It's fun to talk about baseball and money. We all become genius general managers when it is not our $180 million to spend. It gives all of us something to talk about in those winter months when there are no real games to be played. The MLB Hot Stove contiually burns bright.
The Tigers have Justin Verlander under contract for four more seasons after the 2015 season concludes. He also has a vesting option in his deal that would pay him $22 million in 2020. That option year will vest if Verlander finishes in the top five of the Cy Young voting in 2019. That does not seem like a real concern at the moment.
There are really only two reasons to worry about Verlander's contract since, if you are reading this, you are probably not paying him or an immediate relative or friend. Reason one is that you are concerned his declining performance and pricey contract could keep a relative ineffective pitcher in the Tiger rotation for the next four and a half years. Reason two is that you are worried that by committing $28 million to Verlander each year, the Tigers may miss out on some players they would pay if only they were not paying Verlander.
Let's address reason one first. Verlander's performance has decline each season since his MVP/Cy Young season of 2011. Obviously, Verlander had nowhere to go but down after 2011. However, his 2012 season, while lacking as many wins, he was nearly as dominant. It was after that season Dave Dombrowski and Mike Ilitch coughed up the money. Since then, it has been like watching a different pitcher.
Which guy above would you be willing to pay $28 million to over the next four years? Most of us would be happy with 2013 Verlander. Don't get me wrong, the 2011/2012 vintage would be perfect, but most people would be pleased having a veteran pitcher with those numbers and that salary.
However, let's assume 2014 Verlander is now our guy. That's the guy the Tigers have through 2019. If that's the case, he's essentially the Ryan Howard of starting pitchers. A guy with a great past, a bad present, a declining future and a bad contract to boot.
Pitcher A: ERA+ 88, WHIP 1.21, SO/W 3.18, SO/9 6.5, OPS .725
Pitcher B: ERA+ 82, WHIP 1.42, SO/W 2.28, SO/9 6.7, OPS .762
Pitcher A appears to have a slight edge here, while striking out batters and a bit of a lower clip. Both players are below league average but are probably both good enough to hold a job. Pitcher A is Kyle Lohse and Pitcher B is Verlander over the past two seasons. The Tigers are essentially paying a Kyle Lohse-type player Clayton Kershaw-type money. Tough combo.
Most good teams can absorb a bad contract and still stay competitive. Those teams usually have some younger, cheaper players that can step in and really contribute. The Tigers are not that kind of team. Pretty much every talent evaluator out there ranks the Detroit farm system dead last or in the bottom five in baseball. The Tigers have remained competitve over the last decade by signing free agents like Ivan Rodriguez, Victor Martinez and Magglio Ordonez. They have also done it with trades (a special thank you going out to the Marlins). They have not done it with many homegrown stars.
Prior to the 2014 season the club traded away Doug Fister for pennies on the dollar. Many Tigers fans said to trust the process. Pretty much everyone on the outside said the deal was terrible for the Tigers. While Fister has struggled with injuries this season, he's been as good as advertised for the Washington Nationals. The club traded him away to save money.
Prior to this season the Tigers let Max Scherzer walk. Scherzer took over $200 million to sign with the Washington Nationals. Since leaving he's been the best pitcher in all of baseball. The Tigers let him walk because of money.
Mike Ilitch has opened his pockets very wide to field the current squad. No one can deny that. However, everyone has their limits and it appears Mr. Ilitch may have met his. With 28 million committed to Verlander, there just was not enough money around to keep Verlander, Fister and Scherzer. Since Scherzer has a contract structure that is very unique we can't compare him to Verlander straight up. However, on average, Scherzer will bring home $30 million per year for the next seven seasons. That should make you feel frustrated.
So, the Tigers have had to pass on Fister and Scherzer. Who's next to get passed up? David Price this winter? Maybe a someone entering arbitration like Jose Iglesias gets traded away in a year or two? That's the problem with a deal like Verlander's. It's a huge party when the guy signs, but then the reality sets in and it effects other players and their deals.
The Tigers payroll for 2015 is at $173 million. That's the highest in team history. The club has $111 million on the books for 2016 already. That money is all paid out to Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Anibal Sanchez and Ian Kinsler. That leaves about $60-70 million to fill out the rest of the roster. That does not include David Price or Yoenis Cespedes. If they both hit the open market in November, a good bet to happen, they will probably rake in a combined $300 million.
The toughest part here is that there is only one solution. Verlander must play better. If he continues to under perform he becomes impossible to trade and is a financial weight around the organization's neck for four more years.