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The bloated, excessive, unnecessary, history-ignoring, common-sense-disregarding 10-year, $292 million contract given to Miguel Cabrera by the Detroit Tigers on Thursday evening may well be the greatest debacle in the desolate baseball wasteland filled with bad-contract carcasses. There are mistakes. There are messes. And there is this.
This is irresponsible. Detroit is sitting on two years and $44 million – a bargain for the best hitter in baseball – and tacked on another eight years and $248 million, plus a pair of vesting options worth $30 million apiece, according to CBSSports.com, because … well, there really is no good rationale. Miguel Cabrera is now the highest-paid athlete in professional sports history, his $292 million surpassing Alex Rodriguez's $275 million deal and the $31 million-a-year extension beating Clayton Kershaw's average value of $30.7 million, and for that he can thank the benevolence of an organization happy to continue a league-wide trend of profligate spending.
No sport plays the fool like baseball. None is close. Baseball loves guaranteeing ridiculous amounts of money and years to players well past their primes and girding for the steep decline that accompanies them in their mid 30s all the way through their 40s. This is written off as the cost of doing business, which is an insult to the business. This is the cost of being stupid, and organization after organization repeats the mistakes of the past, ignoring what the game teaches about aging players.
They are bad investments. Bad. Investments. Because you know what happens to old players? They break down or decline. Either of those things is bad, and more than 100 years of history supports it. Especially with less PED and amphetamine use, baseball players' careers rarely reach their 40th birthdays, let alone 40 with a salary of more than $20 million.
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Think of it this way. Valuing a win above replacement at around $6 million, only six players in history have produced enough in their ages 33-40 seasons – the time of Cabrera's extension – to cover the $248 million: Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Honus Wagner, Hank Aaron and Tris Speaker. None weighed 260 pounds with the sort of body that becomes a bear for anyone to maintain into his 30s. None played first base, a value-diminishing position. The best regular first baseman was Johnny Mize, with 25.9 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference.com – about $155 million of value, nearly a nine-figure loss for the Tigers.
On top of that, the timing makes zero sense. Detroit granted Cabrera more money than Albert Pujols or Robinson Cano, more in one lump than anybody but A-Rod, with free agency about 550 days away. Locking in cost certainty is an admirable goal. Doing so without a discount against free agent prices for renegotiating this early is a joke.
Cabrera, 30, means plenty to the Tigers, no question. He has won back-to-back American League MVPs in Detroit. The Tigers can announce at their news conference that they locked up the best hitter in baseball, and it would not be a lie. He loves Detroit, which plays well with a fan base that wants to be loved. Of course, that final fact could – should – have played in the Tigers' favor. Instead, the organization ignored its leverage and issued one of the riskiest contracts in sports history.
The greatest rationale is the gold mine on which the Tigers sit. Their current local television-rights deal reportedly expires in 2017, and as long as the TV-money bubble doesn't burst, they will infuse the sort of cash to cover Cabrera for the remainder of his career and insulate the rest of the business in case the contract doesn't work out. Such thinking conflates star power with actual value, seeming to ignore that the former would dip in concert with the latter and, perhaps, exceed it.
Nobody likes seeing shells of themselves, which is why Yankees fans have booed A-Rod for years and Angels fans did the same with Pujols in his first season. Marketability and productivity run in concert, and realizing any ancillary revenue streams would take Cabrera defying the aging curve that took out so many of his historical peers.
It could happen. He could be an outlier. If crow is the appetizer, main course and dessert, plenty of people will be eating it. Executives across baseball levied complaint after complaint Thursday night. Even if Cabrera's contract is relatively insulated from the rest of the industry – the second A-Rod ceiling took more than seven years to break – it speaks to the frequency with which a $9 billion business is happy to conduct itself with all the restraint of a first-timer in the champagne room.
Bully for Miguel Cabrera, of course. He should get all the money he can. The game is the game. If he somehow convinced the Tigers he was actually considering leaving the comfort and embrace of a city that so adores him, with two full seasons left before his current deal expires, then he oughta just quit and start the Miguel Cabrera Acting School.
Otherwise, this is the same sort of slapdash, slipshod thinking that torpedoed the Rangers and Yankees with A-Rod, leaves the Angels stuck with Pujols' deal, makes the Mariners cringe at any possible regression from Cano and leaves Cincinnati hopeful Joey Votto's doesn't turn into a miss, too. Because these deals are the standard, they are the point from which agents negotiate. And because teams agree to them, it simply reinforces a standard that shouldn't have existed in the first place.
Teams know better. They do. By and large, smart people run them. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski is one of the most astute men in the sport, a legitimate candidate to replace Bud Selig as commissioner. And even he couldn't see past the idea of losing Miguel Cabrera, which never even fell into the Tigers' expected window of contention.
Cabrera is hitting brilliance personified, yes, but the circumstances conspire against him. Even the best almost always lose their battle with age. Which makes this all the more egregious. History and common sense were tossed aside, and two years before it begins, a new body was sent to the baseball wasteland. It may be ripe and rancid by the time the deal kicks in. And if it isn't by then, chances are it will turn so eventually, the $292 million mistake devolving into the $292 million mess, the Tigers with no one to blame but themselves.