Last weekend, the Detroit Tigers signed Jordan Zimmermann and announced his five-year, 110 million dollar deal on Monday. While many have praised the Tigers for the deal, Zimmermann is the latest contract on an ever-growing pile of big contracts. The Tigers are doubling down on the strategy that places a lot of importance on a few pieces. They have $145.9 million committed to eight players. Among Tigers fans, panic about the roster and the sustainability of this system is rampant. However, might there be another way of looking at these big contracts?
The main objection to these contracts is that they are unsustainable. Eventually, the theory holds, the Tigers will crumple and fold like the Philadelphia Phillies and we will have to pay the bills and watch terrible baseball for the better part of a decade. While there is reason to worry, we hear this refrain every year. Remember in 2012 when the Tigers missed out on the the World Series a few months before the world was supposed to end, consumed by the fire of Armageddon? What happened then?
Well, the eschaton never came and instead the Tigers won two more division titles in a row. The future is a mystery and time spent worrying about it is mostly a waste, especially in baseball which is far more unpredictable than the cosmos. Besides, there are indications that the Tigers are consciously working on developing their young talent pool. Since there is nothing that we can do to stop it anyway, what is there about this type of roster that we can enjoy?
For one, big contracts allow baseball clubs to cultivate heroes. Detroit is a franchise not light on club legends -- Kaline, Cobb, Horton, Greenberg, Trammell, and Whitaker all come to mind. Financial incentives have forced small market clubs like Oakland and Tampa Bay to eschew long-term contracts to stars and the result is that the fans can only have fleeting flings with greatness, knowing that their best players will eventually be sold when their value peaks. If you are an Oakland fan, you are probably lamenting buying that Josh Donaldson jersey or waiting in fear, praying they won't trade Sonny Gray (they will). The Tigers have purposefully set about creating new legends in this era under owner Mike Ilitch, and, at the very least, Miguel Cabrera's last extension has earned them another number retired and a hat in the Hall of Fame. Justin Verlander still has a chance to join him if last year's second half is indicative of his future performance.
Besides the active process of legend making, even supplemental pieces who will go nowhere near the Hall of Fame, but will stay in Detroit for a while add much to the tapestry of a baseball season. Ian Kinsler, Anibal Sanchez, Victor Martinez and now Zimmermann all fall in this group. Having these players around for the foreseeable future (*prays for Sanchez's shoulder*) provides stability that creates a bond between players and fans. Baseball is a game about time and routines. As a fan, something happens when you watch someone play every day for entire summers on end. We begin to develop an affinity for players. For example, Don Kelly spent six years in Detroit and many of us developed Stockholm syndrome -- alternately known as the Brandon Inge Complex -- and now he is a legend in his own right. At the very least, it is nice having generally the same group of players around so that you don't have to explain to your family who everyone is on the field.
In addition to the bonds created over time, there is something to be said for relying on established players and not prospects. In many ways this is the golden age of prospects and that is very fun, sexy time, but it is easy to get caught up in the hype that comes with Carlos Correa and forget the Jacob Turners, Mike Zuninos, Donovan Tates and Mike Hobgoods of the world. Potential is exciting. We all love prospects because they create space for us to dream and project something great.
Yet, when someone like Nick Castellanos comes around and holds his own, achieving an admirable level of success for someone of his pedigree, we are disappointed. Prospects will break your heart. Dave Dombrowski traded all of them away, presumably out of a fear of being hurt and it is hard to name one prospect so far that has made him look foolish for doing so. The Tigers core players are not players you can dream on. We know Anibal Sanchez's ceiling and floor, ditto to Cabrera, Verlander and VMart. Having some degree of certainty about what a player will produce in the baseball world of flux is nice. This isn't to say that these players produce the same thing every year, they do not, but their range of expected outcomes is more narrow.
Finally, this is probably the best way for the Tigers to operate right now. We all want our teams to succeed and if you have seen the Tigers farm system, you know that it isn't oozing successful big league baseball players. People don't want to endure a lengthy rebuild and they don't want the Tigers to be hamstrung by big contracts. The fact is, we cannot have both things. And if Ilitch wants to be a bad boy and spend more money than he should, I am willing to say thank you and enjoy the better product the Tigers put on the baseball field. At the end of the day it isn't our money, but it is our team so why not enjoy the players we have?
In 2016, we will get to once again watch a team with a lot of talent play in Comerica Park. Once again, the rotation will feature established pitchers without a trace of Alfredo Simon. Kinsler, Cabrera, Verlander and the others will be joined by some budding young talent and a few Mud Hens we wish weren't there. This is probably the best bet for the Tigers and for fans, there is a lot to like. Worry less about the money, enjoy the good baseball while it's here.
Welcome, Jordan Zimmermann, may you be someone's Tiger for the next five years.