Fielder deal to save Tigers plenty of money

John Lowe Detroit Free Press

November 21, 2013

DETROIT — In a trade that will solve at least a few major problems for the Tigers and perhaps several, the club traded first baseman Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler on Wednesday night.

The Tigers are sending money to Texas to help offset the $168 million that Fielder is still owed over the remaining seven years of his whopping contract. Yahoo Sports reported that the Tigers will send $30 million to Texas.

The shedding of Fielder’s huge contract — after his power dipped noticeably this season, including in his RBI-less postseason — is only one reason that Tigers officials must be rejoicing over the deal.

Kinsler is a veteran second baseman and leadoff hitter, and he can step in to both roles for the Tigers. Omar Infante, the club’s second baseman this past season, is apparently gone as a free agent. Austin Jackson lost the leadoff spot during his strikeout-filled postseason.

This is the kind of trade that seldom happens any more in baseball: a huge one-for-one swap between two teams who have been going all out for years to try to win the World Series. The huge contracts that stars have now usually make these kind of trades unfeasible. But this one happened, and without any other players added to balance the scales.

At his best, Kinsler is a dynamic mix of power and speed. He’s twice been a 30-30 player — 30 homers, 30 steals in the same season. His home park was a hitter’s park, Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

Now he will come to spacious Comerica Park, while Fielder will get to tee off in Texas and its right field that both in coziness and its double-deck, girder-supported grandstand resembles Tiger Stadium.

The deal also would apparently allow the Tigers to move Miguel Cabrera back to first base to replace Fielder, and can have top prospect Nick Castellanos move back to third. Castellanos was expected to get a chance to make the team as a left fielder for this coming season.

Both Cabrera and Castellanos had to change positions when the Tigers signed Fielder to a nine-year contract to counteract the loss to Victor Martinez to a knee injury for the entire 2012 season.

It remains unclear how much the subtraction of Fielder’s contract will help the Tigers re-sign Max Scherzer, due for free agency after next season, or Cabrera, due for free agency after two more seasons.

Presuming the Tigers send $30 million to Texas, the trade will save them a net of $9 million over the remaining four years of Kinsler’s contract.

But for 2018, when Kinsler will be 35, the Tigers can either buy him out for $5 million or keep him for one more year at $10 million. At that time, Fielder will still have three guaranteed years left on his current deal at $24 million per season, through age 36.

Kinsler, like Fielder, didn’t have a season up to his normal standards in 2013. At times, he — like the Rangers — seemed caught in between deciding whether he was a leadoff hitter or a No. 3 hitter.

Kinsler hit 32 homers in 2011 — and now has hit a combined 32 homers in the last two seasons.

With Cabrera in the third spot and Victor Martinez apparently moving to cleanup, Kinsler can concentrate on being a leadoff hitter, if that is the role the Tigers choose for him. Jackson clearly relaxed when dropped from the leadoff spot in the playoffs and was the team’s best hitter for the remaining three games after manager Jim Leyland moved him down in the order.

In 2011, Kinsler turned in his second 30-30 season. In the oft-cited statistic of OPS, he had a percentage of .832. That means his on-base percentage and slugging percentage — the combination of ability to get on base and hit for extra-base power — added up to .832.

In the two years since, he had an OPS of .749 in 2012 and .757 in 2013.

However, Kinsler never has struck out more than 90 times in a season. He and newcomer Jose Iglesias could give the Tigers more speed than they have had in years. The Tigers finished last in the AL in steals this season.

Kinsler cares deeply about defense, too, and has shown terrific range and a quickness on the double play. After the first of his three All-Star Games — the 2008 affair that lasted 16 innings — Kinsler sat in the locker room at Yankee Stadium at about 2 a.m. and said he wanted to be the kind of second baseman Ryne Sandberg was: an offensive force who made about five errors per season.

He made 13 errors this season. But if the Tigers had come to see Fielder’s contract as an error, Kinsler has gotten them out of it, and so he has made a big play for the Tigers before he even puts on their uniform.