Commentary

Dombrowski defends Cabrera deal

Why $292 million over 10 years? Tigers president: 'I didn't want to lose him'

Originally Published: March 28, 2014
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

LAKELAND, Fla. -- It all begins with this: "I didn't want to lose him," said Dave Dombrowski.

So the president of the Tigers looks at the $292 million his team is about to drop on Miguel Cabrera's doorstep in a whole different way from all the people in his business who are grumbling up a storm about it.

He wasn't going to lose the best hitter in baseball. Period.

He wasn't going to lose a player he compared with Babe Ruth and Willie Mays, with Hank Aaron and Ted Williams. Period.

He wasn't going to lose a man he called, with no hesitation, "one of the greatest hitters of all time." Period.

"And if you want to keep him," Dombrowski said of his franchise player, "that's how you keep him."

His peers in the business don't see it that way, of course. They're shocked. They're outraged. Head for the thesaurus. Pick your favorite synonym for any of those words. Someone in baseball will utter it in the next 30 seconds.

"I don't understand it," said one AL executive Friday. "I haven't talked to one person who understands it. I knew he wanted to stay there. So I thought he'd get $25 [million] times five [years]. Maybe $28 [million] times five. Maybe even $30 [million] times five. But when I saw this, I said, 'Holy crap.'"

[+] EnlargeCabrera
AP Photo/Kathy WillensMiguel Cabrera's new deal (eight years, $248 million) guarantees him a grand total of $292 million over the next 10 years.

We could spin a whole bunch of other quotes at you along those lines. But you've read them already. You've heard them already. You can find them all over ESPN.com. So you know what the critics think. It's hard to blame them.

You want to go looking for 10-year contracts, for guys in their 30s, that have had happily-ever-after endings? Hey, go right ahead. Just be aware it would be easier to go looking for the Loch Ness Monster.

So it's easy to be a critic of this deal. Which is why there are so many of those critics roaming the continent right now. But Dombrowski is keenly aware of the difference between him and every one of those critics:

This isn't their player they're talking about. It's his.

So everyone else has had a say on this contract. Let's give Dombrowski his say. It's the least we can do.

You want to know why, then, he didn't hold this deal to, say, a five-year extension? Because he couldn't. That's why.

"Would I love to be able to sign Miguel Cabrera for $22 million a year for the next five years? Of course," Dombrowski told ESPN.com Friday. "But was five years going to get this done? The answer to that is no. And I know that for a fact."

Did he have a player who wanted to stay in Detroit? He did. Did that player give the Tigers any kind of discount, in years or dollars, to make that stay-in-Detroit dream come true? Well, no, he didn't.

So it's fair for anyone to ask why not. But "when people start saying, 'Well, why didn't you do this?' it's because [the deal] doesn't get done that way," Dombrowski said.

Then why didn't he just say no, the way he did when Scott Boras asked for eight years for Max Scherzer? Because this was different. This was Miguel Cabrera.

This was the cornerstone of this franchise. This was the kind of player who comes into the life of any franchise, like, once a century. So sure, Dombrowski computed the metrics of paying this man until he's 40. Absolutely, he's aware of the risks in this.

But sometimes, he believes, there is more involved. You do not let players like this walk away, he believes, no matter what the metrics say. So he did what he felt he had to do.

The average annual value of the total extension is the highest ever ($31 million per year), even if the AAV of just the free-agent years doesn't reach the stratosphere of Clayton Kershaw (about $34.7 million per free-agent year).

But if you're just counting the number of dollars, this is the biggest contract in the history of North American professional sports. And to get this done, it had to be, even if the player who will collect all those dollars said Friday he never wanted to play anywhere else.

"He did want to be a Tiger," Dombrowski said. "But you've still got to pay him in today's world."

So an extension at $31 million per year is what it took, in today's world. And eight years is what it took, in today's world. As Cabrera told USA Today after leaving the podium, the most important thing was the years.

"I've always said if the team gave me the years, I would have no problem signing and trying to finish my career with Detroit," Cabrera said. "I wanted to play 'til age 40 and finish my career with one team."

So what this came down to was whether Dombrowski and the Tigers could convince themselves that Cabrera would be an impact hitter for most of this contract.

The only comparable players, they felt, were the greatest hitters of all time -- hitters with the same rare combination of power and the ability to use the whole field and hit for a high average.

We're talking about Aaron -- who hit .301 AVG/.402 OBP/.643 SLG, with 40 home runs, at age 39. We're talking about Mays -- who hit .291/.390/.506, with 28 home runs, at age 39. We're talking about Williams -- who hit .328/.458/.584, with 26 homers, at age 39. "When you talk about the best of the best," Dombrowski said, "they tend to last a long time."

"I think that people who are pure hitters, rather than just pure power hitters, will age better because they use the whole field to hit," Dombrowski said. "They know how to do that. So to me, that's not the same as a guy who's pull-conscious."

Dombrowski has been watching Cabrera perform this artistry with the bat for nearly a decade and a half, first as the general manager of a Marlins team that signed Cabrera out of Venezuela at age 16. So the Tigers' prez is projecting from a whole different perspective than anyone who's just feeding numbers into a hard drive.

"We still think he'll be a tremendous hitter at 37, 38," Dombrowski said. "I asked Al Kaline, 'How long do you think this guy will be a good, top-of-the-line big league hitter?' And he said, '37-38.' He said, 'This is the greatest hitter I've ever watched play.' And this is Al Kaline."

So maybe the Tigers won't get their 31 million bucks a year's worth in the final year or two of this contract. Maybe Cabrera won't still be the best of the best by then. But it's also possible, said Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter on Friday, that by then this man will be closing in on 4,000 hits, or possibly even on Pete Rose's all-time hits record. Cabrera is, after all, just five hits away from 2,000 -- at age 30.

"You could be talking about a guy with 4,000 hits and 600-plus home runs," Hunter said. "I mean, who does that? Is he human?"

Well, we're about to find out. If he is, this deal could wind up looking as ugly as the Alex Rodriguez/Albert Pujols contracts. But if Cabrera follows the Aaron/Mays/Williams book of aging gracefully, then we have a very different story on our hands.

If you were a betting man, you'd be safer betting on the ugly than on the storybook. That's what history, logic and sabermetrics tell us.

But the president of the team that signed Miguel Cabrera was coming at this from a different perspective. He saw a hitting genius. A special player. A franchise icon. And with a player like that, Dave Dombrowski believes, you begin with this:

"I didn't want to lose him."

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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