After spending the better part of the past few seasons climbing baseball’s Mount Everest only to run out of steam just shy of the peak, the Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers have decided enough is enough. Those 90-95 win seasons and deep playoff runs that don’t quite bear fruit will no longer be tolerated. The time to go for it is now, and no move quite emphasizes that mindset than the Prince Fielder–Ian Kinsler swap.
Detroit’s reasoning behind the deal is fairly obvious. They’ve finally figured out that baseball isn’t all strikeouts, home runs, and long base-clearing doubles; you actually have to catch the ball as well. In fact, this change in mindset may have started back in July, when when GM Dave Dombrowski sent big bat/poor glove outfielder Avisail Garcia to the White Sox as part of a 3-team trade that netted defensive wunderkind Jose Iglesias. With the rangy, durable Kinsler now in tow the Tigers finally have the type of double play combo that can provide legitimate support to a pitching staff.
The Fielder swap also allows Miguel Cabrera to hop back across the infield, where he is a more natural fit. After playing passable defense at 3rd base in 2012, Cabrera was a train off the rails a season ago. If we look at defensive runs saved Cabrera ranked 80th out of the 80 AL players who spent time at the position thanks to the fact that he was estimated to have cost the Tigers 18 runs. By the time we reached the postseason he was an absolute statue in the field and although that can be blamed on his injuries, Cabrera is not likely to improve defensively with age.
Detroit can now go out and plug-in almost any 3rd baseman on the open market and they would vastly improve a defense which cost the Tigers an estimated 57 runs a year ago. In fact, if the Tigers so choose, they could move their top prospect, Nick Castellanos, back to 3rd base, a position he played for 200 or so games in the minors.
Castellanos projects as a solid middle of the order bat with great gap-to-gap power so this trade may actually increase Detroit’s run scoring capabilities as well. If he can post something around a .275/.330/.450 slash, Detroit should be just fine. Kinsler will be an upgrade offensively over Omar Infante, and the new 2nd baseman should feel right at home in the spacious confines of Comerica Park, where his contact heavy approach should go over perfectly. It’s hard to see this trade as anything but a huge win for the Tigers, who as an added bonus will save a boatload of money down the road in the process.
That doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that Jon Daniels and Texas got taken to school. In fact, Texas may come out of this deal smelling like roses as well. According to Fangraphs, the Rangers accumulated 0.4 wins above replacement out of their 1st basemen a year ago and to make matters worse, they basically broke even at the DH position. Fielder, even in the midst of a career worst season, was still good for 25 homers, 100+ RBI, and walks galore. At the very least the big man should provide the Rangers with an extra 60-70 run scoring opportunities next season thanks to his patience at the plate.
The real risk with Fielder comes down the road. There was a notable drop-off in the rotund 1st baseman’s performance during the 2013 season and his age (30), body shape, and family history (his father Cecil declined badly after he turned 33 and he was out of baseball by the time he was 35) tend to lead to the idea that his best days have already come and gone. Fielder’s contract also runs for another 7 seasons at $24 million a pop, and even though the Tigers are sending a lump sum of $30 million in cash to Texas, that kind of payroll hit probably won’t look very good by 2018 at the latest.
But in the short-term, this move could pay real dividends for Jon Daniels and the Rangers. Prince is markedly better than any other 1st base/DH type on the market and that’s the position that Texas likely needed the most help at a year ago.
Another big plus for the Rangers is that it finally gives them some positional flexibility in the infield. Ron Washington can play Mitch Moreland at 1st with Prince at the DH spot. Even if Fielder plays 1st base, he shouldn’t hurt the Rangers defense too much because they have Adrian Beltre and two rangy shortstops (Elvis Andrus and Jurickson Profar) manning the rest of the positions. That’s pretty good company to keep.
Texas can now spend the rest of their offseason making pursuing a catcher and a lead-off hitter with the knowledge that the rest of their roster is set. Brian McCann would fit in awfully well with the rest of this roster, as would Shin-Soo Choo. Either way, general manager Jon Daniels has options.
In all honesty, this is one of those trades that makes so much damn sense on paper, but rarely gets made in real life. Texas and Detroit each had their own positional problems, whether they be too many 1st basemen or too many shortstops, and each team was able to come up with a productive solution. Don’t be surprised if we see each of these two AL powerhouses clashing next October.