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.