Sanchez signing gives Tigers an edge

This week, the American League became more competitive by the day. The Royals traded for James Shields. The Angels landed Josh Hamilton.

Friday, the defending champions answered: Anibal Sanchez agreed to a five-year, $80 million contract to remain in Detroit, a major league source confirmed to The team announced the deal Monday.

One signing didn’t turn the Tigers into prohibitive favorites to return to the World Series. But it’s hard to argue that any team in the AL — yes, even the Angels — has a better chance of getting there.

Some are wondering if the Angels’ 1-3-4 combination — Mike Trout, Hamilton and Albert Pujols, in some order — is the best ever. But the Tigers can’t be too far behind with Austin Jackson, reigning MVP Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. (The Angels’ new trio held a narrow lead over the Tigers’ group in WAR this year, 18.3-17.5, according to

Detroit’s lineup should be much improved top-to-bottom, with the addition of former Angel Torii Hunter (whose .817 OPS will be missed by his former team) and Victor Martinez, expected to return after missing all of the 2012 season with a knee injury.

But the Sanchez signing was essential to preserve the Tigers’ clearest advantage over their divisional foes — and potential October opponents. Detroit’s postseason rotation — Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Sanchez and Max Scherzer — posted a 5-1 record and 1.02 ERA against Oakland and New York in the AL playoffs. And now no member of that group will be eligible for free agency until Verlander and Scherzer after the 2014 season.

The Tigers also have two solid options for the No. 5 spot, right-hander Rick Porcello (who is about to turn 24 and still has upside) and left-hander Drew Smyly (who impressed as a rookie this year, going 4-3 with a 3.99 ERA in 99-1/3 innings). Porcello could be traded for a closer, but the better course would be to upgrade the Tigers’ defense at shortstop so his sinker-reliant repertoire generates more ground-ball outs.

Detroit finished with the second-lowest rotation ERA in the American League this year, 3.76. Only the Rays were better, and they just traded Shields. It’s not a stretch at all to say the Tigers, as constituted, have the league’s top rotation — certainly better than the Angels, who have replaced Dan Haren and Ervin Santana with Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton.

What was said before the 2012 season began remains true now: The Tigers have the clearest route to the postseason of any team in baseball. Their talent and payroll advantage are two reasons. Their division — the top-heavy American League Central — is another.

The Royals are better, yes, but their rotation (Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Santana, Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar or Bruce Chen) isn’t better than Detroit’s. The White Sox have had a quiet winter and are banking on Jake Peavy and Chris Sale having two excellent seasons in a row. Neither the Twins nor the Indians are ready to challenge the Tigers yet.

The Sanchez signing was the latest demonstration of Mike Ilitch’s legendary largesse, as the 83-year-old’s desire to win a World Series burns brighter than ever. As long as Ilitch owns the team, the Tigers will make moves like this — signing Martinez, Fielder and Sanchez to massive contracts in successive winters.

The Tigers’ next huge investment will need to come from within, as Verlander is staring at the possibility of becoming baseball’s first $200 million pitcher. It’s hard to imagine that the Tigers will be able to retain both Verlander and Scherzer (a Scott Boras client) when they hit free agency two winters from now. Eventually, they will need to make a very difficult, very expensive decision. But the calculation will become a lot easier if they win a World Series ring in one of the next two years. After keeping Sanchez, that possibility is very much alive.