As Major League Baseball’s trade deadline approaches Monday, the Detroit Tigers’ front office is closely examining its contract landscape – short and long term. What can they do? Currently, not much – unless everyone in America eats Little Caesars pizza every day until the end of the season.
The Tigers are already on the hook for approximately $207 million in 2016 salaries. Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, combined, comprise $56 million. That is approximately $13 million more than the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays’ entire World Series roster.
Handicapped by two superstars and questionable recent deals (see Justin Upton), rookie general manager Al Avila went on the record recently suggesting the team is not positioned to swing a “sexy” trade.
The Tigers and their big contracts are riveted to its underachieving foundation. The Tigers find themselves in a hole in the AL Central race and their wild card hopes aren't looking much better.
But with title-started owner Mike Ilitch still calling the shots and his other sports venture, the Red Wings, building the mecca of NHL destinations, one can imagine how desperate the 87-year-old former Tigers minor leaguer is for this expensive roster to discover consistency. Ilitch needs this team to contend. He is well aware, even as the king of corporate pizza, he cannot continue to operate the major league franchise effectively with another bad deal.
Since the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Tigers drudged through baseball's muck, the front office stepped up and engineered deals that drove the franchise to World Series appearances in 2006 and 2012.
For as many quality deals the Tigers finalized, like the franchise-saving, free-agent signings of Ivan Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez and the trades for Carlos Guillen and the master-stroke acquisition of Cabrera, the Tigers have been strangled by a host of bad deals over the decades. Here are the top 15 worst management moves by the Tigers:
15 Gary Sheffield Signing
Coming off a disappointing 2006 World Series performance, where pitchers failed to execute key putouts at first base, the Tigers reached out to Sheffield to add power and speed.
The Tigers reached too far during the offseason. Not only did the aging slugger receive an audacious 2-year, $28 million contract, but he was rewarded with Alan Trammell’s No. 3 jersey. It was blasphemy to true Tigers fans. It ended up being disastrous to the Tigers lineup and chemistry.
Sheffield had a creditable first season in Detroit, clubbing 25 homers, scoring 107 runs and stealing 22 bases, but could not muscle or hasten the club back to the Fall Classic.
In year two, Sheffield’s violent swing turned slow. No longer consistently able to catch up with fastballs, Sheffield’s numbers were cut to 19 homers, 52 runs scored and nine stolen bases.
14 Bobby Higginson Signing
Bobby Higginson was a solid, hard-nosed outfielder who slammed 134 home runs during his first six seasons with the Tigers. When the franchise’s fortunes sank in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Higginson proved to be one of its few assets.
The Tigers had little talent during 2000, but, at least, they had “Higgy Baby.” He carried the club with 30 home runs, 102 RBIs and .300 batting average.
But who else did the Tigers have? Robert Fick? Shane Halter? With so little talent in the lineup, the Tigers signed their “star” to a four-year, $35 million contract extension. Over his final five seasons, Higginson battled injuries and declining bat speed, connecting on just 53 homers.
13 Dontrelle Willis Extension
The trade in which Willis was acquired will go down in team history as its best ever. Even though the personable left-hander soon became so erratic - he once threw himself out of the game - the deal will be remembered for netting Miguel Cabrera, one of the best pure hitters in MLB history.
The Tigers then slid off the tracks. They signed Willis to a three-year, $29 million extension during the offseason and it turned into a “D-Train” wreck. Willis lost his release point and command. He lost his confidence. On the mound, he looked lost.
Willis went 2-8 with a 6.86 ERA in three seasons with the Tigers. All that money for just 100 innings of head-scratching deliveries.
12 Jose Veras Signing
If ever one pitch sealed the destiny of one team’s World Series aspirations and the immediate future of a relief pitcher …
The deep Tigers were hanging on in Game 6 of the 2013 ALCS against the Boston Red Sox when Veras released the fateful pitch and Shane Victorino slammed a series-clinching grand slam. Had Detroit forced a Game 7, they could have sent Justin Verlander to the mound for a deciding Game 7.
Just like that, Veras's stay in Detroit took an abrupt detour as the Red Sox advanced to capture the World Series.
Veras was acquired from the Houston Astros to shore up the bullpen, but was not offered a contract extension the following offseason. After splitting the next season with the Chicago Cubs and Astros with mixed results, Veras was out of baseball.
11 Jarrod Washburn Trade
Three seasons removed from their previous appearance in the World Series, the Tigers acquired one of the AL’s hottest pitchers in a 2009 deadline deal to round out their starting rotation. A pending free agent, Washburn’s first-half performance led insiders to believe he would receive a healthy, long-term deal in the offseason.
He was named the AL pitcher of the month in July, compiling a 2.64 ERA.
In eight starts with the contending Tigers, Washburn flamed out, going 1-3 with a 7.33 ERA before a knee injury ended his season early. The Tigers’ once-promising season flamed out, too. They missed the postseason by falling to the Minnesota Twins in a one-game playoff. Washburn’s hasn't pitched in the majors since.
10 Edgar Renteria Trade
With Carlos Guillen injured and a replacement needed, the Tigers’ front office targeted a two-time Gold Glove shortstop who was coming off a solid offensive season (.332 BA).
An offseason deal was quickly finalized and the Tigers, on Oct. 29, 2007, agreed to send emerging pitcher Jair Jurrjens and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez to the Atlanta Braves for Renteria.
The Tigers did not get the player they scouted in previous seasons.
Renteria during 2007 was simply not the same player he had been in previous years with the Cardinals, Red Sox and Braves. His defense showed little range and his offense was punchless with a .270 batting average.
The team failed to return to the postseason, falling eight games behind the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central race. They fell six games behind the wild card New York Yankees.
9 Charlie "Paw Paw" Maxwell Trade
A fan-favorite during his eight years in Detroit, Maxwell once hit four home runs during a Sunday matinee and from then on he often referred to as “Sunday Slugger” by legendry play-by-play artist, Ernie Harwell.
During his eight seasons with the Tigers, Maxwell was a two-time All-Star, collecting 133 home runs and 455 RBIs. The blue-collar crowd appreciated Maxwell’s hustle and grit.
Maxwell started his career with the Boston Red Sox as a backup to Ted Williams. He credited the hall of famer for teaching him the nuances of the game.
He bided his time and two stops later, he earned a starting role with the Tigers.
Maxwell earned his nickname by connecting on four consecutive homers during a Sunday doubleheader on May 3, 1959.
8 Justin Verlander Extension
What a treat it has been for Tigers fans to watch Verlander work every fifth day. Generally starting with fastballs in the 92-94 mph range, he has been known to reach 97-99 mph in the seventh and eighth innings – when he needed it.
The 2011 AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner, an injury-plagued Verlander agreed to a seven-year, 180 million extension during the spring of 2013. Owner Mike Ilitch proved his loyalty by signing off on the extension two years before he was scheduled to become a free agent.
What kind of treat will it be, however, when Verlander is no longer able to dial up the late-inning adrenaline?
7 Miguel Cabrera Extension
Yes, Cabrera will one-day eclipse the 3,000-career hit plateau. He will challenge the 600 home run milestone. He will be a first-ballot hall of famer. He will do it all in a Tigers uniform.
Judging from the length and heft of the contract extension he inked March 24, 2014, Miggy is not going anywhere. When he retires, there will be Ty Cobb, Al Kaline and Miguel Cabrera. And his statue will soon be stationed among the stars in Monument Park at Comerica Park.
Owner Mike Ilitch approved of keeping Cabrera in town for the duration of his career. But a record deal for 10 years, $292 million? That’s just mind boggling.
What kind of player will Cabrera be standing in the shadows as a 40-year-old DH? Will he be David Ortiz or Ryan Howard?
6 Prince Fielder Signing
As a pre-teen, Fielder first captured national attention for his slugging exploits. At 12 years old, Fielder slammed batting-practice home runs at the old Tiger Stadium. He even played roles in regional commercials with his slugging father, Cecil.
Prince was the darling son of Detroit.
But as a proven major league slugger who signed a nine-year, $214 million contract prior to the 2012 season, the honeymoon ended quickly.
The move was necessitated by an offseason injury to Victor Martinez. Fielder was pursued to protect cornerstone Miguel Cabrera. Fielder disappointed with his lack of consistent power and his aloof attitude. The Tigers were expected to be a dominant team in the AL Central, but they fell short of expectations despite the amount of firepower in their lineup.
5 Doug Fister Trade
“The Tigers traded who?” fans throughout Michigan collectively pondered Dec. 20, 2013, the day they learned Doug Fister was dealt to the Washington Nationals for pitchers Robbie Ray and Ian Kroll and utility specialist Steve Lombardozzi. “Why?”
That was the real question. Fister, afterall, went 32-20 during his three seasons in Detroit.
Fans remembered Fister deliver a 1.79 ERA down the stretch in 2011, helping the Tigers clinch the AL Central crown.
On December 2nd, 2013, the Tigers sent Doug Fister, who was 32-20 over three seasons with the Tigers, and 14-9 with a 3.67 ERA in 2013, to the Washington Nationals in return for reliever Ian Krol, utilityman Steve Lombardozzi and left-handed prospect Robbie Ray.
The players the Tigers got in return did not pan out as well. Lombardozzi was gone before the season even started via a trade for Alex Gonzalez with the Baltimore Orioles.
4 Juan Gonzalez Signing
The Tigers needed a superstar. Moving into the spacious Comerica Park, team brass pursued a power hitter, instead of a power pitcher. And they landed Gonzalez in a what proved to be a lopsided nine-player blockbuster with the Texas Rangers.
The two-time AL MVP crushed pitches to the power-alleys. Home runs? Nope. Long outs.
By midseason, Gonzalez was so disenchanted with his new home field, which featured home run distances of 420 ft. to straightaway center field and 395 ft. to left-center field. His on-field demeanor demonstrated his frustration over his pedestrian power numbers: 22 home runs and 67 RBIs. He truly was Juan Gone.
Of six players traded in the Gonzalez deal, Francisco Cordero (329 saves), Bill Haslemen (13 seasons), Gabe Kapler (10 seasons), Frank Catalanotto (10 seasons) enjoyed notable careers.
3 Jim Bunning Trade
Not only was he the best pitcher on the Tigers staff for most of the previous nine seasons, but Bunning had established himself as one of the top pitchers in the AL.
Following the 1963 season, Bunning combined to collect 118 wins, with a 3.45 ERA, for the Tigers.
Curiously, Tigers management on Dec. 5, 1963, traded Bunning to the Philadelphia Phillies. What did the Tigers get in return? A young flame-throwing prospect or two? Nope. They dealt Bunning and Gus Triandos for pitcher Jack Hamilton and utility man Don Demeter.
So, for a future hall of famer, the Tigers were rewarded with nine games from Hamilton and a .260 batting average over three seasons.
Bunning went on to win 89 games over the next four seasons for the Phillies. He also threw a perfect game on Father’s Day in 1964.
2 Billy Pierce Trade
The morning after, Tigers general manager Billy Evans called for a mulligan. The Tigers general manager wanted to void the Pierce trade to the Chicago White Sox for catcher Aaron Robinson and $10,000.
White Sox general manager Frank Lane would not reboot, even with an additional $50,000 thrown in, and this is considered one of the most one-sided deals in history.
After overcoming early command problems, Pierce went on to dominate the AL during the 1950s, named to the All-Stare Game seven times and leading the AL in strikeouts (1953) and wins (1957).
A member of the White Sox from 1949-61, Pierce then-established the White Sox record for career strikeouts with 1,732. He finished his career with a 211-1269 record and 1,999 strikeouts.
1 John Smoltz Trade
Was it such a bad deal? Yes, in the long-term, it was. Definitely. But at the time, in the final weeks of the 1987 season, no one in the bleachers of Tigers Stadium shouted: “You guys are stupid for trading Smotlz.”
At that time, the Tigers made a great trade on Aug. 12, 1987, acquiring Doyle Alexander from the Atlanta Braves. The Tigers’ scouts confirmed that the Tigers were unloading a 22nd-round draft pick who was putting up pedestrian numbers with Glens Falls (N.Y.) in the Eastern League. When he learned of the deal, Smoltz was 4-10 with a 5.68 ERA.
To help clinch the AL East title, Alexander went 9-0 with a 1.73 ERA for the Tigers. He tossed three shutouts in 11 starts. It was the classic deadline deal.
Until, that is, Smoltz was named an eight-time NL All-Star and anchored the Braves to a 1995 World Series championship. During his 21 years, the hall-of-famer went from one of the game’s most dominating starters to an elite closer, following Tommy John surgery.
To this day, Tigers fans lament the trade. But back in the late summer, up in the bleachers at Tigers Stadium, everyone cheered each time Alexander took the mound.
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