January 24th, 2012

Fielder to Tigers: 9 years, $214 million

The Tigers spent a week reacting to Victor Martinez’s season-ending left knee injury. Their eventual reaction was big enough to be worthy of a Prince.

After supposedly looking for a short-term solution to the void in the middle of their order, the Tigers went big, physically and financially, with All-Star slugger Prince Fielder. On Tuesday, the two sides agreed to terms on a nine-year contract worth $214 million.

Tim Brown of Yahoo! Sports and Jon Heyman of MLB Network and CBSSports.com first reported the talks and ensuing agreement. A source confirmed the terms to MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez.

The Tigers have not commented on the reports. The team has a policy of not commenting on reported deals until the players involved have passed physicals.

The move caught the rest of baseball by surprise, not so much regarding the Tigers’ interest but by the lengths they pursued Fielder to get a deal done. What was expected to be a short-term replacement became a cornerstone acquisition, reuniting Fielder with the team he followed as a child.

With a nine-year deal, Fielder would be under contract with Detroit through 2020. Even then, however, he’ll be 36 years old, which made a long-term deal for the 27-year-old an intriguing one. That intrigue just wasn’t expected to include the Tigers.

Until Martinez tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in a training mishap a week and a half ago, the Tigers were set at designated hitter. Martinez hit .330 with 103 RBIs last year to help lead Detroit to its first division title in 24 years and protect Miguel Cabrera in the lineup on the first baseman’s way to his first American League batting crown.

Though the Tigers supposedly had contact last week with Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras, in the wake of Martinez’s injury, the fit didn’t look realistic. Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski downplayed the chances of a Fielder deal just last Thursday, telling MLive.com’s Angela Wittrock that they probably would be focused on a short-term deal.

“Of course we’d consider it,” Dombrowski said of Fielder at the time, “but realistically, it’s probably not a good fit. … We anticipate Victor Martinez coming back in 2013 and playing at the level he was at last season.”

Dombrowski wouldn’t completely put the Fielder speculation to rest but stuck to his statement that the “fit really is not there at this point.”

As recently as Monday, Dombrowski told the Detroit News, “We’ve got a lot of names to consider.”

However, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch has a history of putting together deals with Boras late in the offseason. In 2004, Ivan Rodriguez surprised many with a four-year contract to join a Tigers team coming off a 119-loss season. A year later, Magglio Ordonez signed what ended up being a six-year deal with the Tigers.

Both deals came together late in the offseason with pursuers dwindling. So did Johnny Damon’s one-year contract with the Tigers two years ago. That decision was strongly believed to have come directly from Ilitch, who, at the age of 82, has made his drive to win a World Series well known.

Ilitch’s push is believed to have been the driving factor behind the Fielder deal as well. The owner remembers Fielder from the first baseman’s childhood days tagging along with his father, former Tigers slugger Cecil Fielder, around Tiger Stadium and the Tigers clubhouse during the early 1990s.

Defensively, the fit also seemed unlikely. Fielder has played his entire Major League career with the National League at first base in Milwaukee, having played just 17 career games at DH during Interleague Play. The Tigers have installed Cabrera as a cornerstone player at first base, where his defense has improved markedly over the last two years.

A source close to Cabrera said the Tigers front office approached the slugger to see if he would be all right with the club adding Fielder and possibly pushing Cabrera away from first base. Cabrera, according to the source, told the team he was fine with it, and that he’s looking forward to playing alongside Fielder.

Cabrera told the Venezuelan newspaper <i>Lieder in Deportes</i> that he’s moving back to third base. Whether that’s on a full-time basis or part-time remains to be seen. At the very least, the Tigers are expected to use a rotation that makes sure neither is relegated to a being a full-time DH, including some games at third. Cabrera manned the hot corner for several seasons with the Florida Marlins before the Tigers moved him to first early in 2008.

What the Tigers will do a year from now, when Martinez is expected to be back at full strength, will be another challenge. Martinez spent most of last season at DH while filling in at catcher on some days as essentially a backup to All-Star Alex Avila. An August knee sprain, however, limited Martinez to DH down the stretch, and manager Jim Leyland said at season’s end he planned not to catch the 33-year-old Martinez again for the rest of his contract.

In the end, however, the Tigers had an offensive hole that Ilitch and management felt they needed to fill. They’ll deal with the roster impacts later, certainly next year.

The move caught even Cecil Fielder by surprise, the former slugger told MLB Network Radio. The father and son have had an estranged relationship in recent years stemming from debts the elder Fielder accumulated in retirement, reportedly costing the family their home. However, they have kept in touch in recent years.

“I didn’t see Detroit in the picture,” Cecil Fielder said.

Very few people did. But one big financial swing, it happened.

“I know Mr. Ilitch is probably excited,” Cecil Fielder said. “He’s been wanting that kid since he was a little kid, so he finally got his wish.”

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