Verlander, Cabrera part of bigger plan
Tigers to build around ace, slugger using farm system
DETROIT -- Moments after right-hander Justin Verlander signed his five-year, $80 million contract extension before media members and cameras Thursday afternoon at Comerica Park, he talked about how his primary motivation is to win regardless of his salary.
The Tigers want to win, too, and talked about how their rotation now could be formidable for the next five years.
Now, their challenge is to build a winner with more than $40 million in payroll eventually going to their two biggest stars. Team officials believe they have the capability to do it.
"Now, all of a sudden, we have a couple of the more highly paid players in the game in Verlander and [Miguel] Cabrera, as they go forward," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "And yet we can do that, the way we are set up now."
While money obviously played a huge role in keeping Verlander in Detroit for the long-term, the Tigers also had to convince Verlander that they were committed to winning for the long haul. He had his questions after they traded Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson while letting go of free agents Placido Polanco, Brandon Lyon and Fernando Rodney.
"That was tough," Verlander admitted.
Knowing what the initial reaction would be, Dombrowski talked with Verlander soon after the deals and explained the reasoning. It was a frank talk about long-term strategy.
Now that Verlander has signed, the plan is starting to take shape.
Just three teams are on track to have two players making more than $20 million. The Yankees -- who actually have four -- and Mets will do so this season, and the Phillies will have Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay in that club in 2011. The Cubs come close, with Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano making $19 million each. The Cardinals, who haven't had a team payroll over $100 million, are weighing how to fit a new contract for Albert Pujols after re-signing Matt Holliday this winter for $17 million a season.
The Tigers have a couple years to prepare, but Verlander's new deal will put them in that company. Detroit bought out three of his free-agent years at $20 million each from 2012-14. At that same time, Cabrera will make $21 million in '12 and '13 before earning $22 million in '14 and '15.
There's a baseball opinion that no single player should take up more than about 15 percent of a team's payroll. With a $120 million payroll, Verlander and Cabrera would eventually earn more than a third of that. Even for a team that has shown more aggressive spending than any Midwestern team outside Chicago, it's an unprecedented commitment. Add in a Michigan economy that has felt the brunt of the slowdown, and it's an amazing step.
The way to make it work, Dombrowski said, comes from within. The Tigers want to build a contender around their two stars with young players from the farm system.
"To me, it's important to have star players if you can," Dombrowski said. "Now, star players cost a lot of money also. So you also have to balance them with other players. But by the moves that we made, we are able to look ahead and be in a position where we can keep that and build around them.
"You can look four years, five years down the road, and I'm sure we'll be scratching our heads and saying, 'OK, where does this come?' But we've put ourselves in a position to deal with that by what we've done and having enough young players come."
Pitching-wise, that young talent is already emerging. With Verlander, Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer, the Tigers have their projected top three starters under team control for the next five years. Porcello and Scherzer, like Verlander now, won't be eligible for free agency until after the 2014 season, though continued success will set them up for strong arbitration cases. Casey Crosby, Jacob Turner and Andy Oliver all made at least one top 100 prospects list this offseason and are on track to threaten the Majors over the next few years.
Young pitching really hasn't been a question for the Tigers for a while. Verlander was Detroit's highly touted pitching prospect five years ago. Position players are another matter, and that's where the Tigers have to produce better for this plan to work.
For years, Detroit has generally looked to free agency and the trade market for position help. Even if one assumes that Ryan Raburn opens the year in left field or at DH, he'd be one of just two non-rookies in the starting lineup who came up through the system, alongside Brandon Inge.
Barring a change of plans, though, Detroit will have two rookies in the lineup with center fielder Austin Jackson and second baseman Scott Sizemore. The Tigers have a catcher in waiting, a few potential corner outfield options, and they believe they have hope at shortstop in the next couple years.
"If I was going to focus on something to build right now," Dombrowski said, "I want it to be our starting pitching. And we'll fill in the other pieces. But we also have a pretty good core when you talk about a guy like Cabrera. And we're in a position where we have some young position players coming soon -- [Alex] Avila, [Ryan] Strieby, [Brennan] Boesch, [Gustavo] Nunez, those type of kids, and more.
"I know our system hasn't been as regarded because we traded a lot of guys. I happen to think it's a lot stronger than other people do at this point."
The Tigers had to give up Granderson to gain Austin Jackson, but in the process, they freed up some salary space over the next few years to use on Verlander. They gained some more flexibility by trading Edwin Jackson for Scherzer and Schlereth.
Without those moves, it would've been almost impossible to keep Cabrera and Verlander and sign any closer without raising payroll this year over last. As it is, Detroit is on track to have a similar or slightly smaller payroll compared to 2009. Expiring contracts will gain the Tigers more than $50 million worth of space next winter, but at least some of that space goes to Verlander.
The goal going forward is to use free agency to fill some gaps here and there that the farm system can't. The goal is not to use free agents to build a team.
The ultimate goal remains to win. Keeping Verlander was a huge part of that.
"This is something we wanted to do all along," Dombrowski said. "In our own mind, it was really important. We just signed one of the best pitchers in the game of baseball for the next five years."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.