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Prince Fielder Trade: Money Overshadows Fascinating Deal

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In the interest of fairness, before rolling up the sleeves and digging into the Prince Fielder/Ian Kinsler mega-trade Wednesday night, it makes sense to say up front I’m a Tigers fan — lest you accuse me of bias. Like everybody else, this deal caught me completely off guard. I was out to dinner with friends, casually checking Twitter on my phone and noticed some rumblings that the Rangers and Tigers were “talking.” About a hour later a friend asks, “Did Prince Fielder get traded?” Sure enough, there it was–the special red-alert tint on the ESPN BottomLine.

A trade of this magnitude leaves a lot to digest and, no, that’s not a swipe at Fielder’s in-game snacking habits.

The best place to start is probably the money aspect of the deal, since that was scrolling right along the bottom of the screen on ESPN all night. Earlier this year, FanGraphs estimated the Fielder deal (which ran until 2020 at $24 million per season) as the fifth-worst contract in baseball. FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron, in breaking down the trade, calculated the Tigers would save roughly $76 million exchanging Fielder and $30 million to the Rangers for Kinsler, owed $57 million through 2017 with a club option for 2018.

From the Detroit standpoint, this deal wasn’t a quick reaction to Fielder’s RBI-less 4-for-22 postseason. Or his terrible base-running blunder vs. the Red Sox in the ALCS … or his generally miserable fielding at first base. It was about getting out from under an awful, knee-jerk contract signed in the winter of 2011 when Tigers’ aging owner Mike Ilitch panicked after Victor Martinez tore up his knee and Scott Boras came calling with the offer of Fielder for nine years.

The Tigers needed payroll relief from their top-heavy roster. Had they retained Fielder, Detroit was committed to $68 million in 2017-18 on three players: Fielder, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez. Sure those are three elite-level players, but makes it much harder to cut a roster unless you have cheap internal options and in recent seasons the Tigers have moved most of their blue chips due to GM Dave Dombrowski’s preference to build via trades, landing guys like Sanchez, Doug Fister, Jose Iglesias, etc. Trading away one of the biggest and burdensome contracts in baseball might go down as Dombrowski’s masterstroke, even if the Tigers cannot replace Fielder’s productivity immediately,although not having to write Fielder a check for $24 million when he’s 36 makes that much more tolerable.

Prince Fielder belly flop ALCS Game 6-b

Everyone in the baseball world is writing about how moving Fielder frees up the Tigers to extend Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, a free agent after 2014 and MVP Miguel Cabrera, a free agent after 2022. Dombrowski didn’t downplay that was part of the reason for the Kinsler swap, but didn’t say it was automatic either. As a Tigers fan it’s nice to have the last three American League MVPs and two Cy Young winners, but locking up 4-5 players to contracts worth $20+ million a year doesn’t seem like the best way to build a roster, nor has it produced that elusive World Series flag to hang atop a flagpole at Comerica Park. If they re-sign Scherzer it would mean nearly $70 million tied into three starting pitchers. As we saw in the ALCS, starting pitching wasn’t the Tigers issue, it was the bullpen.

More immediately, Kinsler fills the gap at second base in Detroit left by free agent Omar Infante. Kinsler, 31, has seen his counting numbers decline each of the last two seasons, following his 32-homer, 30-steal performance in 2011. With a  lifetime .273/.349/.484 line, Kinsler is probably overpaid, but he’s an above average player with a slightly inflated reputation likely due to fantasy baseball. Even so, the Tigers could have been stuck with a much lesser player or more toxic contract to rid themselves of Fielder’s hefty remaining salary.

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Admittedly my knowledge of the Rangers organization isn’t as extensive, but Fielder doesn’t warp their payroll as extensively as you’d think. For 2016 they have only $75 million committed and that figure drops to $69 million, $43 million and $39 million each successive season. It leaves room for GM Jon Daniels to perhaps make a run at Robinson Cano to replace Kinsler at second base, and then flip either Elvis Andrus or Jurickson Profar to a team like the Cardinals for pitching. Texas is still in play to sign Brian McCann, too. (Of course if Profar is as good as the hype makes him out to be, why spend $20+ million on Cano when Profar is under team control until 2019?)

Two things that stand out for me on the Rangers. Last winter the team didn’t want to meet Josh Hamilton’s contract demands, so he signed with the Angels for 5 years/$125 million. Granted Hamilton fell off the cliff offensively this season, but a year later the Rangers bite the bullet to take on Prince — for slightly less money but a few more seasons. Texas is also locked into Andrus at $15 million per season from 2015-22. Yes, Andrus is lauded for his defense but in five seasons he’s posted a .274/.339/.348 line with 18 career homers, so that contract is pretty awful moving forward, especially since it blocks Profar at his natural position.

Let’s get back to Fielder, whose value is at an all-time low after the postseason missteps. There’s a certain irony to Fielder. He gets flack for being fat, but he’s played 162 games four of the last five seasons. The other year in that span he played 161. He hasn’t missed a game since Sept. 10, 2010 and owns a 505-consecutive games played streak — the longest active in the Majors.

His alleged decline isn’t as pronounced as you might be led to believe, either, although a big dropoff from his monster 46-homer season for Milwaukee in 2009:

  • Detroit 2012: 30 HR, 108 RBI, 85 BB, 84 SO .313/.412./.528
  • Detroit 2013: 25 HR, 106 RBI, 75 BB, 117 SO, .279/.362./.457

Texas Rangers v Tampa Bay RaysHis first season in Detroit, Fielder was a great all-around run producer and hitter. It’s no coincidence he formerly made Ryan Braun an MVP* hitting behind him and helped turn Miguel Cabrera into a two-time MVP and a Triple Crown winner in 2012. In 2013 Fielder’s plate discipline dipped and he struggled, but was still productive, despite rumors his slump was tied to his pending divorce. The Tigers will miss his bat, which should translate well to the perceived launching pad that is the Ballpark in Arlington. Comerica certainly didn’t help Fielder’s opposite field power.

If we forget salary commitments for a second, Fielder is a definite power upgrade for the Rangers at first over Mitch Moreland. Fielder and Adrian Beltre are a very nice 3/4 combo. In the post-PED world, power is a rarer commodity and why Daniels took the risk — and burden — of Fielder’s big contract. In 13 games in Arlington, Fielder has four home runs. Maybe he comes back pissed off and motivated by the trade and the “haters” and has a monster season. It’s a gamble worth taking, if you’re the Rangers who are looking short-term to win a World Series — 2020 be damned.

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This move truly moves the Tigers away from the Jim Leyland, let’s wait for a three-run homer approach to American League baseball. There’s probably no way to quantify this, but with Cabrera-Fielder-Martinez hitting in a row, the Tigers might have had the slowest lineup in baseball. You don’t think about it, but Detroit left a lot of runs on the board with this trio’s inability to score from first on a double, or from second on a single. New Tigers’ manager Brad Ausmus now has players with some speed in the lineup with Kinsler and Iglesias. Adding Kinsler might also allow Detroit to move Austin Jackson — a free agent after 2015 — to a run-producing spot in the lineup, perhaps down to No. 5. Moving Fielder away improves the Tigers infield defense immeasurably, even Cabrera at first is a major upgrade.

Judging this trade from a win/loss perspective is going to take time. Until we know who the Tigers are going to use in left field and third, the loss of Fielder creates a huge gap in their lineup — even if he had already hit his peak. Again, this is offset by getting out from under the last seven years of his contract which would only become more-and-more of an albatross. Detroit still kept its window of winning a World Series open, while saving itself of an apocalyptic salary crisis looming on the horizon. 

Texas got a top power bat, despite all the warts that popped on Fielder’s resume the last 3-4 months. The Rangers are paying a hefty sum for it and better hope Fielder’s dip is temporary and a change of scenery to Texas heats up his bat again.

This is a great baseball trade, and a fascinating one. It’s a trade that shakes up the landscape of the American League for years to come.

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