Tigers pay big to keep Anibal Sanchez, so when do they actually pay for it?


Anibal Sanchez did quite well this week. Already blessed with the good timing of having paired the first playoff appearance of his career with his impending free agency during a weak year for free agent starters, Sanchez–or his agent, as for all I know Sanchez might have spent the last week eating fruit snack on his couch–fielded a five-year, $75 million offer to be the anchor of the Cubs rotation as they slowly transition out of rebuilding, and turned it into a $80 million deal to solidify the Tigers’ intentions to keep gunning for the World Series while they have at least two future Hall of Famers in their primes on board.

It registers as a success for the player because $16 million-per-season for a #3 starter hardly registers as shrewd for the team.

But the Tigers haven’t given much more than a spare thought toward shrewdness the last two years. They have Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera–both of whom will be 30 next season–and an owner entering into his mid-80’s. The time to spend aggressively is now and they’re acting accordingly. Perhaps even overzealously, to compensate for a below-average farm system that had nothing to substantive to offer in the near future besides Nick Castellanos and Jacob Turner, the latter of which was traded for, well,  Anibal Sanchez.

When does Detroit pay for its recklessness? Certainly not now. A weak division and dominance of the Yankees has afforded them an easy road to extensive playoff revenues. Tigers fans have responded to their team’s investments–and also their rousing success and affordable prices, of course–in the manner that Jerry Reinsdorf was hoping to see from his own fan base in 2011. Detroit’s attendance has risen each of the last two years and eclipsed three million in 2012. Even if Mike Ilitch was not a billionaire spending like his days were numbered, $140 million is a perfectly reasonable price for a perennial playoff team that fills the place.

But what comes later? Anibal Sanchez represents the first decidedly non-elite player that the Tigers have committed themselves to past 2014 (Prince Fielder is certainly a risk, but at least has the skill level to make a productive later-half of his career conceivable), and certainly contributes to the notion that a team with only Austin Jackson and Alex Avila representing the under-30 crowd in the lineup is headed toward a grizzly end. Yet if the Tigers are going to see their talent erode faster than they can replace it, the money handed out in 2012 will be hard-pressed to significantly worsen a rebuild, or cripple future competitive endeavors as much as we’d hope.

The new TV revenue situations of the Angels and Dodgers, which are at the heart of the accelerating free agency market, may be unique to the West Coast. However, as Sam Miller pointed out for Baseball Prospectus, the Vernon Wells trade, and the Dodgers-Red Sox blockbuster showed that high-revenue clubs also make the back end of these big contracts more movable. Not to mention the fact that the Tigers own TV deal with Fox Sports expires after 2017. It’s doubtful at the moment that the Tigers will turn that into a station-changing windfall, but the immediate benefits of having Sanchez on board are a lot more clear cut than the long-term ramifications.

The only clear restrictions are the limitations owners choose to place on themselves. The White Sox have made their own quite clear, but the Tigers are obviously more willing to let themselves get carried away.

Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan