How much did it cost Mike Ilitch to get to the playoffs?


Torii Hunter was an expensive investment in 2014.

As owner Mike Ilitch has grown wealthier (current net worth $1.4 billion, according to Forbes), his pocketbook has catapulted the Detroit Tigers into the top echelon of MLB spenders. Associated Press ranked his team fifth in baseball in terms of Opening Day salaries this season, behind the Dodgers, Yankees, Phillies, and Red Sox.

The Tigers, it turned out, got more bang for the buck than any of those four teams. The Red Sox and Phillies had losing seasons. The Yankees failed to make the playoffs, and the Dodgers spent $235M for their 94 wins. All four spent more than $2 million per win. So did the Texas Rangers, who paid $136 million for their 67 wins. Detroit, with its $162M payroll, was sixth in this ranking at about $1.8 million per win (just ahead of the Giants, who spent $1.75 million per win).

By contrast, the $92M Kansas City payroll was just a little more than half of Detroit’s. In essence, Ilitch committed $70 million more than the Royals for one more win.

Bringing up the rear in spending — or, to put it another way, leading the league in thrift — Miami spent just $47 million to win 77 games, and Houston won 70 for $44 million. .

Which Tiger players paid off the most for their owner’s huge investment in 2014? Obviously, like any team, the Tigers spent some money on injured players. But let’s exclude those outlays and take a look at how the club spent money on the regular players in 2014, using FanGraph’s estimations of WAR to make rough evaluations of players’ worth.

The best bargain in the Detroit starting rotation? It was Drew Smyly, with a WAR of 1.2. If we assume the Tigers paid two-thirds of his $520,000 salary before he was traded, they spent under $300,000 per win. The worst bang for the buck among the starters? As you might expect, it was Justin Verlander, who was paid $20 million to produce 3.3 WAR — more than $6M per “win.”

Investments in Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello paid off almost equally well. Porcello earned $8.5 million and his WAR was 3.1, meaning he cost the Tigers $2.74 million per win. Scherzer’s salary was $15,525,000, and his WAR was 5.6 — a very similar investment of $2.77 million per win.

Detroit paid Anibal Sanchez about the same as Max–$15.8 mil—but largely because of his injury he notched only 3.4 WAR, costing the club $4.65 million per win. David Price earned $14 million this season; if the Tigers paid a third of that for his 2.4 WAR, he cost them $2.1 million per win, just a little less than Scherzer and Porcello.

The bullpen was something of a money pit. Al Alburquerque did produce 0.2 WAR for $837,500 and Blaine Hardy gave us 0.3 WAR for the MLB minimum of $500,ooo. Those two were bargain-bin payoffs.

Joba Chamberlain was costlier–$2.5 mil for 0.8 WAR. The investment of $1.9 million in Phil Coke was something of a joke, since his WAR was 0.0. And Joe Nathan produced 0.2 WAR for $9M—an exorbitant rate of $45M per win! Combining the contributions of Nathan, Joba, and Coke, the Tigers invested $13.4M for exactly one win above replacement value.

The best bargain on the team by a long shot was J.D. Martinez, who earned the MLB minimum of $500K and compiled a 3.6 WAR, costing his boss less than $139,ooo a win. Eugenio Suarez also earned the minimum and produced 0.7 WAR, or $714,000 per win.

The other regulars were no bargains—but you have to spend money to make money, right? And winning produces profits—though only the post-season will determine just how much. The big gun in the lineup, Miguel Cabrera, was paid $22M and produced 5.3 WAR, or $4.15M per win, in what was for him a down year (at least until the calendar turned to September). The next most costly was Rajai Davis, who produced 1.4 WAR for $5M, or $3.57M per win.

Ian Kinsler notched 5.2 WAR for $16M, or $3.1M per win—not a terrible return on the investment—though a spoilsport might note that in 2013 Omar Infante produced almost half as well (2.4 WAR) for exactly a quarter of Kinsler’s salary. From Austin Jackson, the Tigers got 1.3 WAR, or $3.08M per win, assuming Detroit paid $4M of Austin Jackson’s $6M salary for the two-thirds of a season before he was traded.

Victor Martinez, with his career-best year, accounted for 4.4 WAR for $12M, or $2.7M per win. Alex Avila, with 2.1 WAR for $4,150,000, or $1.98M per win, came relatively cheap.

The clunker in the regular lineup was Torii Hunter, paid $14 mil to produce all of 0.3 WAR, making him an even poorer bargain than Verlander or Nathan—he cost the club $46.7 mil per win!

Negative WARS achieved by these players made the investments in them net losses for Ilitch: Nick Castellanos, $500K for -0.3 WAR (in a rookie year); Brian Holaday, $502K for -0.2 (backup catcher cheap change); the always reliably mediocre Don Kelly, $1 mil for -0.4; and the $1.1M flyer on Alex Gonzalez for his -0.3 WAR in his brief stay, one of the year’s least memorable fiscal blunders (though he did produce a walkoff hit on opening day in Detroit).

If you combine those four with Hunter, Nathan, Coke, and Verlander, that’s a total of $48M spent on 2.6 wins. Some pretty expensive pizza, I’d say, Mr. Ilitch.

Based on these sorts of calculations, the chances that the Tigers will re-sign Hunter at age 39 are close to absolute zero. On the other hand, J.D. Martinez was one of the best investments anywhere in MLB. Without him, the Tigers would be sitting home this week watching Seattle and Oakland battle for the wild-card spot while the Royals fly to Baltimore. He’ll be going to arbitration next year unless Ilitch opens up his wallet to sign him to a multiyear contract, and either way he’ll be getting a big raise in 2015.