Mike Ilitch (center) celebrated an AL title with manager Jim Leyland (left) and GM Dave Dombrowski.
Mike Ilitch wants to win a World Series. That’s it. That is the beginning and the end of this debate over the justification for the five-year, $80 million deal free-agent starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez reportedly accepted Friday to stay in Detroit.
Anyone expressing shock over this development or complaining about a 49-53 career pitcher receiving a $16 million-per-year deal has not been paying close enough attention to Ilitch and the Tigers.
When Victor Martinez hurt his knee last offseason, Ilitch quickly approved a massive contract for Prince Fielder. When the Tigers fell short in the 2012 World Series, Ilitch gave GM Dave Dombrowski the go-ahead to give Torii Hunter a lucrative offer. And now, Sanchez is another expensive piece to Ilitch’s championship plan.
Did the Tigers overpay for Sanchez, who’s coming off a 9-13 season? Maybe. So what?
Baseball does not have a salary cap. Spending sprees have long been the status quo for big-market teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and so on. Is it a fair and balanced system? No, absolutely not — small- and mid-market teams have a hell of a time trying to keep up, though plenty have done via smart signing and strong farm systems.
How many games will Anibal Sanchez win in 2013?
There was a time, not all that long ago, that the Tigers were stuck in that mode. They were downright putrid through much of 1990s on into the early 2000s, culminating with a 43-119 debacle in 2003.
The ensuing offseason, they handed Ivan Rodriguez the type of money that he could not get elsewhere, selling him from a mostly-financial perspective on the Tigers organization. Within three seasons the Tigers were in the World Series, and Ilitch discovered the value of spending.
But not just spending for spending’s sake — he tried that, when he tried to give guys like Juan Gonzalez and Roger Cedeno unwieldy contract extensions. Spending smartly. You might remember that after a disappointing 2009 season, Ilitch rolled back the payroll, forcing the Tigers to trade Curtis Granderson and let Placido Polanco walk.
Title windows in baseball do not last long, though, and through all of Dombrowski’s maneuverings, the Tigers wound up with a roster that included Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Miguel Cabrera, an improving Austin Jackson and several other key pieces.
They had a shot to turn from an 81-win team into a World Series contender, almost overnight. So Ilitch went all-in.
This Sanchez contract, like the Fielder one last season, is mostly the doing of Detroit’s owner. Without Ilitch opening up his own checkbook and taking a financial hit to produce a winning product, Fielder does not wind up in the Old English D. And Sanchez probably never leaves Miami for Detroit in a trade in July — a more financially-focused team would have kept all its prospects and tried a slow, steady climb.
The Tigers are not a Frankenstein of free agency, though. Verlander, Rick Porcello, Alex Avila -- those guys all came up through Detroit's system. Jackson, Scherzer, Doug Fister and others were added on a dime, in shrewd trades by Dombrowski.
In other words, this is not Ilitch trying to buy a championship (as some would argue he did with the Red Wings, pre-NHL salary cap) so much as it is him doing whatever's necessary to win.
The Tigers, with Ilitch leading the way, muddled through plenty of seasons where free agents wanted nothing to do with them ... and they had no money available to sign anyone of consequence anyway.
This moment in the sun won't last forever. When Ilitch, currently 83, no longer runs the show in Detroit, the payroll will drop, probably to a dramatic degree. Then, the Tigers will retake their spot as a mid-market franchise trying to compete in a big-market world.
For this season and the next few, at least, the Tigers don't have to worry about that cash-strapped future. Their owner has put his money where his mouth is, personally doing what he can to bring Detroit its first World Series win since 1984.
So, what's so wrong with that?