MLB: Spring Training-Detroit Tigers at St. Louis Cardinals

The game of baseball is so overflowing with cash right now, the owners need to hand some over to the players at some point, right? If you can’t give a record-setting contract to Miguel Cabrera, then who can you pay? If a two-time MVP and former Triple Crown winner isn’t worth the risk, who is?

Isolated case as this might be, there are limits to everything. Even a team and owner as rich as Mike Illitch and the Tigers have their limits. At some point, paying to ensure one of the greatest players in team history never leaves comes at a real cost.

Is it worthwhile to “analyze” a deal like the enormous eight-year contract extension (with two vesting options on the end!) that Miguel Cabrera just received from the Detroit Tigers? A deal worth a cool $248 million, to say nothing of the two years and $44 million still coming his way via his existing deal. My first reaction is to say “no”. All the reasons listed above tend to overwhelm the ultimately minor matter of a quarter billion dollars.

Basic age-based regressions and $ per WAR calculations don’t really apply to Hall of Famers and generational talents. The age curves don’t fit and don’t apply to the players at the extreme ends of the spectrum.

Courtesy of Fangraphs

Courtesy of Fangraphs

Except that they totally, totally do. And as great as Miguel Cabrera is right now, age will come for him as it comes for all of us. It came for Albert Pujols (spoiler alert: seen above) and it will come for you. Singular as Miguel Cabrera might be, he remains a man. A man being paid like the very best player in baseball (sports, really) well past the age of 40.

How many of the best first baseman of a decade ago, at the same age as Miguel Cabrera is now, would you still consider viable options deserving of a place in baseball’s highest tax bracket? There isn’t much doubt this deal will probably look ridiculous by the time it ends. Even if you don’t think Cabrera’s career arc will follow his recent peers, earning $30 million a season causes the zeros to pile up in a hurry. The margin for error starts getting smaller as the total dollars committed keeps getting bigger.

The main question remains: does it matter? Does it matter if the Tigers overpay for the final three-four-five-six years of Miguel Cabrera? Does it matter that, if they let him walk in two years, Miguel Cabrera would start knocking off all-time records in another uniform? Does it matter if the Tigers give him this deal and don’t end up winning the World Series? Does it matter that the rest of the league is either scratching its head or pulling out its hair at the size and length of this agreement?

In the end, no. It probably doesn’t matter. If one contract breaks the Tigers or prevents them from operating in the style to which they’ve grown accustomed, there are in trouble for reasons greater than Miguel Cabrera’s salary.

It is really easy to make excuses for bad deals when the players involved are larger than life. This deal is, rationally, a bad one. And the minute the Tigers have to move a player because of budgetary concerns or they are unable to upgrade a position because the funds just aren’t there, it’s a problem. Until that moment? It’s just a crazy contract that is justifiable if you squint just so. Rewarding a player for what he did in the past isn’t exactly a progressive way to build a baseball team. But it is hardly a capital offense for a team that can make the numbers work.

The above sentiment is partly true, but then again if the Tigers couldn’t build a World Series winner around Peak Miguel Cabrera, before they sunk a quarter of their payroll into a player getting worse, not better, what suggests they will do so now?

The Tigers and Miguel Cabrera claimed the AL pennant in 2012 and reached the ALCS on two other occasions in the past three years. That isn’t possible without Miguel Cabrera, but it takes more than one player (or one player and one pitcher) to raise a World Series banner.

Maybe this deal is analysis proof. This is a deal that the Tigers feel good about and Miguel Cabrera quite understandably loves. If the team loves it and the player loves it and most fans are happy to have him a Tigers uniform forever, why should anybody weep for Illitch’s bottom line and the future of the Tigers franchise?

Rather than run around collecting dissenting opinions, let’s pause. Take a moment to make note of today’s blasé attitude towards this enormous, game-changing deal. Wait until Miguel Cabrera begins tumbling through his decline phase and see how long into injury-shortened seasons the good will lasts.

Miguel Cabrera is so good (and has been for such a long time) that perhaps it isn’t in him to struggle, to feel the pressure that comes with bigger weekly paycheck than anybody else in your field. That’s the real test, when the universal appreciation for an all-time great meets the real world expectations of the highest-paid anything. Killing or praising the deal is simple when you get to project a future that suits your agenda. Reality tends not to fit together so conveniently.