November 20th, 2013
The Tigers went into the offseason needing to solve second base for 2014, but needing to solve payroll concerns for well beyond that. They’re solving both needs in one incredibly big, yet beautifully simple move.
It’s a 1-for-1 deal, but with Prince Fielder and Ian Kinsler, the Tigers and Rangers pulled off a blockbuster that changes the course of both teams for years to come.
Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com and MLB Network first reported the talks Thursday evening, followed by an agreement soon after. Considering how swiftly the Tigers’ free-agent contract with Fielder came together, maybe it’s fitting. News of the trade even caught Tigers players off-guard.
“Wow!!! Big news,” Justin Verlander tweeted Thursday night. “We traded Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler.”
The Tigers will send $30 million to Texas, according to a source, to help bridge the gap in money remaining on the two contracts. Fielder has seven years left at $24 million each on the mega-contract he signed in January 2012, barely a week after Victor Martinez’s catastrophic knee injury left Detroit in desperate need of offense and left owner Mike Ilitch aggressively looking to fill Martinez’s void. Kinsler, by contrast, has five years and $69 million total left on his deal if his $12 million club option for 2018 is included.
After all this, the biggest task will be the Tigers re-adjusting the rest of their roster in turn. It’ll lose a huge power presence in the cleanup spot, but recover the kind of financial flexibility that will put the Tigers back in control of their long-term destiny.
The Tigers had a dream offensive lineup in 2013 with Fielder at first base, Miguel Cabrera at third and Victor Martinez as the designated hitter. But while the offense put up mighty numbers over the course of the season, the game-to-game results weren’t consistent. That inconsistency came back to bite them in the postseason, when a series of low-scoring duels put pressure on Detroit’s vaunted rotation and not-so-solid bullpen to hold slim leads.
Fielder, fairly or otherwise, became the flashpoint for that. For most players, his .279 average, 25 home runs and 106 RBIs would’ve been a good season. After a .313 average, 30-homer debut season in Detroit, however, a 121-point drop in OPS stood out. His deep struggles in the postseason, followed by his comments after the dramatic ALCS Game 6 loss that eliminated them from the postseason,
The biggest pressures on the Tigers, however, were the financial stats. With Fielder’s contract, Justin Verlander’s recently-signed deal, Max Scherzer and Victor Martinez a year away from free agency and two-time AL MVP Miguel Cabrera among a handful of prominent Tigers up for free agency in two years, Detroit’s long-term payroll looked like an unsolvable puzzle.
Trading Fielder, even with the offensive gap it creates, became the solution, which is surely why talks came together quickly.
With first base open, the Tigers have the option of moving Cabrera back to first, where he played his first four seasons in Detroit before Fielder’s arrival, or moving Martinez out from designated hitter. Top prospect Nick Castellanos, who was slated to compete for a spot in left field, is an option to move back to his original position at third. Or the Tigers could
The payroll, meanwhile, now has a lot more flexibility to consider contract extensions for Cabrera and Scherzer. Detroit could save as much as $8 million in each of the next two seasons, and more after that, depending on how the money is spread out.
Kinsler has been a mainstay at second base in Texas, and at age 31 should remain so. With the Rangers enjoying an embarrassment of riches in young infielders, however, Kinsler was expendable. And with the Rangers desperately looking for offense, by all accounts, Fielder was an attractive bat.
The Rangers were an option for Fielder as a free agent two years ago, and carried the bonus of no state income tax. Now, the prospect of Fielder regaining his power bat in a much more power-friendly park looms for American League opponents.
The Tigers used their open roster to add seven minor leaguers and protect them from next month’s Rule 5 draft. Futures Game rep and Triple-A all-star Jordan Lennerton is on the list, as is right-hander pitcher September signing Justin Miller. So are Toledo left-hander Kyle Lobstein (a Rule 5 Draft pick last year), Double-A Erie outfielder Daniel Fields and shortstop Eugenio Suarez, Class A Lakeland outfielder Steven Moya and Lakeland closer Jose Valdez.
No moves were made to take anybody off the 40-man roster, so it stands at 39 players. They left a spot open to add another player if something comes together in the coming days (an addition of a closer, perhaps?), but they’ll have to designate or release somebody if they add any more than that. The question over arbitration-eligible players, meanwhile, now shifts to the non-tender date two weeks from now.
Lennerton and Miller were kind of mysteries going in. Though Lennerton is an older player (he’ll turn 28 in February), he’s coming off an all-star season that drew notice. Because he’s a first baseman, he doesn’t have a role in Detroit unless somebody gets hurt, but he also isn’t easy to replace if another team were to take him in the Rule 5. And by the sounds of it, that was a strong possibility. The Tigers had talked about him enough in potential trade discussions that the chance to snag him for $50,000 might have been too tempting.
“I think they candidly gauged enough legitimate interest to put him on,” one AL talent evaluator said of Lennerton.
Miller is an interesting case. The Tigers signed him in September after the Rangers had released him coming off a season shortened by recovery from 2012 Tommy John surgery. His last full, healthy season was 2011, but it was outstanding, with a 9-1 record, 1.81 ERA and 13 saves at Double-A Frisco.
It would seem that the odds of a team using a Rule 5 pick on a pitcher who has pitched just 27 innings the past two years would be long. But teams are interested to take a chance on pitchers in that type of situation. The Tigers got Wil Ledezma a decade ago coming off an injury history in the minors.