Justin Upton's signing proves Tigers owner is unparalleled in American sports

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

Of all the figures that tend to define Mike Ilitch – 86 years old and $5.4 billion net worth being the two most prominent – the one that matters most is zero. That is the number of championships he has won as Detroit Tigers owner and the number of damns he gives trying to change it.

The most munificent owner in professional sports struck again Monday night. The Tigers guaranteed $132.75 million for six years of Justin Upton’s services and in the process took their greatest strength – right-handed hitters – and added another to the mix for good measure. No matter how little Ilitch may be involved in the day-to-day operations of the Tigers, his ethos resonates throughout the organization and drives their every move. He lives the rhetorical question all fans wish their owner would.

Justin Upton has hit 26 or more home runs in a season five times. (AP)
Justin Upton has hit 26 or more home runs in a season five times. (AP)

What’s the point in being filthy freaking rich if you’re not going to spend it?

This is the juncture at which it’s important to note that money does not buy championships, as Ilitch full well understands having spent more than $1.7 billion since the turn of the millennium on Tigers players. And that adding Upton, a left fielder, doesn’t address the questions about Detroit’s aging starting pitching or the conflagrant bullpen that in recent years played arsonist to the Tigers’ title hopes.

What money does is buy talent, and talent is the best progenitor of success in baseball. When Ilitch splurges, he’s purchasing opportunity; in a business with no guarantees, that is the single best investment an owner can make, even if Ilitch’s preferred avenue of spending, free agency, is ripe with inefficiencies and pitfalls.

Cost of doing business, he might as well be saying, as baseball gives him the leeway the salary caps of the NFL, NBA and NHL don’t. Baseball owners are so much more important than other sports because the rules allow them to operate independently, and it’s what makes Ilitch’s fellow owners shake their heads at his spending. Detroit is the 12th-biggest TV market in the United States. The three before it, Atlanta, Houston and Arizona, project to have payrolls of $85 million, $88 million and $94 million, respectively, this season. The three after it, Tampa Bay, Seattle and Minnesota, are at $64 million, $139 million and $104 million.

The Tigers’ payroll, presuming Upton makes around $22 million this season, stands at $196 million, beyond the $189 million luxury-tax threshold. That’s Dodgers-Yankees-Red Sox territory, and those are coastal teams with oodles of TV money and other revenue streams. The Tigers’ local-TV deal gives them a little more than $50 million a year, pennies compared to other franchises. Other teams in their financial situations stress drafting and player development as the tenets to keep themselves competitive.

Detroit relies on its magnanimous owner and his refusal to stop swiping a fountain pen across mega-checks. There was Miguel Cabrera’s eight-year, $248 million extension that – and this is true – still hasn’t kicked in. (It starts in April, two weeks before he turns 33.) And Justin Verlander’s seven-year, $180 million deal whose cost has gone inverse to his fastball velocity. Anibal Sanchez got $80 million and Victor Martinez $68 million, and that’s to say nothing of his past spending, what with Prince Fielder and Magglio Ordonez and Pudge Rodriguez.

Ilitch started this offseason by giving Jordan Zimmermann a $110 million deal, the first nine-figure contract ever lavished on someone with a Tommy John surgery on his résumé. Detroit gave guaranteed $16 million to Mike Pelfrey and $11 million to Mark Lowe, two more pitchers with surgically repaired right arms, and they brought in Cameron Maybin to lock down center field and Francisco Rodriguez to take care of the ninth inning, and that still wasn’t enough for Ilitch.

The idea that the Tigers’ championship window shut last season, shared by more than a few in the game and parroted in this space, was wrong. It presupposed that the Tigers play a game in which windows exist. They don’t. Ilitch fostered a culture where dollars are fungible and talent paramount, which means that a player of Justin Upton’s caliber hanging for the taking in January merits action.

Detroit is a better team today than it was yesterday, and if Cabrera and Martinez can stay healthy alongside Upton, Maybin, Ian Kinsler, J.D. Martinez, Jose Iglesias, Nick Castellanos and James McCann, the American League Central has reason to quiver. Never mind that this lineup resembles theirs from the beginning of last season; Detroit occupied the Central cellar as much because of injuries as anything. This is Upton playing the Yoenis Cespedes role, only he’s a better player than Cespedes ever was.

Victor Martinez (L) shares a laugh with Mike Ilitch after agreeing to terms on a new deal in 2014. (AP)
Victor Martinez (L) shares a laugh with Mike Ilitch after agreeing to terms on a new deal in 2014. (AP)

Upton is 28 and coming off a mildly sub-standard Upton season: .251/.336/.454 with 26 home runs. He is a notoriously hot-and-cold player, his streaks carrying a team for weeks, his slumps sometimes expending past the month mark. He ends the season with almost identical numbers every year, though, and for their $132 million-plus, the Tigers are buying consistency – and the potential for him to be gone after the 2017 season via an opt-out clause.

For Ilitch, of course, 2017 feels eons away. He lives for the present, pays for this moment, hems himself into an impossible future because right now is a drug and he’s jonesing for a fix. Let the future belong to others. He wants today.

It’s a gift to fans who hope the Ilitch spigot never turns off, that the 86 will blossom into 87 and 88 and beyond, that the $5.4 billion keeps growing so this fun experiment can continue. Nobody ever accused the Tigers of building a ballclub with the efficiency seen across most front offices today. That much is obvious. They’re building it their way, though, and anybody who begrudges Ilitch for trying to buy a championship is missing the point.

It may not be the best approach, but it’s the best he knows. Mike Ilitch is a rich man who wants a World Series title, and dollars should be the last thing standing between rich men and what they truly desire. He doesn’t give a damn what everyone else thinks. Just his city and his team, exactly how it should be.

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