The Detroit Tigers have looked stronger. Going into 2013, they were a pennant-winning collection of talent that was only improving. They still had Max Scherzer. They were going to have Anibal Sanchez for a full season. Victor Martinez was healthy again and Justin Verlander hadn't stumbled yet. Torii Hunter was the new right fielder. Austin Jackson was about to enter his peak seasons and he was already one of the best all-around players in baseball. Now that was a team that made you feel confident about the following season.
So when describing the Tigers' deal with Justin Upton as the "best free agent move of the offseason," I'll be careful to avoid the hyperbole puddles. The roster is still flawed. They still have a 7-9 that doesn't scare opposing pitchers. They're counting an awful lot on Verlander to hold steady and Sanchez to bounce back. Mike Pelfrey is there for some reason.
Getting Upton, though, was the best move of the offseason for any team. It's a move that dances deftly between immediate need and long-term concerns, filling a spot the Tigers would have been daft not to fill and doing it in a way that shouldn't melt future rosters.
How do we love this Upton move? Let us count the ways.
Jason Heyward is younger and more defensively astute, so it's probably not accurate to suggest that Upton was the best fit -- ignoring contracts -- from the start of the offseason. But once you start talking eight years and close to $200 million, you had a feeling the Tigers were going to be out on Heyward. That they would have to be out on him. Mike Ilitch is an owner who likes to spend. He's not a golem made of $200 million contracts, though.
After Heyward, then, Upton was always the next best fit. He's a player the Tigers can jam into the closing window, buying them a little time. In two years, Miguel Cabrera might be Albert Pujols, for better or for much worse, but the Tigers shouldn't have to worry about J.D. Martinez and Upton in the middle of the lineup, just entering their 30s. They're tentpoles for current and future lineups, and they'll allow the Tigers to scramble and fill the lineup around them, if needed.
Tyler Collins wasn't going to start every game in left if the Tigers didn't do anything. Cameron Maybin would have picked up at-bats against left-handed starters. It was extremely unlikely that the Tigers weren't going to do anything at all, even if we're talking about a move like signing Jeff Francoeur. There would have been a trade, at the very least.
But Collins was the de facto left fielder until that time, and while he might be a nice, hard-working young man, he never made sense as a starting corner outfielder for a team that was desperate to keep winning, with an owner who was desperate to keep spending so they could keep winning. There have been weirder baseball stories than a 25-year-old with a career 773 minor-league OPS turning into an above-average starter. It would still be extraordinarily uncommon, though, especially when the player in question wasn't anything close to a defensive wunderkind.
FanGraphs had Mike Aviles helping out in left, but no matter the permutation, it was going to be a rough slog. Substituting Upton in there gets them a clean three-win boost according to the magic abacus. In a division without a clear juggernaut, that's absolutely huge.
Circle back to that first paragraph, and note that those three wins might move the Tigers from 81 wins to 84, so don't get too giddy. Other than the Phillies signing Chris Davis and sitting Ryan Howard, though, I'm not sure if there was an easier way for any team to plug a new player in and make the roster instantly, irrefutably better.
Justin Upton Signing
The opt-out craze is sweeping baseball, and baseball nerds are divided on its utility. You can find people arguing about opt-outs here and here and here and ... well, all over the place. The risk is that something happens akin to what happened with the Yankees and CC Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez. They were able to opt out of lucrative deals exactly when the Yankees needed them the most, and they both received brutal, budget-busting deals. Without Sabathia and Rodriguez, maybe the Yankees have Davis and Zack Greinke this offseason.
That's one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is to consider the future problems of the Detroit Tigers. In 2020, Cabrera and Verlander will both be 36 and Jordan Zimmermann will be 34. The three of them will combine for $83 million, and there isn't a guarantee that any of the three will be capable of helping a baseball team win a single extra game by then. That's a long time, lots of money and plenty of wear and tear from now. Even if the typical big-market budget is up to $300 million by then, it's still a serious obstacle if a team has to write off a third of its budget before the season starts.
What the Tigers needed was good players.
Okay, we'll buy good players!
Except good players make you spend hundreds of millions of dollars.
And they usually require contracts so long that the team will be forced into paying lots of money at the end of the deal to a player past his prime.
Well, isn't there a way we can get a really good player on a two-year deal? By asking really nicely or something?
For most of free agency, no, this wasn't possible. You paid the player for the good years, then you sucked it up and paid the player when he sucked it up. That's how big free-agent contracts worked. It was comfortable, familiar and almost always a drag as the player reached the end of the lengthy deal.
Now, though, the Tigers have Justin Upton on a two-year deal. They can let someone else spend the money on the decline phase. They're free!
The risk of Upton on a long-term deal is the same, opt-out or no. If he stinks, he'll be around for six years, a drag on the roster and budget. If he doesn't opt out, it's because he's hitting poorly enough to hurt his market value, but that was the risk with the old kind of contract, too.
If Upton hits so well that he wants to enter the market again in 2018, how do the Tigers lose? They don't have to worry about Upton joining the aging troika up there, all sucking up over $100 million in their mid-to-late 30s in 2020. Not that it will matter, what with the ED-209s going berserk and gunning down fans trying to reach the games, but one more onerous contract to a player in his decline would have hindered the future Tigers even more.
As is, they'll probably have Upton on a two-year deal, which is something like a dream contract in their situation. If they still need him in two years, and events have conspired to make them feel more comfortable about another long-term obligation, they'll pursue him. Just as if he were a free agent. Like, say, they did this offseason. That's not a scary downside.
The Tigers are imperfect. But they're better, and they improved greatly in the best possible way, addressing their biggest need with the best available player with a contract that doesn't have to mess with them in the future.
It's the best move of the offseason. Just don't go back and look at what happened to the teams who made the best move of offseasons past. Appreciate the sensible move until the baseball starts.