Tigers: 1 contract Detroit fans wish they could erase

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The Detroit Tigers aren’t doling out much payroll this year, but there’s one bad contract they and fans surely wish they could erase.

The Detroit Tigers finished last in the AL Central for the third time in four seasons last year. But with some young talent in the pipeline, there’s promise for the future. The 2021 season should be another step in the process, under new manager A.J. Hinch.

As the Tigers continue their rebuild, payroll has naturally been reduced. According to Spotrac, they have the seventh-lowest payroll for 2021 in baseball right now ($75.42 million). Any big spending seems to still be a couple of years away.

But a big chunk of that $75 million payroll for this year is devoted to one player.

The Tigers are paying Miguel Cabrera as if he’s in his prime

Before the 2014 season started, the Tigers signed Miguel Cabrera to an eight-year, $248 million contract extension. In the first year of the new deal, 2016, he had a season along the lines of what he had done the previous decade (.316/.393/.563 slash-line, 38 home runs, 108 RBI over 158 games). But things started to fall off in 2017 (16 home runs, 60 RBI in 130 games), then he only played 38 games in 2018.

After a dismal season in 2019 (.744 OPs and 12 home runs in 136 games), Cabrera had a bit of a resurgence last year with 10 home runs in 57 games. He was also strictly a DH, which most importantly kept him healthy. A strong finish fosters some hope for 2021.

Cabrera will turn 38 in April. His prime, when he was one of the best hitters in baseball, is long gone. As the residue of being in win-now mode years ago, the Tigers will pay him $30 million this year. Then, barring retirement, they’ll pay him $32 million in both 2022 and 2023. Then there are $30 million vesting options ($8 million buyouts) for 2024 and 2025. Those options vest with a top-10 MVP finish the previous year, which is unlikely to happen. That’s $110 million committed. If this was the NFL, he would be released and the money wouldn’t be guaranteed so the club could use that money to expedite the rebuild.

With 2,866 career hits and 487 home runs, Cabrera may get to 3,000 hits and 500 home runs this season. If not this year, barring a major injury, he’ll reach both milestones in 2022. There’s certainly some novelty to that, and it will pay off for the Tigers in increased attention as he gets close to those numbers. But in terms of broader return on investment, Cabrera remains a significant sunk cost for the Tigers as his Hall-of-Fame career winds down.

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