The Tigers are giving their core another go
If it wasn't apparent back in late January, when Prince Fielder signed a nine-year, $214 million contract, the Tigers are in win-now mode. That makes it all the more understandable that, even though they began the bidding at a reasonable four years and $48 million, they ended up agreeing to a five-year, $80 million contract with free agent pitcher Anibal Sanchez.
Let's back up to that Fielder acquisition for a moment, though. The first baseman was signed at a time when the Tigers already had a bat-first player for the position in Miguel Cabrera, and, while injured for 2012, a designated hitter under contract for 2013 in Victor Martinez. The solution? Move Cabrera to third, put Fielder at first, and worry about Martinez in 2013 when it was something that had to be worried about. It cost the Tigers a contract that they could very well be regretting come the later part of this decade, when Fielder is in his mid-30s, but in the present, it helped give them a dangerous lineup. That would, in theory, go doubly so for 2013, when Martinez was back, and they could line the three up one after the other in one of the league's scariest middle-of-the-order setups.
Why did the present matter so much, even at the expense of the future? The Tigers core, while not old, is only in town for so long. Justin Verlander, arguably the league's greatest pitcher, is a free agent after the 2014 season if the Tigers don't extend him first. Even if they do, there's no guarantee he'll ever be better than he is right now, in his late 20s when his arm is capable of throwing nearly 1,000 innings in a four-year span. Cabrera is around through 2015 and is one of the game's top hitters. That, too, could continue, but it's hard to believe he'll be as good -- or as cheap -- down the road as he is now. Austin Jackson and Doug Fister are also free agents after 2015, and both Victor Martinez and Max Scherzer will be gone before that. This core is intact for just a couple more seasons, so to add Fielder to that core for three years, even if it meant potentially keeping him past his expiration date, was a bold move that made a lot of sense for the Tigers.
This is why the Tigers traded one of their top pitching prospects in Jacob Turner, a compensation draft pick, and two others to the Marlins for a season-and-a-half of Omar Infante and a half-year of Anibal Sanchez. Turner might have helped more in the long run -- remember, there was no guarantee Sanchez would re-sign at season's end -- but Sanchez could help the Tigers in their quest to strike while the playoff iron was hot. To Detroit, that mattered more than the years of team control that Turner represented.
They nearly accomplished their goal in year one, too. Heading into this off-season, the ticking clock situation was the same, but Sanchez was a free agent. The Tigers have Rick Porcello on hand, but in their quest to add more offense in Fielder, they ended up with an infield featuring exactly one capable defensive player. It's not the ideal environment, and while the damage caused might be overstated (Porcello's batting average on balls in play for grounders was only eight points higher than the league average), someone who can miss more bats and put the ball towards the outfield -- a place where the Tigers can actually field -- makes more sense for this particular club. Especially since they can deal Porcello to fill other needs the club has.
So, the Tigers signed Torii Hunter, improving their outfield defense, and adding yet another name to the pile of key players in town for the next couple of seasons. Sanchez, though, like Fielder, was going to require a deal that exceeded the lifespan of its expected value. As a pitcher, any contract carries risk. Sanchez, while healthy the last few years, does have a sustained history of arm problems -- there were concerns about his elbow before he ever made it to the majors. There's a chance Sanchez is injured during the life of this deal, a chance amplified by pushing it to five years, but what the Tigers care about the most is fielding the best team they can over the next two-to-three seasons.
While someone like Ryan Dempster might have fit the bill in the short-term -- Sanchez and Dempster have remarkably similar results over the last three seasons -- he was taken off of the market early on Thursday by the Red Sox. By Thursday night, other teams were pressing in on Sanchez, and the market for what are relatively considered to be sure things among pitchers was in the midst of dwindling. This is how you end up with overnight negotiations to steal Sanchez back from the Cubs, who entered the bidding at five years and $75 million, so close to done that a false-start signing was reported.
Did the Tigers overpay for Sanchez? Something like that is somewhat relative. In a vacuum, yes, the Tigers are paying $16 million to a pitcher who, while productive, isn't exactly great like his impressive paychecks will say he is. Was he the best available left on the market, though, and a pitcher who can help Detroit achieve their goal of winning a World Series before the Tigers as we know them scatter to the winds? That's why they acquired Sanchez at last year's deadline to begin with. Re-signing him is simply giving that plan another go, and it's hard to blame them considering how close they were to getting it done on the first attempt.