BLOCKBUSTER!

BY: Richard W. Humphrey

There is no question that the trade of Prince Fielder and Ian Kinsler agreed upon by the Tigers and Rangers last Wednesday is a blockbuster deal. The teams involved represented the American League in two of the last three World Series. The players involved are All-Stars in the heart of their careers at ages 29 and 31, who are signed to long term contracts with future salary obligations that total in the neighborhood of a quarter of a BILLION dollars.

At first glance, the trade looks to be a “win-win” for both teams. The Tigers unloaded an onerous contract in Fielder for just $30 million, received a lead-off type hitter, and greatly improved defensively by making the trade. Texas gets the middle of the order bat they sorely missed last summer after losing Josh Hamilton and clears the logjam of middle infielders at the Major League level.

The trade reportedly took little more than 24 hours to consummate after Detroit’s Dave Dombrowsky initially contacted Texas GM Jon Daniels with the idea Tuesday afternoon; warp speed in this day and time. Detroit was the surprise bidder for Fielder two seasons ago, inking the free agent first baseman to a nine year $214 million contract. ($168 million remains to be paid over the final seven seasons). In those two years, he played 324 games, batting .295, hitting 55 home runs and driving in 214. The Tigers won the Central Division in both years, lost to the Giants in the World Series in 2012 and lost to Boston in the League Championship Series this year.

The bottom line is that Fielder produced at the anticipated level, and the team enjoyed tremendous on the field success with Fielder’s bat being an integral ingredient. On the other hand, there was disappointment in Detroit that he had just two extra base hits in more than 100 post-season at-bats over the five playoff series. There is also concern over his playing weight. (He is listed at 275, but that could easily be a gross understatement.) He is a sub-par defensive first baseman and a horrible base runner. This past season, Fielder hit 25 home runs, the fewest of any of the eight full seasons of his career, and just two more than the Rangers’ first baseman he replaces – Mitch Moreland. Fielder has hit at least 40 twice, including 50 in 2007. A mere 25 in 2013 is perceived by some as the beginning of a precipitous performance drop.

There is far less risk in this transaction for Detroit. Kinsler’s offensive skills are waning, particularly his home run and stolen base totals. However, he walks more producing better on-base percentages than he did earlier in his career. He is still a superior defensive second baseman with great range and a strong arm. He turns a double play as well as any second baseman in baseball. Kinsler is for sure a defensive upgrade over last season’s Tiger second sacker – Omar Infante, now a free agent.

The trade further provides the opportunity for Miguel Cabrera to move across the diamond to first base. He’s a better defender at first than at third and clearly a better first baseman than Fielder, though the Tigers have not officially committed to move Cabrera. With late season acquisition Jose Iglesias at shortstop, Detroit has the makings of a top flight defensive infield.

Also, the financial savings from this trade may enable the Tigers to retain Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer.

For Texas, the risk revolves around Fielder’s ability to rebound from his poor 2012 numbers (poor by his standards). If he returns to the level of hitting 35-40 home runs or more, the Rangers will have gotten what they think they got in making this deal. For sure the friendly jet stream and inviting right field seats in Arlington are a reason to believe Fielder can return to those levels. Josh Hamilton and Rafael Palmeiro are two of many left-handed hitting Rangers that have enjoyed tremendous success at Rangers’ Ballpark in Arlington.

The Rangers’ risk really revolves around the money. They are taking on a salary obligation of more than $7 million this season and $76 million over the term of Fielder’s contract. If Fielder’s offense continues to slide, the Rangers could be saddled with an extremely onerous contract, even with the $30 million subsidy they receive from the Tigers over the final five years.

The Kinsler trade paves the way for Jurickson Profar to take over at second base. The youngster was rated as the top minor league prospect in baseball prior to last season, but he hit just .234 in 286 at bats this season. Despite the disappointing offensive start, he still showed why he is such a highly regarded prospect. He has great instincts for the game, and was played at five positions last year to get the playing time for almost 300 at bats. Settling in at one position and having the experience of 2013 are reasons to believe Ranger fans will see a much better player in Profar next year. The Rangers however, have not committed second base to Profar, saying at this point that he is the leading candidate for the job.

Fielder had requested a meeting with the Rangers when he was a free agent two seasons ago. At some point in time in his childhood, his parents lived in Las Colinas, so he has familiarity with the area. (His father Cecil is a former Major League player, most notably with the Tigers.) He has a limited no-trade clause in his contract that includes the Rangers, but waived it without requesting compensation. He has to be pleased with the prospects of hitting in the Rangers’ ballpark, and he effectively receives a raise, in that he’ll be playing 81 games instead of three or four in Texas, which has no state income tax. Interestingly, Fielder has been a teammate of a league MVP for the last three years – Miguel Cabrera the last two seasons in Detroit and Ryan Braun in 2011 with Milwaukee. Texas will be very happy if he can make it four years in a row in 2014.

At this point, the Rangers are fairly pleased with the pitching they will bring to spring training. They have at least eight candidates for the rotation and felt so comfortable with the bullpen that they let closer Joe Nathan go in free agency. The Fielder acquisition bolsters the offense, but both GM Jon Daniels and manager Ron Washington vowed that there will be at least one more significant bat added to next year’s lineup.

RANGER NOTES:

* David Murphy became a former Ranger this week when he signed a two year, $10 million contract with the Indians. Ranger management showed virtually no interest in Murphy after he hit .220 with 13 home runs and 45 RBIs in 436 at bats this year. Murphy, a former Baylor Bear, was always popular with the fans and will be missed by many.

* Texas signed Colby Lewis to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. If he makes the team, he’ll receive a $2,000,000 salary base with incentives that could add $4,000,000 more to his 2014 earnings. Lewis did not make a Ranger appearance last season as he attempted to return from 2012 arm surgery. He was 32-29 in 80 starts in 2010-2012, and won four playoff games in eight starts in the two seasons the Rangers went to the World Series.

* This week, Yu Darvish was cleared to begin an off season throwing program. After the 2013 season ended, it was disclosed that Darvish had inflammation in his lower back that hindered his performance in late season starts. Results from an MRI this week indicated the inflammation has subsided.

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