In discussing with reporters how difficult it would (not) be to recover from the Detroit Tigers’ loss in the American League Championship Series, Prince Fielder said, coolly and rather infamously, “It’s over, bro.”
Turns out, it was really over.
Wednesday, the Tigers acquired three-time All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler — a man who reached two World Series with the Texas Rangers, who put together a pair of 30/30 seasons, who signed a $75 million contract not long ago.
And yet, in Detroit, this trade was more about the player the Tigers gave up.
That was obvious in how the Tigers explained the move. Dave Dombrowski, the club president and general manager, acknowledged he doesn’t know where Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and prospect Nick Castellanos will play in Fielder’s absence. The Tigers must discuss that now, because adding Kinsler — or, more accurately, finding a taker for most of Fielder’s contract — didn’t seem realistic when the organization convened for its annual meetings earlier this month.
This trade was largely about saving $76 million — the salary difference between Fielder and Kinsler, minus the $30 million the Tigers are sending to Texas. Dombrowski spoke of “financial flexibility,” a phrase that often sets of alarms because it connotes a slashing of payroll. In this instance, Tigers fans welcomed it. They never completely warmed to Fielder and will name streets after Dombrowski (and revered owner Mike Ilitch) if the savings result in a long-term contract for popular Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer. But that is hardly a layup. Scherzer is represented by Scott Boras, Esq., of Newport Beach, Calif.
Make no mistake: The Tigers will miss Fielder, perhaps more than they realize. Including the postseason, the Tigers played 348 games in the two seasons he spent in Detroit. He played all 348. Fielder produced 108 runs in his first season and 106 this year. Those are the baseball criteria Fielder holds in highest regard: everyday accountability and 100-RBI seasons. By those metrics — and, indeed, many others — Fielder’s career in Detroit was a success.
But he also had those nine digits invisibly tattooed on his forehead: $214,000,000. Fairly or unfairly, his status as one of the four $200 million men in baseball history created an additional set of expectations Fielder did not meet. It would be foolish to question whether he cared — he absolutely did — but Fielder never became an especially vocal or emotional clubhouse leader with the Tigers. He performed poorly in the postseason — a .196 batting average, one home run and only three RBI in 24 games. The narrative of Fielder returning to the city where his father starred should have been heartwarming but was mostly awkward, because he didn’t want to speak about his strained relationship with Cecil.
Fielder was booed at Comerica Park during what proved to be his final home games as a Tiger. Dombrowski said Fielder “never had a specific request” to be traded. When asked if the fan backlash played a role in the deal, Dombrowski said, “Not really.” But for reasons that aren’t entirely clear — and may never be — Fielder’s story in Detroit wasn’t as happy as it should have been.
I fully expect Fielder will find greater contentment and gaudier power numbers in Texas. It won’t surprise me at all if he swats 40 or 45 home runs next year, thanks to the welcome scenery change and hitter-friendly environment at Rangers Ballpark. Meanwhile, Miguel Cabrera is likely to see fewer pitches to hit now that Fielder isn’t protecting him any longer. (Remember: Fielder has batted behind an MVP in each of the last three seasons — Ryan Braun with the Brewers in 2011, Cabrera for the last two. That is not an accident.)
“It’s going to be a bat we miss at times,” Dombrowski admitted.
Knowing that, the Tigers must derive some benefit from parting with one of the premier left-handed sluggers in baseball. That starts with Kinsler, an outspoken and charismatic overachiever who shares a common trait with many veterans in the Detroit clubhouse. Much like Victor Martinez, Torii Hunter, and Justin Verlander, he’s come achingly close to a World Series championship but never won one. He has the wit and stature to criticize when necessary — even publicly calling out Rangers fans in the past for lower-than-expected attendance figures. Detroit should love him.
On the field, Kinsler must perform the difficult act of aging gracefully at an up-the-middle position. He’s 31 but remains an above-average offensive performer, even if his home run and stolen base totals have fallen in each of the last two years. Dombrowski and manager Brad Ausmus each spoke of Kinsler Wednesday as a candidate to hit in one of the Tigers’ top two spots.
In Texas, there had been talk of Kinsler switching positions to make way for prospect Jurickson Profar. He won’t have to do that in Detroit — at least not right away. The second base job is his, and the expectations before him will be far more reasonable than those Fielder faced when he arrived two winters ago. Dombrowski called him “a good, solid player … an all-around player … a real steady second baseman.” The Tigers won’t ask Kinsler to carry them. They need him to get on base ahead of Cabrera and make pitchers think about his rare combination of power and speed. He can do that.
Dombrowski said he believes Kinsler can remain at second base “for a few years.” I tend to agree, but keep the following scenario in mind: For budgetary reasons, the Tigers must at some point introduce a fulltime position player who earns close to the league minimum. They are very high on second base prospect Hernan Perez, who has appeared in 36 major-league games and is not yet 23. If Perez shows he can handle an everyday job, he could become the second baseman while Kinsler shifts to third. That likely would leave the Tigers with an infield of Cabrera at first, Perez at second, defensive wunderkind Jose Iglesias at shortstop, and Kinsler at third.
We must wait to judge the secondary and tertiary effects of this move on the Tigers’ plans for 2014 and beyond — whether Scherzer and/or fellow starter Doug Fister sign long-term deals, and if Dombrowski lands a veteran free agent (such as Shin-Soo Choo, Carlos Beltran, or even former Tiger Curtis Granderson) to replace Fielder’s left-handed presence. Martinez has become even more indispensable, because he’s shown before than he can protect Cabrera. He must do so again at age 35, two seasons removed from the knee injury that precipitated Fielder’s arrival in January 2012 — in a manner just as shocking as his departure proved to be.
This far from spring training, both the Tigers and Rangers can claim victory in this deal. We’ll know for sure if they meet in the ALCS next October. Last month, Fielder said it was over. Now it begins again.