Tigers Extend Miguel Cabrera, Pay For Their Impatience

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

It didn’t take long for the Scherzer dust to settle and for Dave Dombrowski to move on to his other star nearing free agency. On Thursday, the Tigers and Miguel Cabrera agreed to a 10 year, $292 million deal (or an 8 year, $248 million extension) that will keep him in a Tigers uniform until 2023. Cabrera had been under contract for the next two seasons for about $44 million. Update: The deal also appears to have two vesting options, so, yeah.

Earlier this offseason, I wrote that the Tigers should wait to extend Miguel Cabrera because I estimated that his price would go down as he aged rather than up as he approached free agency. Dombrowski decided not to wait and locked up Cabrera for the remainder of his productive career.

Cabrera’s defensive value has already bottomed out. At worst, he’ll move to DH for the 2015 season and will cost you about 1.5 to 2 wins of value from the positional adjustment. In 2013, his poor defense at third put that figure around 1.4 or 1.5 wins, so there’s nowhere to go on that side of the ball. This deal becomes about how you expect his bat to age. He’s one or two more good seasons away from the Hall of Fame and he’s established himself as one of the best 30 or so hitters of all time.

But an extension is about who he’s going to be going forward, not who he’s already been. Cabrera’s been worth 5 or more wins in 8 of the last 9 seasons and is on a four year streak of 6+ WAR seasons. If we figure you’d pay $6-7 million per WAR on the free agent market, Cabrera would have to be worth 42-49 WAR over the course of the deal to make it balance out.

And that’s not a great bet. Cabrera isn’t the kind of player that ages well defensively, but he’s already found the defensive floor. You don’t really care about anything but the value he will provide at the plate and as long as his body doesn’t break down, but that also puts a cap on the value he can add. If Cabrera ages pretty normally, you’re paying above market rate for a player who just spend the final two months of the season walking around like he’d been shot in the kneecaps. We’ve just spent the last three seasons watching Albert Pujols’ Hall of Fame skills erode before our eyes and Cabrera just got paid more money without the ability to add value on defense. Cabrera is an all-time talent, but the odds that he’s going to continue to be this great for this many years is a bad bet. And it’s not a bet the Tigers needed to make. You have him locked up for two more years. Take one of them and see how things go. Maybe he gets hurt or declines and either you don’t want him or you can extend him for less. If he looks great, you pay a little more for the year you waited.

Cabrera is coming off a serious injury. This wasn’t a broken finger, it was a injury that completely sapped his power and mobility for two entire months. He’s a great hitter, but the Tigers shouldn’t have been in a rush to sign this deal. It might not be a disaster, but there’s almost no way that it ends up being a good value either. The options are slight overpay and disaster. If those are your choices, it makes sense to wait.

It’s hard to be upset about making sure Cabrera is with the organization deep into his career, but it’s not a move you applaud. It’s a move you just accept. The smart money is on a slow, easy decline. No collapse, but no Bondsian surge. And that track makes this an overpay and an overpay you could have pushed down the road one more year.

In fact, I’m not sure you’d have seen him make this much if he was a free agent this offseason. It would have been close, but I can’t imagine it would have been much over. Why would you sign this deal? If you wait two seasons, does he really sign for more than 8/$248M? I don’t think so. Maybe Cabrera makes this deal look good, but the alternative track is far wiser. You’re paying Cabrera for the best case scenario before you back is up against the wall. Cabrera’s a great hitter and I’m glad he’ll stay on the roster for the next ten seasons, but the cost is too high and the trigger was too quick.

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2 responses

  1. In 10 years no one will remember what WAR was. Advances in technology will make the “stat” laughable, and still they will be unable to properly evaluate a player by numbers alone. I will, however, enjoy having our hall of famer for many years to come. Given inflating salaries, isn’t it reasonable to expect a hitter like Cabrera in 8 years to be somewhat comparable to a $12 Mil DH in current dollars? I’d take that bet. And we get all the good years, too.

  2. […] start of this year), I expanded on two points. First, keeping Cabrera long term might be smart, but signing him at the time they did was foolish. Second, I don’t care if the team wastes money as long as they are willing to throw more […]

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