Henning: Upton is just what Tigers lineup needs

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Everyone knew it, including the owner.

The Tigers needed a left-fielder. You saw it. Brad Ausmus had deduced it. Al Avila, six months into his job as Tigers general manager, realized every bit as much that a position as geared to offense as left field required someone other than Cameron Maybin.

Above all and ultimately, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch accepted that if his team were to make a serious run for a world championship he so thirsts for, it would require adding a star player at a position fundamentally designed to create runs.

The Tigers got their trophy Monday night when they snagged free-agent outfielder Justin Upton, 28, for a six-year deal worth $132 million, pending Upton's passing of a physical.

The Tigers now have transformed themselves from a potential middle-of-the-pack contender in the American League Central to a team that can legitimately rank as a beauty-queen finalist.

Ilitch knows baseball. He really does get it. He has a feel for the game, principally because he played it, and moreover because he has owned a big-league club, the Tigers, for 24 years.

How Tigers batting order shapes up with Upton

He has a grasp on his roster. Unlike some owners — Dallas Cowboys boss Jerry Jones, for example — Ilitch has enough smarts and humility to allow his true personnel experts to make assessments and bring to him their evaluations.

Avila and Company knew that if Ilitch was going to expend the tremendous capital and risk involved in any heavyweight signing, Upton would be a better bet than the other inviting outfielder on the market, Yoenis Cespedes.

Primarily, it has to do with age. Upton, again, is 28. Cespedes turned 30 in October.

Those months are huge in terms of projecting an athlete’s longevity and ability to make digestible a contract of such length and lavishness.

Think about what Ilitch is doing here.

Almost certainly, ahead of any final bookkeeping figures, he and the Tigers have eclipsed the 2016 payroll ceiling of $189 million that a big-league team is obliged to observe if it wants to avoid heavy penalties.

The consequences are this: Teams are fined in the first year 17.5 percent of any salary-cap excess. The penalty can climb thereafter, depending upon bookkeeping, to 30, 40, and 50 percent.

How Tigers batting order shapes up with Upton

The Tigers and Upton conveniently have arrived at a two-year opt-out in their contract, meaning Upton can protect his interests as easily as the Tigers can do some juggling to avoid a prohibitively high tax.

Accountants will figure out the particulars. Ilitch is too shrewd a businessman, in company with his Tigers front office, to have not considered contingencies and options.

What they focused on instead with this apparent signing is securing for left field a big right-handed bat (.825 career OPS, 190 home runs, .271 batting average, 115 stolen bases) wielded by an athlete with the gifts to cover a national-park-sized tract in left field.

This gives Ausmus, the Tigers manager, a high-caliber hitter with a heavy .352 career on-base percentage who can be tucked anywhere in Detroit's lineup. Upton brings defense, speed, extra-base power, and a quiver full of game-changing skills the Tigers almost had to brandish if they were going to match up with other division lineups.

Left unsaid is that the Tigers with Monday’s shopping did themselves a business favor in 2016.

They sold some season tickets. Undoubtedly, they prodded a few lukewarm customers to renew or buy seats that might have been forsaken had the team not added a splash of salsa to its 2016 menu.

This, of course, is pure Ilitch. The businessman knows his audience as well as his team.

The boss understands position voids. It led him 12 years ago to sign Pudge Rodriguez, and a year later to pilfer Magglio Ordonez.

It sent him later in 2007 on a quest to bring aboard Miguel Cabrera. It motivated him to sign Prince Fielder when the Tigers appeared in 2012 to be as fringe following Victor Martinez’s injury as they stood to be entering spring camp a month from now.

Ilitch gets it.

What his team just got in Upton was a 12-volt battery added to its roster, to its everyday lineup, and to a team’s championship dream.