after-age-30 stories tend to be one of decline as players hurtle inevitably toward retirement. The lessons of previous superstars should not go unlearned.”

No doubt, the Tigers front office and Ilitch have considered the above actuarial. And no doubt, they also look at their fan base, and at a future lineup minus Cabrera, and the chill factor exceeds anything Detroit is experiencing, even in this abominable January.

Expect the history of Ilitch and the brunt of his Red Wings/Tigers superstars to be repeated. The Tigers are a solid bet to extend Cabrera, even if Szymborski’s warning may well be remembered, ruefully, a few years from now.


More Lynn Henning