There are too many layers to the trade that sent Ian Kinsler to the Detroit Tigers and Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers to write a single, coherent article in summary. Therefore, I’m breaking it up. I wrote about Fielder’s power profile and projection here. I wrote about Kinsler’s complicated aging profile and skill set here. I wrote about how Fielder’s arrival impacts the Rangers’ roster, and their winter plans, here.
The story of the 2013 Tigers—okay, of the 2012 and 2013 Tigers—was immense talent, poorly aligned. They had the best offense in the American League, but the worst defense. They had Miguel Cabrera playing third base, and (until he got suspended) Jhonny Peralta at shortstop. They had three DHs, but only one DH spot in the lineup. They had a better rotation than a team needs, honestly, unless its resources are unlimited, and the Tigers proved that their resources weren’t unlimited by assembling a very poor bullpen.
Ian Kinsler helps change that. Second base wasn’t a problem for the 2013 Tigers: Omar Infante had a fourth straight season of being worth between two and three wins, and hit .318. Infante became a free agent at season’s end, though, so that position needed to be addressed. In trading Prince Fielder for Kinsler, GM Dave Dombrowski gave himself more flexibility, financially and structurally, while also solving that problem. Cabrera will slide back to first base, or to DH (with incumbent DH Victor Martinez taking over first), and with Kinsler and trade acquisition Jose Iglesias capably manning the middle infield, Detroit will not need a superstar solution at third base.
There are significant salary savings for Detroit in this deal. To whatever extent budgetary concerns were creating a practical limit on what the Tigers could do, this deal creates breathing room. Detroit saves $8 million in each of 2014 and 2015, then $4 million and $7 million in 2016-17. In 2018, depending upon whether they pick up Kinsler’s club option (they porbably should, but need not make that decision for four years), they save either $13 million or $8 million. Then they get a whopping $18 million in relief for the final two years of Fielder’s deal, although of course, the $6 million they’ll still send to Texas those years will be money they pay him to play for someone else, and they will no longer have Kinsler to show for the transaction.
Facing the Tigers now is the challenge of spending that spare money wisely. The free-agent market might seem ludicrously expensive, but the fact is that the flood of money into the game is outrunning salary inflation leaguewide. Even the Tigers, who face some hefty likely cost increases on players who qualify for arbitration, should be able to absorb the hit of a slight overreach. What they need to do is find the right answer at the few spots that still show up as glaring roster flaws.
Fielder was essentially the Tigers’ lone left-handed weapon, offensively. They need to replace him. The San Diego Padres are alleged to be shopping left-hitting third baseman Chase Headley, who would be a perfect fit, but the Tigers might prefer to hang onto the talent the Padres would demand in return for Headley. Left-handed bats litter the free-agent outfielder market, from the top (Shin-Soo Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury, former Tiger Curtis Granderson) to the bottom (Jason Kubel, Nate McLouth). Before committing to any of them, though, Dombrowski would have to be sold that:
- Nick Castellanos, the team’s top prospect who moved from third base to the outfield as he climbed the ladder, can move back to the hot corner, handle it and hit like a big-leaguer; and
- Whomever the Tigers brought in is a real, meaningful upgrade over incumbent left-hitting left fielder Andy Dirks.
Of course, making that second addition, plugging the remaining hole in their lineup, is not the only route they could go with those savings. They could, instead, use them to finance extensions on the contracts of either Max Scherzer or Cabrera. Scherzer is under team control for just one more season, and just won the American League Cy Young Award. Cabrera has two years left on his deal, but also two AL MVP awards in his trophy case.
Scherzer is a solid extension candidate. You might overpay him a bit by doing a new deal right now, but then again, the age of marginal-cost efficiency analysis is over. (The linked article is from Sam Miller, last year at Baseball Prospectus, but you should also subscribe to Joe Sheehan’s Baseball Newsletter and read his take. It’s exquisite.) Scherzer will be a championship-caliber pitcher, the kind that makes even a good pitching staff better, for the next three or four years, and that’s worth investing in before he reaches free agency. There had been rampant rumors of the Tigers shopping Scherzer, among other starters, earlier this month, but this deal seems to have mercifully killed that possibility.
Cabrera, on the other hand, shouldn’t get a chunk of this money. He’s a Hall of Fame player, an elite hitter, and I’m sure he’ll still be a solid one at age 33, the first year of his career that will not be covered by his current contract. He’s due just $44 million the next two years. That’s a steal. After that point, though, he’s going to be at least that expensive, and demand a commitment that carries him past his 40th birthday. Given his body type and lack of non-batting value, there are better ways for the Tigers to use their resources, beginning in 2016, than on Cabrera’s victory-lap, lap-belt-surgery years.
In 2013, Detroit finally became, for me, a legitimate powerhouse. They won division titles in the two previous seasons by trouncing weak intradivisional competition, going .500 in each year when facing teams outside the AL Central. That changed last season. The emergence of Scherzer and the transcendence of normal limitations on performance by Cabrera made them a real, live juggernaut. Now, they have to try to preserve that, even as the superpowers of both Cabrera and Justin Verlander begin to fade, and guys like Martinez and Torii Hunter age, presumably worse with every passing week. This deal gives them plenty of options. They must stay aggressive, though, to really make it sing.Next post: Jason Vargas: How the Kansas City Royals Wasted Four Years of Roster Space
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