With opening day less than 48 hours away, the first thought on many baseball fans’ minds was the amazing contract — the biggest in American pro sports history — that the Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera signed two days earlier. Cabrera is the best. His new contract is the worst.
Even those, like most MLB executives, who react to the 10-year, $292 million deal with rants and a rending of garments probably have no true sense of just how awful and virtually doomed it truly is. The Tigers, who visited the Nationals for an exhibition game on Saturday, already had Cabrera under contract for 2014 and ’15. What they’ll get is eight additional seasons of Cabrera from ages 33 through 40. What’ve they bought?
If history is a guide, and in baseball for players with such long track records, it usually is, the brutal answer is a per-year average of 15 homers, 44 RBI and a .271 batting average.
When the NBA’s LeBron James reacts to a contract by simply saying, “Wow!” plus a public wish that he could get such a salary, you suspect the deal is insane. But such a mistake could only be made in the case of a superb player who is at his apex.
Cabrera, whose batting practice shows are almost worth an admission ticket, is one of the greatest hitters in baseball history and, turning 31 on April 18, is either at or close to his peak, having won the last three American League batting titles and back-to-back MVP awards. In the last two years, perhaps his best ever, he averaged 44 homers, 138 RBI and a .338 average. For the next two seasons — which the Tigers already had him locked up for — he may continue to duplicate those numbers. But then the problems almost certainly will start. There is almost no way that Cabrera will be worth even half of what he’s now guaranteed.
It is only in relatively recent times that Baseball-Reference.com has given the average fan, as well as any team, the ability to find out the 10 players whose careers are the closest statistical clones of any active player. Then, with one click, you can find out what those most-similar players did over the rest of their careers starting from any age you choose to pick. It’s like seeing the future.
Of course, Cabrera’s 10 closest comparables through age 30 are the greatest of the great, such as Hank Aaron, Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Robinson, Mickey Mantle and Mel Ott. That’s the problem: even the greatest of the great almost always deteriorate at exactly the ages the just Tigers decided to extend Cabrera. Is every computer in Detroit busted?
The most likely scenario, based the average of the careers of the nine comparables who have already retired, is that Cabrera will hit about 116 homers over the eight years of his extension, which will cost the Tigers nearly $250 million. How stupid do you have to be to play $30 million a year for 15 homers a season from an aging slugger who is already slow and will end up permanently at first base or designated hitter?
As one last twist, the 10th Cabrera career comparable is Albert Pujols, whom the Angels paid $240 million for 10 years when he was 31. Right on schedule, Pujols’s performance dropped badly at 32, and, last year, at 33 (the age of Cabrera’s first extension year), he played in only 99 games and produced a triple-slash line that was only slightly above MLB average and subpar for a first baseman. Don’t the Tigers get cable TV either?
It’s unlikely that Tiger GM Dave Dumbrowski has suddenly misplaced 50 IQ points. He knows about comps. But maybe he stopped at the No. 1 most comparable to Miggy: Aaron, who stayed great past age 40. If Cabrera is Aaron, the Tigers will get their money’s worth. But the odds are probably 10-to-1 that he isn’t. If Cabrera resembles any of the other monster hitters to whom he is comparable from ages 33 to 40, he’ll be a disaster.
The performance-enhancing drug era is over or ending. Players with miraculous musculature and career-best years at 38 or 40 will once again be as rare, as they were for a century. In other words, we’ll get one Hammerin’ Hank Aaron — who was better per at-bat after turning 35 than he was before — per 100 years. And nobody else, not even close.
The smart bet is that this silly Tigers deal is the sentimental work of owner Mike Ilitch, 84, who wants a champion for Detroit, prefers that his greatest player be happy and wants Cabrera to finish a Hall of Fame career in the Motor City which, these days, doesn’t have a lot of other exciting elements in its civic life. The intention is nice, but the weight it will put on the Tigers franchise will probably be immense.
Here’s what the Cabreras of the past, the players who were stat matches of him at the same age, did from 33 through 40 in old-fashioned Triple Crown categories — homers, RBI and batting average. (Divide by eight!)
Hank Aaron: 313, 865, .286
Frank Robinson: 168, 535, .275
Ken Griffey, Jr.: 162, 478, .257
Mel Ott: 96, 305, .276
Al Kaline: 95, 388, .278
Mickey Mantle: 82, 211, .254
Duke Snider: 53, 184, .254
Andruw Jones: 46, 115, .224
Juan Gonzalez: 29, 87, .288
The 240-pound Cabrera is not a health nut, or hasn’t been so far. He’s fought extra weight, and in recent years nagging injuries, much of his career. Maybe he’s Aaron.
If he’s not, the Tigers’ only hope may be that Cabrera just retires when his productivity declines and leaves his last $100 million to $150 million guaranteed on the table. It’s possible. But would you want to bet on it?
The Detroit Tigers have.