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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Miguel Cabrera's deal is tip of the iceberg without a salary cap

Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera gives a

Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera gives a thumbs up while in the background of a TV interview before a game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., Saturday, July 20, 2013. Credit: AP / Orlin Wagner

LAKELAND, Fla. - It would be a mistake to think the $292 million the Tigers are paying Miguel Cabrera during the next 10 years is all about Miguel Cabrera. Or the Tigers, for that matter.

They just happened to be next in line.

Before Cabrera's deal with Detroit, there was Alex Rodriguez's $252-million contract with the Rangers, subsequently topped by another $275 million from the Yankees. The $212 million the Angels gave Albert Pujols. The $240 million Robinson Cano got from the Mariners.

Good deals, bad deals. Does it matter? The money is the money, and Major League Baseball -- the teams, the players -- have tons of it. Before long, Cabrera's extension will be a steppingstone for the next young star looking for a payday beyond his imagination.

When a reporter mentioned the name Miguel Cabrera to Rays manager Joe Maddon before Friday's spring training finale at Joker Marchant Stadium, Maddon laughed.

"Heads up, Mike Trout," he said.

And just like that, hours later, the Angels reportedly had agreed on a six-year, $144.5-million extension for Trout, buying out his three arbitration years and delaying free agency for the 22-year-old outfielder until 2020. By then, Trout -- who finished runner-up to Cabrera for MVP the past two seasons -- will be ready for his $300 million. Or more.

With Bud Selig's sport operating like a cash register in these last few months of the commissioner's tenure, how could the Cabrera extension be that surprising? Major League Baseball is threatening to hit $9 billion in revenues this season for the first time, and the Tigers evidently are doing OK on their balance sheet lately.

Did we mention the Yankees just spent nearly $500 million this offseason?

"I think it's great for the game of baseball," said Justin Verlander, Cabrera's $180-million teammate. "I think it speaks volumes to where this sport is going. What we've been doing with the TV deals. I think the competitive balance is great. The system works. Without a salary cap, it works."

In Cabrera's case, we discovered the going rate for a player who -- in Verlander's assessment -- could wind up being the greatest hitter of all time. When Verlander was reminded of Babe Ruth, he paused for a moment but didn't completely reverse direction.

"I find it very hard to compare that era of baseball to this era," Verlander said. "It's non-comparable."

Certainly from a financial standpoint. And in evaluating the game in its current state, maybe Tigers manager Brad Ausmus had Friday's best take on Cabrera's jackpot. With Detroit's front office taking heat from around the league for setting a wild precedent with Cabrera two years before free agency, Ausmus -- who retired from an 18-year playing career in 2010 -- put things in perspective.

"The market has changed, and has changed consistently since the union was formed," he said. "This is what players are worth, and that's what they should be paid. It's an entertainment industry. People don't write about what Tom Cruise is making, but I'm sure he's doing pretty well."

When it was pointed out that Cabrera doesn't have an Oscar, Ausmus quickly responded, "Neither does Cruise." But in Cabrera's defense, he has plenty of other hardware: three AL batting titles, back-to-back MVPs and the first Triple Crown since 1967. He also has 1,995 hits and 365 home runs, putting him on pace for career milestones that never have been reached by one person.

"Everyone is in awe of him," Tigers rightfielder Torii Hunter said.

That extends all the way up to the front office, where Mike Ilitch, the Tigers' 84-year-old owner, and general manager Dave Dombrowski helped make this colossal deal come together in a relatively short span of time.

Dombrowski explained that he touched base with Cabrera's agents, Fern Cuza and Diego Bentz, early in spring training before the negotiations accelerated quickly in the past few days.

Cabrera still was two years away from free agency and due another $44 million, but Dombrowski believed this was the "optimum time" to strike a deal before Cabrera would be tempted by the open market. Plus, there was nothing else he needed to see from Cabrera and figured the price was only headed up from here if he picked up another MVP trophy along the way.

Perhaps the more obvious knock against Dombrowski's deal is paying out close to $30 million per year for Cabrera in his late 30s -- with two vesting options that could keep him in uniform past the age of 40. Even as a DH, that might be difficult to watch.

"I'm not so smart to know how any hitter is going to be at 39 and 40," Dombrowski said. "And I know a lot of people will point to individuals that fall off, and I understand that. But you have to look at the other point, which is if Miguel puts up the numbers the next couple years, I don't think anybody is going to think he's not going to sign an eight-year deal out there until he's 40 years old -- and maybe longer."

That doesn't necessarily make it the right move. Look at A-Rod, who has been slowed by surgery on both hips, currently is suspended for the whole season because of a PED violation -- and has three years left on his contract at a cost of $61 million. When Rodriguez signed that extension, he was coming off an MVP season himself in 2007, so it's not as if the warning signs are obvious.

"The reality is, any time you give long-term contracts, you're concerned," Dombrowski said. "That's the way it is, because anything can happen in this game. But I also can look at Derek Jeter signing a 10-year deal and that worked out pretty good. To get a deal done, you need to take that chance. I would take that chance on [Cabrera]."

It's a big gamble. And no matter how great a player is today, a decade is a long time.

But Cabrera isn't the first player to score a contract over $200 million and he won't be the last.

Can $300 million be far behind? We already know the answer to that one.

"Obviously, we're in a pretty unique situation to be able to do what we can do," Verlander said. "It's a multibillion-dollar industry and we're rewarded for being able to do something that is special. I think it's a good time to be an owner and a player, which is a great situation."

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