Sep 30, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler hits a RBI single against the Tampa Bay Rays during the third inning at Rangers Ballpark at Arlington. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Fielder Trade Leads to Questions

The Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler blockbuster creates more questions than answers for the Detroit Tigers. We know who will be manning 2nd base now, but the rest of the roster is now – shall we say – flexible. You could argue that a starting pitcher trade is now more likely, since the Tigers will have an easier time finding partners with the right chips to deal. This offseason is going to be active. There’s one other thing we can probably say with certainty – despite what you’ve probably been hearing from the national media – this trade was NOT about avoiding the $72 million that the Tigers were going to owe Prince Fielder in 2018, 2019 and 2020. Tigers personnel decisions have been and will continue to be driven by short-term concerns.

The biggest question, in my mind is what the Tigers offseason strategy actually is. We have ruled out one – supported by me personally and probably few others: “standing pat”. That would be the argument that the Tigers were good enough last year, just needed to be hot at the right time, and that putting the same roster back out there (with minor changes at the margin, like signing a replacement for Octavio Dotel) would lead to the best team in baseball or something close to it. The Tigers are clearly not going to be doing that, nor does it appear that they had any intention of doing that.

The deal – and the comments surrounding it – fit into three separate narratives, each of which would suggest very different trajectories for the offseason from here on out.

1. The “broken model” narrative. This one supposes that the Tigers front office, like many Tigers fans, came to the conclusion that not only were the weaknesses of the basic Tigers “plan” exposed in the 2013 postseason but that the team needs a different model in order to achieve postseason success rather than regular season success. Defense. Baserunning. Relief pitching.

2. The “tight budget” narrative. This story supposes that the Tigers maxed out how much they can afford to spend chasing the 2013 championship, going so far as to spend those new 2014 TV dollars before they had been received on Anibal Sanchez. They would now be trying to maintain a competitive team without allowing payroll to rise significantly (or at all) above 2013 levels.

3. The “doghouse” narrative. This one suggests nothing more than that Prince Fielder got on Mike Ilitch’s bad side through his attitude during and comments following the ALCS. Fielder had to go, for personal reasons, and Dombrowski was tasked with finding the best possible deal – which he probably did get. If they are on a “tight budget” or feel that the Tigers had a “broken model” or both AND wanted Fielder out for personal reasons, this doesn’t suggest anything specific about what is going to happen next. But… if the only reason he was dealt was those personal reasons, then we would have no reason to expect the 2013-2014 offseason to look any different from the last few offseasons have.

Dombrowski apparently stated following the trade that the Tigers were planning to go with Hernan Perez at second rather than signing Omar Infante – something I would not otherwise have guessed, though the silence from him about Infante had been getting suspicious. This also fits with the “broken model” or the “tight budget” narratives. Dombrowski may have felt that Omar Infante was going to be too expensive, and I don’t think a $10 million average annual value is implausible on a 3 or 4 year deal for him. He may also have wanted a second baseman that would steal a few more bases and turn a few more double plays than Infante.

If they felt that the model was broken, it’s safe to assume that we’re going to see a focus on speed and defense in filling the holes at third and/or left field. We can also assume that Cabrera will definitely as opposed to probably or possibly be moved back to first base. AND we can assume that the Tigers are going to go after some top relievers. It’s possible that we’ll see some interest – rather than hypothesized interest – in free agents Shin-Soo Choo and Jacoby Ellsbury, who are plus defenders and good fits for the Tigers lineup and home field. We might, amazing as this sounds, not see Castellanos in a Tigers uniform in 2014 – if the Tigers are a win-now team with an unlimited budget, but one that now prioritizes speed and defense, Castellanos doesn’t do anything to move them in that direction. We could see Castellanos dealt as part of a package to get a third baseman with more defensive polish, as there do not seem to be any viable options in that regard on the free agent market.

If the Tigers are operating on that very tight budget, the Fielder trade will certainly help them to put a competitive team on the field without raising payroll – but that was a tough task and will remain a tough task. As has been detailed here at MCB already, signing zero of their own free agents but keeping the rest of their roster intact would have led to a 2014 payroll almost the same as the Tigers 2013 payroll (depending upon arbitration awards). Relative to that baseline, the Fielder-Kinsler trade is going to save some money but exactly how much (in 2014) depends on when the $30 million goes to Texas. If it’s backloaded, covering lots of Fielder’s salary in his mid-30s, then the impact on the Tigers bottom line is something like $8 million for next season. That – just barely – makes the task of holding payroll at $150 million possible. We should assume that the Tigers are going to fill 3B and LF with young, cheap players. That could be Castellanos at third and more Dirks in left, there wouldn’t be any “need” to make a move, but we could also see a starting pitcher dealt to get one or the other. In fact, I’d say we would probably see a starting pitcher dealt to get one or the other. If the preference is to trade Porcello or Fister rather than Scherzer, it’s a heck of a lot easier to find a major-league-ready corner outfield prospect than it is to find a second baseman. Dealing one of those two (for a guy earning league minimum) would free up enough money that the Tigers could afford to sign either a closer or two second-tier relievers without breaking the budget – particularly if the Tigers aren’t paying any of Fielder’s 2014 salary. However, if the Tigers are going to be trying to win without a rapidly escalating payroll, I don’t think it makes sense to keep Scherzer with or without a contract extension – Dombrowski would likely feel the same way. If he wants to save money, but doesn’t have a problem with the team’s model, we’re probably certain to see Castellanos in the lineup next year and he might choose to make a deal to get a bat-first player rather than a glove-first player, maybe even a guy that could play first base with Cabrera staying at third.

I’m not entirely sure that trading Fielder for Kinsler – in a vacuum – will make the Tigers a better team in 2014. The only context in which this is a clear “win” is, sadly, the context that national sportswriters are putting it in – in terms of long-term salary obligations. However, it’s hard to imagine a better first move if the plan is to remake the Tigers as a gloves and steals small-ball team OR to stay competitive on a budget OR both. For the immediate future, we’ll be looking for signals to tell us what this all means.

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  • Will Snyder

    In the last paragraph, Chris uses the phrase, “gloves and steals team” as if it’s something pornographic. As I have said in other forums, I don’t want to see the Tigers mirror the 1980s Cardinals or Royals teams, but I think more steals and better gloves might contribute to a world championship. If the ’06 Tigers’ pitching staff knew how to field, they might’ve been competitive against the Cards. Kinsler would’ve scored from first on Delmon’s double in Game Two last year.

    • chrisHannum

      I think you’re reading too much into it, Will. I’m not opposed to a faster team with better D – though my priority would be outfield range.

      • Will Snyder

        Chris—Here’s where I’m coming from. Whether it has been the old Detroit News Tigers Talk forum or Bless You Boys, I have sensed that many commentators as well as Tigers fans feel their masculinity is being threatened by a little small-ball. Not 150-200 SB totals like some of those KC teams 30 years ago, Just some small-ball when it fits. And, it fits a lot more in Comerica Park. It may have helped the Tigers when they lost those two 11-inning, 1-0 games to Pittsburgh.

        • chrisHannum

          I’m not a fan typically of small ball managerial strategies, which Leyland loved anyway. I am a fan of having the personnel to make them work.

          • Will Snyder

            If Leyland “loved” small-ball,” he hasn’t shown it in Detroit. It’s not just that Leyland hasn’t had the personnel to play small-ball—he hasn’t—but he has openly sneered at that concept. He has thrown out the intellectually-offensive theory that hit-and-run—to cite one example—would “distract” Miggy and Prince from doing their jobs. With a hitter of Cabrera’s ability, that is just plain stupid. When l look at Boston’s success this year, I think the Sox hit roughly the same amount of homers as the Tigers, but they also stole almost FOUR times as many bases (123 to 35) as Detroit. That creates more scoring opps when you’re facing a tough pitcher on an off-day. Sure, the Red Sox basically used the homer to their advantage in the World Series, but they might not have had the home field advantage in the ALCS if they didn’t steal a game here and there. All I’m saying is some sort of balance. Today’s game does demand homers, but the smart team has something in reserve.

          • chrisHannum

            I’m sure you – like me – have some vivid memories of the Tigers “exploits” on the basepaths in the postseason. They tried to be aggressive and cost themselves runs and wins in the process. If they rework the roster, it’ll be interesting to see what they can do next year. Perez instead of Santiago and Iglesias over Peralta are steps in that direction even before the Fielder trade.

          • Will Snyder

            All too vivid, Chris, LOL. I think the examples you mention—Perez and Iglesias— are two good steps in the right direction. If, in the next two or three years, Ausmus can work in Devon Travis and Daniel Fields, they might get a couple more who can run a little. Left unsaid at this point is whether free agency or trades bring any burners to Detroit. Kinsler, despite last year’s 15 of 27 steals, will help. I honestly think he’ll bounce back. If the Tigers sign Beltran, probably not so much. Ellsbury would be great, but I don’t expect it. Sleepers with speed, though, would be a cheap platoon of McLouth and Rajai Davis. Don’t misunderstand, I realize Leyland hasn’t had a lot of speed, but someone with Jackson’s quickness should not go from 27 SB (2010) to 8 (2013). Also, just a little thing like not tagging up at 2B with one out on a 400-foot fly ball to CF really rankled me.

          • chrisHannum

            It’d be great if Fields could get his game together enough to take over from Hunter in 2015. As far as small moves, replacing Brayan Pena with someone who’s less of a slug will help too. Pena was just awful on the basepaths, awful.

          • Will Snyder

            Amen on Fields. I guess he’ll be at Toledo to start 2014. He had a good year in 2013, but it’s my understanding that Jerry Uht Park in Erie is a bandbox. As for the guy I assume has the inside track on the catching backup job, I remember a quote from his coach at TCU when the Horned Frogs went to the College World Series: “Having Bryan Holaday on the field is like having an extra coach.”