To win now, the Tigers had to sign Prince Fielder to a nine-year contract, one that ranks as the fourth-largest in baseball. The move gives Detroit a monster lineup and vaults the Tigers right into the AL pennant discussion with Los Angeles, Texas, Boston, New York and Tampa Bay.
But down the road, this is a deal that will almost certainly hurt Detroit. So while the Tigers likely will be the class of the AL Central for years to come (although don't count out Kansas City), four or five years from now, Detroit may be reeling from the deal.
Rob Neyer at SB Nation has an excellent review of his Fielder's contract could play out, and it's not especially pretty.
Let's fast-forward to 2014. The Tigers will have 78.1 million tied up in four players -- Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Victor Martinez. Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello will probably earn somewhere in the 7 million to 9 million range via arbitration settlements, putting their commitments for just six players well over 90 million. The arbitration settlements of Doug Fister, Brennan Boesch and Alex Avila will push that number to around 110 million.
That's not a huge problem, though, for 2014. The Tigers will have some inexpensive options like Jacob Turner and, if all goes well, Drew Smyly. But where things will get interesting are 2015, when Justin Verlander will hit free agency.
A lot can happen between now and then, and Verlander will be 32 on opening day 2015. But Cliff Lee was 32 when he signed a five-year, 120 million deal with Philadelphia, so Verlander very well could use that contract as a starting point in negotiations.
Luckily for the Tigers, they could try to back-load Verlander's contract so they can squeeze him in with Fielder's 23 million and Cabrera's 22 million salaries for 2015. So bringing Verlander back actually wouldn't be much of a problem, although they may struggle to retain Cabrera (who, despite being 33, will command a hefty contract when he hits free agency after the 2015 season).
But back to the real point of this: if Fielder is in a full-on regression by 2015, the combination of his salary and lack of value could cripple Detroit's efforts to add necessary pieces around Cabrera and Verlander.
And with MLB's new collective bargaining agreement, the Tigers can't begin to look to cushion a down-the-road blow by spending money in the draft. With the old CBA, the best thing Detroit could do in 2012 is spend whatever cash they have remaining on the draft, so perhaps by 2015 and 2016 they have a stable of young, cheap players ready to contribute.
For the Tigers, signing Fielder to a potentially-crippling contract is a risk worth taking, though. They have as good a chance as anyone to win a World Series in the next few years, and if they do, no amount of sunken costs with the Fielder contract will tarnish that flag.
But for the White Sox, and the rest of the division, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Random things can happen between now and then, and Detroit may wind up failing to win the division in the next few years because, again, random stuff happens. However, even if Detroit dominates the AL Central for the near future, eventually, that success will fall apart.