Source: USA TODAY
The Texas Rangers were one of Prince Fielder’s most ardent suitors when he hit the free agent market two years ago. Now, in a roundabout way, they’ve landed the rotund slugger.
In a stunning deal more than two weeks before the winter meetings, the Detroit Tigers agreed to send Fielder and cash to the Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler.
There had been no previous rumblings about the trade, but it makes sense for both clubs on several fronts.
The Rangers, who came within an out of winning their first World Series in 2011, failed to make the playoffs last season for the first time in four years as they dropped from first in the American League in runs scored to seventh.
Fielder, a 5-11, 275-pound first baseman, has averaged 36 home runs and 111 RBI over the last seven seasons. The five-time All-Star won’t turn 30 until May and has a career on-base plus slugging of .911, although it dropped to .819 last season.
He floundered in two postseasons in Detroit, producing just two extra-base hits in five series as the Tigers won one pennant and came within two wins of another.
Now, according to a club official with direct knowledge of the deal, the Tigers will pay the Rangers $30 million to ship Fielder to Texas.
The Rangers believe there’s significant upside to the deal.
“If he was coming off the best year of his career, he’s not available,” general manager Jon Daniels said on a Thursday night conference call. “I think that’s kind of the whole idea of this deal — if anybody feels like that’s a sign of things to come, that he’s slipping, you may not like the deal. We don’t feel that way. We don’t feel that way at all.
“There’s a lot more to come from him.”
That’s only part of the upside for the Rangers, whose incumbent first baseman, Mitch Moreland, has never driven in more than 60 runs.
The trade also opens second base for prized infield prospect Jurickson Profar, who was stuck behind Kinsler and shortstop Elvis Andrus last season, getting relegated to a utility role.
The Tigers lose power but gain financial flexibility and offensive versatility with the addition of Kinsler, a three-time All-Star who has reached double figures in home runs and steals in seven of his eight seasons in the majors.
They could use it, on the field and the balance sheet.
By moving Fielder’s nine-year, $214 million contract – which has $168 million left to pay – the Tigers may have created enough payroll room to keep newly minted AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer.
“It makes it perhaps more possible,” Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski said of re-signing Scherzer. “We had a lot of stars and they’re well-paid stars. You can only have so many of those kind of players. It (Fielder’s departure) does give us more flexibility. Max is a player we’d like to keep in our organization. … We tried to create financial flexibility and keep our club … very competitive.”
With Fielder moving on, two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera will almost certainly return to first base, where he’s better suited. Cabrera voluntarily switched to third when the Tigers signed Fielder before the 2012 season, but he lacks the mobility required for the hot corner. He’s also less likely to get hurt playing first.
Oh, and Cabrera’s contract – a very reasonable eight-year, $152.3 million deal – expires after 2015. Moving Fielder greatly enhances the chance Cabrera becomes a Tiger for life.
As for the 2014 club that will bid for a fourth consecutive AL Central title? The free agent departure of Omar Infante left a hole at second base. Kinsler, 31, has twice hit 30-plus homers in a season and provides a more potent bat than Infante while adding a speed dimension the plodding Tigers lacked. Detroit had the fewest stolen bases and the fewest attempts in the majors last season.
The Tigers seem to have an heir apparent at third in prospect Nick Castellanos, who hit .276 with 18 homers and 76 RBI at Class AAA Toledo last season and earned a September callup. Castellanos is still only 21, though, so he might require more seasoning.
The staff co-ace will be entering his final season before free agency in 2014. After accepting pitching’s most coveted prize last week, Scherzer made it clear he would like to return to Detroit, but not at a discount.
The Tigers already have two players with contracts valued at more than $150 million in Cabrera and Justin Verlander, who have combined to win the last three AL MVPs.
Cabrera will no longer be able to count on Fielder’s presence as lineup protection in what had been baseball’s most fearsome 1-2 combo, but the Tigers should still have enough pop and plenty of pitching to contend.
Contributing: Bob Nightengale