Tigers still stuck with an out-of-whack payroll, but better years are ahead

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Victor Martinez, left, has come off the Tigers' payroll, but Miguel Cabrera remains for a long time.

Consult one of those MLB payroll charts from 2018 and you’ll see the Tigers variously listed anywhere from 17th (spotrac.com, $131 million) to 20th (USA Today and statista.com, $111 million).

The figure, though, is closer to spotrac’s figures, acknowledged a Tigers source close to the payroll picture who asked not to be identified because such information, for any big-league ballclub, is regarded as private.

But whether 17th or 20th, the Tigers’ perch is alarmingly high for a team that finished with baseball’s fifth-worst record in 2018.

By the time next year’s raises and free-agent adds are computed, the Tigers still figure to finish somewhere in the range of 15th to 18th among big-league baseball’s 30 clubs, said the Tigers source.

It doesn’t matter that Victor Martinez and his $18 million in 2018 paychecks are history. It's incidental that Mike Fiers ($6 million) and Francisco Liriano ($4 million) are likewise gone, as is Jose Iglesias, a shortstop who last year pulled in $6.275 million.

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The Tigers are shopping for replacements, at shortstop and on the pitching side, who won’t come inexpensively. They also are responsible for raises owed arbitration-eligible players such as Nick Castellanos, Matthew Boyd, Alex Wilson, Shane Greene, Drew VerHagen and others, a list which might or might not include catcher James McCann, who is no sure bet to be offered a 2019 contract by Detroit.

The Tigers had another issue propping up their payroll placement in 2018: contracts still being paid to players no longer in Detroit.

Renew acquaintances for a moment with Prince Fielder and Justin Verlander.

Fielder retired two years ago from big-league baseball because of neck ills. He still is being paid by the Rangers, and by the Tigers, who agreed to dole out $6 million annually for five years when the Rangers took on Fielder’s whopping contract following the 2013 season.

The Tigers have one more $6-million check to write on Fielder’s behalf and then are finished with any remnants from his time in Detroit. Verlander was paid $8 million by the Tigers in 2018 even as he pitched the past year in Houston. He gets another $8 million as a Tigers subsidy on his $28-million annual salary in 2019.

After next season, the Tigers are clear, and they’ll be freed following the 2020 season from any further obligations to Jordan Zimmermann, who has $25 million coming in 2019 and another $25 million in 2020.

The Tigers expect to pay close to $130 million again in 2019 — about $80 million less than they paid in 2016 — mostly due to their free-spending days when late owner Mike Ilitch still was in charge and pushing for a world championship he never got. 

More: Tigers still free-agent shopping as offseason market hits a lull

That accounts for nearly half of next year’s payroll going to two players: Zimmermann, as well as Miguel Cabrera, who has at least five more seasons of world-class pay arriving: $30 million in 2019, 2020 and 2021, and $32 million in 2022 and 2023.

Ilitch always wanted Cabrera as a heavily compensated, generously thanked, and permanently placed fixture at Comerica Park. And he got it, much to the consternation of a current front office that in 2014 wasn’t on board with a nearly $300-million extension.

The Tigers are known to be losing tens of millions of dollars each year, according to Forbes, during a rebuilding era that follows their earlier stint as a playoff regular.

Business is taking a like hit. The Tigers four times from 2007-13 hit 3 million in attendance, but last season slipped to 1.86 million.

Not a great deal is expected to change in 2019, on the field or at the box office, which will leave the Tigers again with the specter of a ballclub that finishes higher in salaries than in victories.

The $110-million contract given to Jordan Zimmermann has been a disaster for the Tigers.

The answer?

It isn’t viewed by the Tigers, nor by students of traditional baseball rebuilds, as wise to spend lavishly on free agents that could help the Tigers play more competitively and perhaps draw better turnstile numbers.

The reason it isn’t prudent is simply expressed: It’s probably a waste of money when so many expensive players would be required, even if they agreed to join a rebuilding club.

An over-bloated payroll for a team that in all likelihood wouldn’t seriously contend would stick the team with more bad debt and frustrate fans who could see a delay in a stronger rebuild, both because payroll would be badly out of proportion and eventually restrictive, and also because better draft position would be stymied by finishes just deep enough to miss on true difference-making picks.

More: When will the Detroit Tigers contend again? Here's one possible timeline

It leaves the Tigers exactly where dark forecasts from years ago suggested they would find themselves — with an expensive team trying to reassemble its roster all while paying payroll freight more in line with a contending team.

It is likely a temporary condition for the Tigers.

Payroll will ease, apart from Cabrera, once Zimmermann departs and contracts otherwise are in line with baseball’s 2018 market.

While some fans are leery of Chris Ilitch, who followed his late father as Tigers chief overseer, the younger Ilitch has hinted to his Comerica lieutenants that the Tigers will be free, when the time is right, to invest again in billboard talent as the team’s rebuild begins to flower.

That would seem to be sane, as well as logical, policy. The Tigers got big box-office boosts a decade and more ago when they brought to Comerica Park a steady cast of turnaround talent: Pudge Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Cabrera, Anibal Sanchez, etc.

But the circumstances also were different. Rodriguez and Ordonez were medical risks the Tigers were able to all but steal — and turn into winning gambles. Cabrera arrived when the Tigers farm system, which had begun to perk up, turned into a talent bin that could be spun for the likes of Cabrera, Max Scherzer, and Sanchez, among others.

Nothing prevents the Tigers from making a similar foray should players like a Pudge or Ordonez be left in exile on the free-agent market, as they were in 2004 and 2005, respectively. But those situations are rare and not as likely to pay off as they’re likely to blow up with older, aging, and super-expensive players, which the Tigers have known with Fielder and Zimmermann.

It is a matter, for the most part, of cycles common to pro sports. A team wins for a sustained stretch and then must reinvent itself as aging players depart and a new crop is planted.

More: Don Kelly leaving Tigers to be Astros’ first-base coach

The difference with the Tigers? They signed onto age, and expense, years ago when Mike Ilitch accepted a high-retail marketplace he thought would deliver his dream.

The dream didn’t eventuate. Financial realities did.

The Tigers are realigning, building a new roster, paying off old debts, and hoping their new quest in a few years delivers a championship Mike Ilitch sadly never realized.