Tigers focus on present, but future getting dicey

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

The Tigers, obviously, remain in win-now mode.

As for the future? Well, let's not go there. Actually, let's.

Like a college kid who's maxed out every credit card in his wallet, the Tigers are on a spending spree for which the big bill eventually will come due. But they'll worry about that another day.

Today, they have star slugger Victor Martinez back in uniform, on a four-year, $68 million deal that came together in hurry Wednesday night at the general managers' meetings in Phoenix.

That was a pivotal move for the Tigers' 2015 success, given if Martinez walked, there were exactly zero internal replacement options, and really not many more available on the free-agent market.

But long-term? Well, the Tigers are starting to seriously handcuff their payroll flexibility in future seasons.

Take 2018, for instance. That will be the last year of Martinez's deal, that will pay him $17 million a season. Combined with the money owed that year to Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Ian Kinsler, plus the $5 million they will be sending the Rangers to help offset Prince Fielder's deal, the Tigers already have committed at least $90 million to that year's payroll — and as much as $108 million, if options are picked up for Sanchez and Kinsler.

All of the players will be in their mid- or upper-30s in 2018, theoretically well past their prime.

That 2018 figure doesn't include David Price and Rick Porcello, two pitchers who will be free agents after the 2015 season — and two pitchers Tigers brass would prefer to keep in Detroit long-term.

According to a search of future payroll obligations compiled by Cot's Baseball Contracts, only the Dodgers have more already committed to 2018 — $131 million. All other teams are less on the hook than the Tigers, and most significantly less. In fact, the four other American League Central teams, combined, only have $69 committed for 2018.

The Marlins, get this, actually have zero dollars designated for 2018.

What does this mean for the Tigers? The obvious: Owner Mike Ilitch remains very willing to spend and spend and spend until he gets that World Series ring, and, at 85 and in delicate health, isn't all that concerned about the future of his financial portfolio.

But it also could mean the Tigers of 2018 and beyond could be in significant decline, given the age of their pricey stars — and a severe lack of flexibility with the payroll, not unlike the money mess Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski inherited when he came to Detroit in November 2001.

That doesn't mean the situation is definitely dire. A lot can happen in the coming years.

For starters, a blockbuster trade to free up payroll is probably a safe bet, and could come as early as this offseason, with Price and/or Kinsler the likeliest to be shopped. Then there's this: The Tigers' TV contract with Fox Sports Detroit is set to be renegotiated as early as 2018, and could prove a significant financial windfall for the organization, given awesome ratings.

Baseball, itself, also continues to bring in record revenues, with no sign of slowing. So, by 2018 or 2019, the Tigers' payroll could, conceivably and comfortably, be in the $200 million range, making today's concern a moot point.

That said, like the college kid's credit-card bills that are piling up in the dorm room, the situation can't be ignored, either.

Future finances

A look at teams' financial obligations for 2018, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts:

Top five

1. Dodgers, $131M

2. Tigers, $90M

3. Yankees, $72M

4. Angels, $61M

5. Rangers, $58M

Bottom five

30. Marlins, $0

T29. Astros, $2M

T29. Royals, $2M

T27. Blue Jays, $4M

T27. A's, $4M