DETROIT — Al Avila says it was around Christmas that the Detroit Tigers‘ off-season changed.
Owner Mike Ilitch was concerned about the team’s ability to score runs.
"We had the company party here. He starts mentioning to me about, he’s worried about our offence — and that never stopped," said Avila, Detroit’s general manager. "He just kept on referring to that all the way through the holidays and into the new year."
With their owner authorizing yet another huge financial commitment, the Tigers added outfielder Justin Upton, agreeing to pay the free agent $132.75 million over six years. Detroit introduced Upton on Wednesday afternoon at Comerica Park. Ilitch wasn’t there, but his presence was certainly felt as Avila told the story of how the Tigers decided this month to pursue Upton.
"(Ilitch) called me several times and — ‘I’m worried about the offence.’ I said, ‘Well, Mr. Ilitch, I’m trying to tweak it,"’ Avila said. "So he said, ‘Well, I appreciate you trying to tweak it, but I want more than a tweak."’
The 28-year-old Upton gives Ilitch’s team another powerful bat in the middle of the lineup and fills a need in left field after Detroit dealt slugger Yoenis Cespedes at the deadline last year. It was another big move for the Tigers, who are coming off a last-place finish in 2015. They signed right-hander Jordan Zimmermann earlier this off-season.
Upton hit .251 with 26 homers and 81 RBIs for the San Diego Padres last season. He will be paid $22,125,000 in each year of the contract.
The Tigers designated infielder Jefry Marte for assignment to make room for Upton on the 40-man roster.
Detroit now has the makings of a formidable lineup with Upton, Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler.
"You’re talking about some of the best hitters in the league," Upton said. "I’m still young and learning some things. To be in a lineup with guys who are that talented, it’s definitely a luxury."
The Tigers won four straight AL Central titles before last season’s slide. After Detroit landed Zimmermann with a $110 million, five-year deal, it wasn’t clear how much more the Tigers would be willing to spend. Detroit also traded for closer Francisco Rodriguez this off-season, and the Tigers already had expensive commitments to Cabrera, Kinsler, Victor Martinez, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez on the books.
Now they have Upton, too, although he can opt out of the deal after two years.
"The intent is not to get out of a contract, it’s just something we felt like we had to include in there," said agent Larry Reynolds, who represents Upton. "That was not our intent, to come here for two years. Justin’s been on enough teams. He needs to stay put for a minute."
Upton has played his entire nine-year career so far in the National League. He was traded from Arizona to Atlanta before the 2013 season, and the Padres acquired him from the Braves before last season. Upton has surpassed 25 homers in five of the last seven seasons.
"Obviously, I didn’t want an opt-out after the first year, but then I would have preferred probably the third year, but the second year made sense," Avila said. "He comes in and has two good years here, and things change, then he has that benefit. We may have the benefit of a draft pick coming back later on if it came to that. But I don’t think any of us here did this deal thinking this is going to be a two-year deal."
Detroit’s projected luxury tax payroll is now at $187 million for its currently signed players, approaching the $189 million threshold where the tax begins. And J.D. Martinez’s contract situation is still unclear. He filed for arbitration and asked for $8 million. The team offered $6 million.
Avila said Ilitch is comfortable with the team’s payroll and is aware of the ramifications.
"He went into it with wide eyes, knowing exactly what it looked like, and still willing to do it," Avila said.
Notes: Upton would get $500,000 if he is voted MVP, $300,000 for finishing second, $200,000 for third, $100,000 for fourth and $50,000 for fifth. He also would get $250,000 for World Series MVP, $150,000 for League Championship Series MVP, $100,000 for Gold Glove, $150,000 for Silver Slugger, $125,000 for All-Star election and $100,000 for All-Star selection.