By: Kurt Snyder
For years at Christmas, my daughters always seemed to know that Santa would bring something special. One gift would always trump them all. After opening all of their gifts under the tree, they looked for “the note.”
You know the message, of course, from Santa. He tells them he has been watching them and has noticed that they have been trying to be good and clean up their toys and do their homework without complaining. He then offered a clue to where that final most satisfying gift could be found.
It was always the biggest and most expensive, sometimes too big to even be in the house. The note was the highlight of Christmas and the girls listened intently when my wife would read it to them after finding it.
Why am I sharing all this? Well, because Mike Ilitch is Santa, isn’t he? Tiger fans, every off-season, watch the team intently. They know what they want. They know what they need. But after they check all the boxes, they still wonder when the big prize will be revealed.
Mike Ilitch always seems to deliver the big prize at the end. And we all fall for it and act surprised as if we have never seen this before.
I will be honest. At first, I didn’t think the investment for Justin Upton was a wise one. The initial numbers seemed outrageous. And at around $22 million a season, it is still quite amazing the Tigers are adding another player of that magnitude. But after reviewing the terms of the deal and the flexibility and protection the 2-year player option provides both sides, it is a smartly-constructed deal.
I will say I jumped to a major conclusion and first thought this was Prince Fielder all over again. But after some thought, it really is far from it. The Fielder move showed an Ilitch weakness. It reeked of panic and desperation. And given the impact it had on this team, it was maybe Mike’s biggest mistake to date.
Ilitch smelled a title, hinged on the lethal combination of Miggy and VMart. And when Victor went down for the season, all the panic in the world came falling down on Ilitch.
You could almost see him scrambling all around his house grabbing cash from underneath the beds and from between the couch cushions, sweating, swearing and searching for every last dime needed to bring in Prince Fielder. It was pitiful really, and the numbers were obscene and unnecessary.
The move disrupted the team. The Tigers had to appease him by moving their most prized piece of property to third base. Moving Miggy to third, after he was showing great progress at first, turned the Tigers into a miserable defensive team, and taxed Cabrera physically.
The Justin Upton acquisition doesn’t have that feel at all. There is no desperation here, no evidence at all. When you peel back the layers, understand the terms of the contract and analyze what Upton brings to the Tigers, there are talents and intangibles there that even Yoenis Cespedes didn’t bring.
The knock against the big Cuban when he arrived here was his low on base percentage. Upton brings a better OBP, he walks more, still hits for power and is arguably a better baserunner than Cespedes.
Sure, Upton still strikes out more than you would like but fits perfectly in that #2 slot in front of Miggy; something the Tigers didn’t feel comfortable doing with Cespedes until late in the season, or July.
The Tigers were lucky to experience Yoenis’ best year as a pro in 2015 and it’s no coincidence that it was also his healthiest. When he arrived from Cuba, the league knew he had the ability, but injuries always plagued his early career.
So there was risk in bringing him back and risk for whoever signs him to a long-term deal. You still must consider the recent history, excluding last season, of an injury plagued career. What do you feel more comfortable doing, offering a guy like that 6-7 years or offering it to someone who has shown consistent durability?
With Upton, durability made him a safer and more logical bet. He has averaged over 150 games a season over the last 5, with over 600 plate appearances in each of those seasons. And knowing the Tigers, we just can’t afford another player saddled with injuries, especially our most important ones. Upton has been able to stay on the field, while Yoenis will need to prove he can stay healthy in at least consecutive seasons.
Are the Tigers better than they were yesterday? Well, yes they are. But a better question might be, are they better than they were when Yoenis Cespedes was here? And the answer is still yes. Justin Upton is this year’s best prize.
Santa has struck again. We loved all the gifts until now, but just like every year, we still figured something bigger awaited us. From Fielder to Cespedes to Upton, Justin makes the most sense for the short and maybe the long-term, both potentially available to the Tigers. Merry Christmas.