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Niyo: Upton signing puts Tigers back in the hunt

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Justin Upton’s offensive numbers make him a crucial addition to the Tigers batting order.

Well, that’s one way to start a caravan.

An expensive way, at that. But money’s no object for Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, who is worth billions at least in part because of his willingness to spend hundreds of millions.

And as the Tigers prepare to kick off their Winter Caravan — with promotional stops Thursday and Friday leading up to Saturday’s TigerFest downtown — they’ve got an additional big-ticket item to impress their ticket-buying fans.

Justin Upton to Detroit? Yep, and just in time. The Tigers will make this latest blockbuster free-agent signing official today when they formally introduce their new All-Star outfielder at a press conference at Comerica Park. Then they’ll hit the road to tout their newly-remodeled, $200-million roster before flying south for the winter while fans flock to buy seats for another pennant chase.

Upton’s arrival might not put the Tigers over the top — the pitching remains something of a wild card. But it does put them back in the conversation again after a calamitous 2015 campaign, even in a division that includes the defending world champs in Kansas City, the pitching-rich Indians in Cleveland and improved teams in Chicago and Minnesota.

Only the Chicago Cubs have spent more money this offseason trying to upgrade their roster. Only the New York Yankees have ever signed two nine-figure free-agent deals in the same year, as the Tigers just did. And only a deal like this could generate this kind of buzz for a baseball team in the middle of the NFL playoffs.

“I hope everyone appreciates what a great owner Mr. Ilitch is,” the Tigers’ Justin Verlander posted on Twitter on Tuesday, clearly happy to add another Upton in his life. “This is the year!”

Going over

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But everyone keeps trying to close the Tigers’ championship window. And like a defiant kid in the back seat, Ilitch keeps pressing the button to open it again.

Which, by the way, is essentially what he told us he’d do several weeks ago. After the Tigers bolstered their starting rotation in late November by signing Jordan Zimmermann to a hefty, five-year, $110-million contract, the 86-year-old Ilitch talked about his impatience with falling short in search of a World Series ring — and his willingness to do whatever it takes to get one.

“I’ve never reneged on it, you know, going and signing a big player — ever,” Ilitch said, speaking for the first time about a “goofy” season that bottomed out with a rare trade-deadline sell-off and ended with the American League’s worst record.

The Tigers’ owner also mentioned Major League Baseball’s luxury tax that day, though he referenced it more as a nuisance than a barrier.

“Well, I’m supposed to be a good boy and not go over it,” Ilitch chuckled. “But if I’m gonna get certain players that can help us a lot, I’m going to go over it. … Oops, I shouldn’t have said that.”

Oops, he did it again.

Thinking big

Upton’s signing pushes the Tigers well past that tax threshold ($189 million in 2016) for the first time.

And as a result, the team will pay a 17.5-percent penalty on upwards of $20 million — maybe more — in projected payroll spending.

But what’s another few million bucks if it means adding a three-time All-Star and one-time MVP candidate to the top of the lineup? Or the middle of it. Or wherever manager Brad Ausmus sees fit to pencil in another slugger that’ll add to opposing pitching staffs’ nightmares when they face Detroit.

Upton’s career numbers — a .271/.352/.473 slash line — are beyond enticing for a team that had yet to find a replacement for Yoenis Cespedes in left field. And considering he’s only 28, there’s no reason to think Upton, a former No. 1 overall pick, won’t hit those marks in a more hitter-friendly park than the one he left behind in San Diego, where he still managed an .866 OPS with 15 homers in 271 at-bats last year.

There are holes in this plan, of course, just as there are holes in every swing, Upton’s included.

The Tigers are now paying $14 million-plus annually to seven players, and six are 30 or older. So while it’s easy to pin last year’s failures on all the injuries, it’s hard not to wonder if it might happen again. After all, age is more than just a number in professional sports.

What the Upton deal, which includes an opt-out after 2017, means for J.D. Martinez and his hopes for a contract extension in Detroit is unclear. What it means for Ausmus is much less so: Win now, or else.

There’s the question about a lopsided lineup, one that’ll lean heavily on right-handed bats. Seven or eight for most games, with switch-hitter Victor Martinez being the lone everyday exception.

But that didn’t seem to hamper the Toronto Blue Jays last year, and Upton — along with most of his teammates at the top of the Tigers’ order — hits righties well.

And right or wrong, this is where Ilitch has left his team once again. Well-fortified, heavily-invested and thinking big, both in payroll and possibilities.

Money can’t buy everything. Even Mike Ilitch understands that. But it sure gives you a shot at it.