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They were two of the biggest stars in baseball, and the Detroit Tigers ensured they didn't get away.
"Once we started contract talks, I wanted to stay in Detroit, and I wasn't shy about saying that," Justin Verlander told reporters after signing a seven-year, $180 million deal a year earlier. "I think it all worked out."
Or did it?
The Tigers spent a decade winning around Cabrera and Verlander, teaming one of the game's most feared hitters with one of the most dominant pitchers. But in the three years since Cabrera re-signed, they haven't won a single postseason game. They're now determined to reduce a payroll that approached $200 million in 2016 and to renew a talent base that had aged to the point they've been considered a franchise in decline.
During general manager Al Avila's end-of-season press conference in October, he acknowledged changes were coming, telling reporters, "I can't call it a rebuild because we haven't broken anything down. So, no, I'm not comfortable with the word rebuild. I've read retool, I don't know if that's the right term. I don't know if there's a term for what I want to do here."
And now the question of the winter, in Detroit and elsewhere, is whether the Tigers would trade one or both of their biggest stars.
"I think they would," said one American League executive who has talked with the Tigers. "There's a big difference between them and the White Sox. The White Sox would have to get a ton to trade [Chris] Sale, and even then, their owner might not really want to do it. The Tigers are looking for value, but I think they would like to make a trade."Link to Media
Before you start panicking (Tigers fans) or plotting ways to put Verlander in your rotation and Cabrera in your lineup (everyone else), understand that a willingness to make a deal won't necessarily lead to one. Even a desire to make a deal wouldn't mean Cabrera and Verlander are done in Detroit.
ESPN.com's Jim Bowden recently put the chances of a Verlander deal at 20 percent and the chances of a Cabrera trade at 10 percent.
"I'd say 20 percent might be about right for Verlander," said an American League executive who has spoken with Tigers decision-makers. "But it's probably 5 percent at best for Miguel."
Verlander would be easier to trade, partly because everyone needs pitching and partly because just three years and $84 million remain guaranteed on his contract. Cabrera likely could only go to an American League team that can eventually use him as a designated hitter, and only to a team that can absorb the guaranteed seven years and $220 million he has left.
Even at those long odds, it's a bit of a shock to see the Tigers reach this point.
They've been pushing for a World Series title since 2006, Jim Leyland's first season with the club and the year Verlander was the American League Rookie of the Year. Cabrera arrived after 2007 in a blockbuster trade with the Florida Marlins, and the Tigers won four straight American League Central titles from 2011 to 2014, advancing to the ALCS three straight years and to the World Series in 2012.
Verlander was the American League's Most Valuable Player in 2011. Cabrera won the same award the next two years.
The Tigers were big spenders and big winners, and if they had to go over budget to get or keep a star, there was always a decent chance owner Mike Ilitch would OK it (or even push to make the deal himself). Ilitch was super competitive—everyone knew—and he was also aging and running out of time to win the World Series he craved.While they never won the biggest prize, Cabrera and Verlander (shown after clinching the American League Central in 2013) have had plenty of chances to celebrate.Leon Halip/Getty Images
He's 87 now, and he still hasn't added a World Series title to the four Stanley Cups he won with the Detroit Red Wings. But rather than chase this winter's free-agent stars, as Ilitch did when the Tigers signed Justin Upton in an ill-advised deal last January, he and the Tigers have chosen a different path.
The payroll, they say, is going down. They say it doesn't need to drop too much, at least not right away. They definitely want to drop below the threshold for paying luxury tax, whatever that turns out to be once Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association agree on a new collective bargaining agreement.
They don't want to tear it all down and start over, as the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs did successfully and as other teams have copied. They want to keep competing as they build for the future, as the New York Yankees are trying to do.
The Tigers have already traded outfielder Cameron Maybin, who had a $9 million option for 2017. They've discussed deals for second baseman Ian Kinsler ($11 million in 2017), outfielder J.D. Martinez ($11.75 million) and designated hitter Victor Martinez ($18 million), officials say.
But none of those would be the franchise-altering trade that a Cabrera or Verlander deal would be.
None of them would change the Tigers' future, short term and long term, the way moving one or both superstars could.
No other players could bring as much back in return. No other players could open up future budgets as much.
Cabrera's contract pays him $28 million in 2017, $30 million a year for the four years after that, and $32 million in 2022 and 2023, when he'll turn 40 (with two options and an $8 million buyout). Verlander also makes $28 million next year, with two more years at $28 million and a vesting-option year at $22 million after that.
The big money limits the potential suitors, but baseball officials surveyed by Bleacher Report agreed both players remain tradable this winter. That might not be true if the Tigers wait another year, with Cabrera (34 in April) and Verlander (34 in February) getting older at a time baseball as a whole is trending younger.
For teams looking for immediate help, age is less of an issue than performance. Verlander finished a close second to ex-teammate Rick Porcello in the AL Cy Young vote, his fifth top-five finish. Cabrera finished ninth in Most Valuable Player voting, the seventh time in the last eight years he has been in the top 10.
Still, only a few teams can afford to add a player making $28 million. The officials agreed a Cabrera trade would be tougher than one for Verlander, because it's hard to see a National League team trading for someone who will likely need to become a designated hitter before his contract runs out.
Beyond that, both Verlander and Cabrera have full no-trade protection, so either would need to sign off on any possible move. That may not be the biggest obstacle, though, given that any team which could afford one of them would likely have a real chance of winning a World Series.
The other question rival officials ask is whether the Tigers would be better off keeping both of their stars. The long-term financial impact could be bad, but the Tigers might have a better chance of winning in 2017 with both of them than they would anytime in the next five to six years if they trade them.
"That [American League Central] division is winnable," said one National League scout who follows it closely.
A Central Division team has played in the World Series each of the last three years and four of the last five, but none of the teams have the financial firepower present in baseball's other five divisions. The Tigers have had the division's highest payroll eight of the last nine years (2011 is the exception, with both the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins spending more).
Without all of that money to spend, the Tigers would have had to trade Cabrera and Verlander long before this or watch them leave as free agents. As it was, they kept both stars, giving them deals that seemed to make them Tigers for life.
It still could turn out that way. Cabrera and/or Verlander could enforce their no-trade rights and decide to stay. The Tigers could decide the offers they get aren't strong enough to justify making a trade.
But keeping both stars now could well mean living with both of those big contracts all the way to the end. As it stands now, the Tigers have five players signed for $122.125 million in 2018 (Cabrera, Verlander, Martinez, Upton and Jordan Zimmermann) and four players signed for $105.125 million in 2019 (all but Martinez).
Even if those players all perform at high levels, it will be increasingly tough to build a winner around them if the overall payroll is going to drop.
"It's going to collapse on itself," the National League scout said.
The Tigers' hope is they can keep that from happening by acting now. The hope is they haven't waited too long already.
Most teams want to keep their stars right to the end, but few actually do. Of the 34 players on the Hall of Fame ballot announced last week, just two (Jorge Posada and Edgar Martinez) played their entire careers for the teams that originally signed them.
Verlander twice gave up a chance at free agency with the idea he would someday be able to say the same thing. Cabrera, traded from the Marlins to the Tigers when he was 24, twice gave up a chance at free agency with the idea he wouldn't go anywhere else.
They committed to the Tigers, and the Tigers committed to them.
Whether they end up moving or not, this is the winter when commitment gets tested.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.
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