LAKELAND, Fla. -- Tigers owner Mike Ilitch got the superstar he wanted with a shocking trade for Miguel Cabrera seven seasons ago. Three batting titles, two MVP Awards and a Triple Crown later, the Tigers likely ensured they will keep their superstar for the rest of his career.
"I want to finish my career here," Cabrera said at a Friday morning news conference announcing his contract extension through at least 2023. "I want to be a Tiger for many years to come. I have a big responsibility here, I want to work hard and get better and help my team to win games and win a championship."
Add in the remaining two seasons on Cabrera's current deal with the eight-year extension, and it qualifies for the largest contract in baseball history, reportedly $292 million for the next 10 seasons. The deal includes vesting options for 2024 and '25 at $30 million each, which would be triggered if Cabrera finishes in the top 10 in American League MVP Award voting the previous seasons.
It's a franchise-shaping deal, paying Cabrera -- who will turn 31 on April 18 -- an average of $30 million through age 40, and it'll likely define the team's fortunes for years. It's a deal that the Tigers didn't hesitate to make, signing him with two years to go before potential free agency.
"If you're ever going to take a chance, and to get a deal done you have to take that chance, I would take the chance on him," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said.
More important, the owner who invested the money to bring in Cabrera was willing to take the chance. Though the 84-year-old Ilitch was not at the news conference, his influence was evident. And an owner with a history of loyalty to players who win for him, from Ivan Rodriguez to Magglio Ordonez to Justin Verlander, demonstrated it again for the player behind Detroit's three consecutive postseason runs, only on another level.
"We want [Cabrera] to be a Detroit Tiger when he goes into the Hall of Fame, and whatever records may be set along the way," Dombrowski said. "It's very important to [Ilitch], so of course he's very involved."
Though the Tigers had seemingly been preparing for such a megadeal since last fall, when they traded Prince Fielder and most of his contract to Texas, the agreement came together relatively quickly for a contract of that magnitude. As recently as Monday, a source with knowledge of the talks said no deal was close, despite reports of encouraging signs. Talks didn't begin in earnest, Dombrowski indicated, until just over two weeks ago. They were still coming together, apparently, when talks broke off between Detroit and reigning AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer.
While Scherzer's situation had a sense of urgency to it this spring, with free agency looming next year and neither side interested in negotiating during the season, Cabrera was fairly laid back about his contract talks. The 2012 AL Triple Crown winner said going into camp that there was no rush on getting a deal done.
That said, Scherzer's situation arguably became an example of how difficult it can be to sign a star player just a year away from free agency, when the risk of injury seems more manageable than it does at two years away. The Tigers were not interested in taking that risk.
When asked, "Why now?" Dombrowski essentially answered with the risks of later.
"I realize other people may think otherwise, but when you get to one year away, that lure of free agency becomes very large for a player that is a very good player," Dombrowski said. "Secondly, they get a lot of additional pressure on themselves to test that market. Perhaps if you had something that you needed to observe on the player, I could understand that. I don't think we need to observe Miguel's ability. …
"I know that people will look at it and say, 'This is the largest contract out there,' and understandably so. The dollars generally don't go down with other contracts. So for me, this was the optimum time."
Cabrera, for his part, indicated he was not interested in testing the market. Dombrowski said Cabrera's agents approached him at the end of last season and noted Cabrera's interest in a career-encompassing contract.
"I feel comfortable here," Cabrera said Friday. "We've gone through a lot of good years together. The last few years, we've been in the playoffs. This is going to be a great team for many years to come. This is a great organization. We have a great owner. We have a great front office.
"They make you feel comfortable here. They make you feel like this is your house, this is the place you want to be. I have a house in Detroit. We have great fans in Detroit. We have a great ballpark. I love to play in Detroit. I want to be part of it for a long time."
The market value of what Cabrera has already accomplished in Detroit is obvious. He's the first back-to-back MVP Award winner on the Tigers since Hal Newhouser in 1944-45, the only Triple Crown winner since 1967 and the first right-handed hitter to win three consecutive batting titles since Rogers Hornsby in the 1920s.
What Detroit had to debate in approaching contract talks, and what the rest of baseball will debate now, is how Cabrera's game will age, and how to value that. He played at least 150 games for nine consecutive seasons until back and core muscle injuries limited him to 148 games last year.
Even with the injury, Cabrera's ability to stay on the field amazed. He played through injuries since at least early July, when back issues began to hobble him. Once Cabrera's core muscle injury began to limit him in August, his power began to diminish along with his mobility. By season's end, he was a singles-and-homers hitter, no longer able to leg out extra bases.
Cabrera still finished the season with some of the best numbers of his career, including a .348 batting average, a .636 slugging percentage and a 1.078 OPS.
"You're talking about one of the greatest hitters of all time," Dombrowski said. "When you start looking at the names you compare him to, you're talking about guys like Ruth and Mantle and Mays and Aaron. Those are the elite of our game.
"And when you look at Miguel, his work ethic is phenomenal. His drive to win is phenomenal. He has made a real commitment to get himself in great condition. Also, when you analyze hitters, he's not strictly a pull hitter. He uses the whole field. He's a great hitter that happens to be a home run hitter, too, which is very rare."
Rare, too, is Cabrera's power to all parts of the park, plate coverage that extends both inside and off the plate and a bat quick enough to turn on any fastball. At some point, healthy or not, some of those skills will begin to diminish. The key to gaining value from the later years of an extension will be Cabrera's bat speed, and his ability to produce key hits well into his 30s.
The list of cautionary tales includes the 10-year, $275 million contract Alex Rodriguez signed to stay with the Yankees after the 2007 season, and the 10-year deal Albert Pujols signed with the Angels a few years ago. Both deals carry past the respective player's 40th birthday, as does Cabrera's.
Dombrowski acknowledged the risk. He also used Derek Jeter's 10-year contract as a counterargument, though that deal only lasted through 2010, when Jeter was 36.
"I know Albert Pujols, I know Alex Rodriguez, but I don't know them," Dombrowski said. "And I'm sure that their organizations felt comfortable [signing the contracts] at the time. But I know [Cabrera], and I know how dedicated and hard-working he is. And he wanted to be here."
Just as important, so did his boss.