COMMENTARY | Wednesday's baseball coverage was singular in its criticism of the abhorrent behavior of one of the worst owners in all of sports. Jeff Loria received backlash from commentators, experts, casual fans, tax payers in Miami, and even his lone remaining star player after he once again gutted the Miami Marlins franchise to extract additional profits. Contrast that with what Mike Ilitch and the Tigers were doing in Detroit as they once again aggressively filled a need by signing free agent Torii Hunter.
The Tigers, who began 2012 with a payroll of $133 million, committed $26 million over the next 2 years to Hunter. The team now has $105 million wrapped up in 8 players for 2013. Significant raises for arbitration-eligible players Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Phil Coke, Alex Avila, Austin Jackson, and Doug Fister could have the Tigers looking at payroll pushing $150 million. On the other hand, Loria dumped $181 million in payroll in one fell swoop.
The merits of the signing can certainly be debated. Hunter will most likely be a significant upgrade for the team, even if at age 38 he can't replicate the .313/.365/.465 (BA/OBP/SLG) line he put up in 2012. But the point is that Tigers fans are concocting lineups where the chief concern is whether or not it is prudent to have 3 right-handed hitters in a row at the top of the lineup. Keep in mind that Hunter would be bracketed by Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, and Austin Jackson (5.5 WAR in 2012). Meanwhile, Marlins fans are wondering how their collection of league-minimum players will fill out the roster.
There was a time when general manager Dave Dombrowski had to significantly overpay to get free agents to commit to Detroit. On the heels of the historically miserable 2003 season, the Tigers were either a last hope for unsigned stars with significant questions marks (Pudge Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez) or a mystery team used to drive up the asking prices.
Some may argue that the Tigers overpaid for Hunter, and that they overpaid for Prince Fielder last year. The difference is that fans of the team aren't worried because they have repeatedly seen Ilitch invest in the team even when the payroll seemed to be at its peak. It is the same type of commitment that Ilitch showed to the Red Wings in the pre-salary cap NHL. Detroit is now traditionally rumored to be a suitor of most big-ticket talent.
Things likely won't always be this rosy in Detroit. The Prince Fielder contract will likely hurt the franchise in the latter years, and the Tigers will have to continue to commit money to keep the marquee players they have. Because of Ilitch's age, he has been willing to risk long-term contracts to win in the short term.
There are no guarantees that the Ilitch family will have the same philosophy after the patriarch passes. Detroit fans only have to look to the Pistons to see how losing a passionate owner can set the franchise back. General manager Joe Dumars' hands were tied during the lengthy process of finding a new owner for the team after Bill Davidson died.
The 83-year-old Ilitch largely stays behind the scenes, but he was on the podium to celebrate the American League pennant. He appeared frail and was being helped by Dombrowski and Jim Leyland. There are only so many seasons for Ilitch to capture that elusive World Series championship. It's possible that some of the recent signings could hamstring the franchise in the future.
But, for now anyways, fans in Detroit have the luxury of spending the rest of the offseason wondering who the fifth starter will be and, not if, but when a Justin Verlander extension will happen. Tigers fans have this luxury because they have an owner who cares more about winning than lining his own pockets.Bill created Detroit Tigers Weblog in 2001, one of the first team-specific blogs on the Internet. He has also contributed to Tigers Corner, and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.
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