The Detroit Tigers: Winning the Stupid Way



By H. Jose Bosch

I’ve already said here on The Sports Bank that the Tigers are in first places despite winning ugly. What I hadn’t realized at the time is that the ugly is not only on the field but also off it.

Detroit’s top five paid players make up roughly 58 percent of the team’s payroll (fifth highest in the league) and it’s safe to say their combined contributions to the team are not equivalent to what they are getting paid for.

Here’s an on-the-surface assessment of the Tigers’ five-highest paid players. (Three batters, two pitchers)

Batters (M. Cabrera, M. Ordonez & C. Guillen)

.294 BA, .449 SLG, .358 OBP, 29 HR, 108 RBI

Pitchers (D. Willis, J. Bonderman)

1-5, 10.50 ERA, 18 K, 31 BB


Miguel Cabrera ($14.4 million) is the second-highest paid player on the team and he’s earning his keep and severely skewing the above combined stat line with his great averages and accounting for nearly 50% of the three players combined plate appearances. He’s the team’s leader in batting average (.333), slugging percentage (.551) and on-base percentage (.397). He also leads the team in driving in runs and is tied for 2nd in home runs.


However, Magglio Ordonez ($18.9 million) and Carlos Guillen ($10 million) have little pop (combined .248, .317, .345, 8 HR, 48 RBI) in their bats and both have missed significant time due to injury or just plain sucking. That’s not even the worst part.

The worst part is the money they are flushing down the toilet to two terrible pitchers. The Tigers are paying Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Willis $22,500,000 combined this season to have an output less than that of a journeyman starter. Together they don’t even make up a crappy pitcher. Yet this talent-deprived Franken-pitcher would be the third-highest paid player in the league (and $4 million more than the current highest-paid pitcher in the league – Barry Zito).


No first-place team is wasting as much money on its five highest paid players. The Los Angeles Angels come the closest. They also have three batters at the top of their payroll (Guerrero, Hunter and Matthews Jr.) and the Angels’ big 3 have similar combined stats to the Tigers’ big 3 in batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage (Mostly due to the fact that Cabrera skews the averages so high due to so many more plate appearances than Ordonez and Guillen). However the Angels’ trio has driven in more runs (121-108) in 135 less at-bats and most importantly the Angels boast a record that is 8 games better than the Tigers.

New York’s three best hitters are also among the five highest players on the team and one of them (Alex Rodriguez) hasn’t even played the entire season. Kick and scream all you want about the Yankees spending but at least their players are earning their pay (for now) and winning a much tougher division.

Worse than the high paid hitter’s failures, no team’s highest paid pitchers even come close to the Tigers’ futility. Just to see what a good team spends its money on, the Yankees’ two highest paid pitchers (4th and 5th on the overall payroll) are a combined 20-11, 3.68 ERA, 222 K and 106 BB.


Dave Dombrowski should be given credit for making Detroit baseball relevant again. The Tiger GM convinced owner Mike Illitch to open the purse strings and spend like a stay-at-home mom on QVC’s Web site. However to this point, the Tigers have only put together one remotely successful season under Dombrowski and the 2006 World Series run was more fluke than a great plan constructed by Dombrowski. I think 2007 and 2008 proved that.

The problem was and is Dombrowski’s fear of arbitration and his inability to play the market to his advantage.


The Bonderman and Willis contracts were a direct result of trying to avoid the apparently fearful situation of arbitration. Maybe I don’t have a great grasp on the concept, but no player has won more than $10 million in arbitration and that player was Ryan Howard who had already won an MVP Award prior to that mediation. Surely neither Bonderman nor Willis was going to come close to that figure and break the bank, even if they won their cases. But rather than bite the bullet for a year Dombrowski offered very stupid contract. He also did this with Nate Robertson (3 years/$21.25), who is being paid $7 million this year to not be on the active roster.


Bonderman may have convinced the front office to give him a longer contract after arbitration, but his numbers dipped significantly from 2006 to 2007. Robertson had a losing record in 2007 and should’ve just been released, but even if he wasn’t, Dombrowski would’ve had an easier time dropping him after 2008. Same goes for Willis.

Had Dombrowski given himself the chance to see how unhelpful those three pitchers were, he might’ve saved himself roughly $40 million of the past two seasons, money that could’ve been spent on a more reliable third starter or to shore up the bullpen.

The Guillen and Ordonez contracts aren’t as much of a problem; Dombrowski just didn’t know how to use the market to his advantage. Last season the Tigers should’ve been sellers and both Guillen and Ordonez were shoppable. Hindsight is 20/20, but despite both players contributing very little this season, the Tigers are in first. It makes Dombrowski look foolish for holding on to these parts when he clearly could find parts to throw together and make a competitive team in a mediocre division.

Today, Dombrowski is staring at a team with major holes in the bullpen, at the back of the rotation and a team with little pop from the left side of the plate. Not to mention that the team’s second best “hitter,” Brandon Inge, is playing through a serious knee injury and both Placido Polanco and Curtis Granderson are underperforming.Bad contracts make most players on the team unmovable and there is little depth in the farm system, a problem that could’ve been solved by making some deals last season.

Detroit is defying all conventional wisdom by remaining in first place this far into the season with the team it has. But it has been in spite of Dave Dombrowski’s decision-making, not because of it.


  1. I love putting up a post and then finding out in less than an hour I forgot something major.

    Miguel Cabrera is the only reason the top three hitters have OK combined stats. But, as a friend pointed out to me, if you take out Cabrera and replace him with the $14 million the team is paying Gary Sheffield to play for the Mets and the contract situation look even worse.

    In the Tigers’ defense, they realistically could’ve release just one major contract before the season. If I had my choice at the time I would’ve said Sheffield or Robertson. So I can’t begrudge them too much.

    But still, a lot of money is being pumped into players that aren’t producing much.

  2. Melissa W. says

    I liked this article, Jose. It shows that money in this league helps organizations to a certain point, but also tends to render GM’s completely useless should all the expensive chips fall the wrong way. Not only does it hurt production for a season. If changes aren’t made between seasons, the hole of despair grows deeper. Money is polarizing…not always a win-win.

  3. paulmbanks says

    Agreed spending money doesn’t always equal standings happiness. look at the yanks, still havent won a title since 2000. just in case you havent heard that fact a million times already from every major sports media outlet

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