Ilitch’s desire brought Prince Fielder to Detroit
Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Detroit Tigers.
2011 record: 95-67
Finish: First place, AL Central
2011 final payroll: $113.2 million
Estimated 2012 opening day payroll: $132 million
Yahoo! Sports’ offseason rank: 7th
Hashtags: #princely, #greatowners, #sobriety, #unspeakablybadinfielddefense, #dugoutheaters, #20millionplayers, #arbitration, #cardboardpizza, #cymvp, #baddivision
That ol’ sandbagger Dave Dombrowski. His Detroit Tigers had won the AL Central by 15 games last year, and the division didn’t look much better this season. Even with Victor Martinez’s knee turning to mashed potatoes, the Tigers’ offseason – which consisted of signing Octavio Dotel, Ramon Santiago and Gerald Laird, plus trading reliever Ryan Perry for Colin Balester – didn’t look like a complete waste. Sometimes inaction is better than action.
Then Mike Ilitch told Dombrowski he wanted Prince Fielder, and when your owner asks for a player, your job as general manager is to deliver him. Which is why $214 million later, Ilitch has his guy, Fielder has more money than even his dad could gamble away, the Tigers have the best 3-4 punch in baseball and those around the game, from the big spenders to the most frugal, are still questioning aloud just how wretched this Tigers infield may be defensively.
Even if it is the most wretched ever – and chances are it won’t be – the heft Fielder brings to the lineup will make up for it and more, at least in the short term. Fielder is an impossibly rare commodity: the left-handed power hitter. Over the last five years, he has hit 200 home runs. Only Ryan Howard, with 204, has more. Next on the list is Carlos Pena at 172.
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Here’s the thing: Fielder is a great hitter, period. His .399 on-base percentage since ’07 is fourth among lefties, behind Joey Votto, Joe Mauer and Todd Helton. His .553 slugging percentage? Best, ahead of Votto, Howard, Josh Hamilton, David Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez and everyone else.
No wonder Ilitch found himself so seduced. It’s easy to look past the wisdom of moving Miguel Cabrera to third base when Fielder swings like he does. It’s easy to wear blinders on a nine-year contract when those years are going to a 40-homer-a-year leviathan. It’s easy to spend like a king when … aw, that’s just too easy.
Almost 20 years ago, Ilitch bought the Tigers from, of all people, the founder of Domino’s Pizza, Tom Monaghan. He spent $82 million – about $18 million more than he’ll pay for Fielder, Cabrera and reigning MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander.
Only the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies join the Tigers with three $20 million-plus players, and they’re the Yankees and Phillies, two of the game’s three financial behemoths. The Boston Red Sox, cheapskates that they are, carry just two from the $20M club.
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The Yankees do it with their monetary muscle and the Phillies with their sellout crowds and the promise of a TV-rights bonanza come 2015. The Tigers, on the other hand, are constructed with Ilitch’s frothing desire for a championship, built more on his fortune than the club’s revenues. Remember, FOX Sports Detroit pays about $100 million a year for broadcast rights to the Ilitch-owned Tigers and Red Wings, plus the Pistons. The Los Angeles Angels alone get $150 million a year through their FOX deal.
The coming years will push hard against Ilitch, especially if the Tigers don’t win the World Series that has eluded him. After this season, $26.75 million comes off their books in the contracts of closer Jose Valverde, shortstop Jhonny Peralta, outfielder Delmon Young and third baseman Brandon Inge. With Alex Avila, Doug Fister, Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch hitting arbitration, plus Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello hitting their second year, the across-the-board raises should cover three-quarters of that money and leave the Tigers naked at the back end of their bullpen and up the middle. It’s enough to cause manager Jim Leyland to steal a smoke thinking about 2013, and 2012 hasn’t even happened.
And yet Leylandâs faith in Ilitch never has been higher, not when he delivered Fielder. Even if the rest of the Tigers’ lineup underachieves, he and Cabrera can carry it to the best offense in the division, which would complement the best rotation just fine, thank you. While the likelihood of Cabrera staying at third for even half a season is far-fetched, Leyland’s stubbornness sometimes manifests itself in odd ways.
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He still commands the clubhouse like few managers do. The Tigers like Leyland – his no-nonsense attitude, his amusing mannerisms, his creative use of profanity. He stuck by Cabrera after his awful DUI last spring and reaped the spoils of his sobriety. He let Verlander evolve into the ace he is. Leyland is the most on-edge laissez-faire manager in baseball. And once the Tigers run roughshod over the AL Central as they should, he’ll aim to do what old pal Tony La Russa did last October.
When word leaked the Tigers were close to signing Prince Fielder, the nostalgia kick in Detroit started. Fans flocked to YouTube to find the old McDonald’s commercial with Prince and his dad, Cecil, from two decades ago. Sports Illustrated unearthed a picture of Prince on the field for batting practice in Zubaz pants and a Tigers hat. Prince was theirs, even if he was born in California and went to school in Florida, and he was coming home. If it took $214 million to bring back a Fielder to hit home runs, well, bless Mike Ilitch’s heart. Never mind that Prince hadn’t spoken with Cecil in years nor that the Tigers already had a potential Hall of Fame first baseman. Prince was back, and did it ever feel great.
Tigers in Haiku
In pizza an all-time low
Cardboard paid for Prince
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