Prince Fielder-for-Ian Kinsler is winter's first blockbuster
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Ladies and gentlemen, we have our first blockbuster of the winter. On Wednesday evening, the Tigers and Rangers worked out a deal that sends Prince Fielder to the Rangers in exchange for Ian Kinsler, a move that not only fills persistent holes for both teams but also clears roster logjams by opening spots for their respective top prospects. The deal reportedly includes $30 million heading from Detroit to Texas to help offset the difference in the remaining salaries of the two stars, but the Rangers are still taking on considerably more risk.
By far the bigger surprise in this deal is the trade of Fielder. The 29-year-old first baseman (30 in May) is just two years into a nine-year, $214 million deal he signed with the Tigers in 2012, a contract that ranks as the fifth-largest in baseball history. Though he made an All-Star team for the fifth time and played in all 162 games for the fourth season out of the last five, Fielder's .279/.362/.457 line and 25 homers were underwhelming. His power numbers — slugging percentage, isolated power and home run total — were all career lows, while his on-base percentage was his lowest since 2006, and his first time below .400 since 2008. Likewise, his 120 OPS+ was his worst since 2006.
Thanks to especially bad defense (-13 Defensive Runs Saved), Fielder's 1.7 Wins Above Replacement was well off his 4.9 from 2012, and marked the third time in the past seven years in which his poor glove has depressed his value below 2.0 WAR; in that span, he's averaged just 3.5 WAR. Furthermore, he struggled mightily in the postseason, hitting just .225/.311/.250 in 45 plate appearances with just one extra-base hit and no RBI. His baserunning bellyflop during a rundown between third base and home plate in Game 6 of the ALCS punctuated the Tigers' elimination at the hands of the Red Sox.
Fielder's rough year may be somewhat mitigated by the fact that he wound up filing for divorce in August. No one can measure the toll such matters can take on a player's production, but they're almost certainly not helping matters. Even so, and even in light of his impressive durability — an average of 160 games per year for the past eight — his dropoff renewed concerns about how he would age given his body type. That's no small concern given that he's owed $24 million a year for the remainder of his deal, a total of $168 million. Trim $30 million off that via the money changing hands and his contract becomes easier to swallow; the resulting average of $19.7 million per year is well below what Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols, Mark Teixeira, Joey Votto and Adrian Gonzalez are making. Another point in his favor: the Ballpark at Arlington is a better place for left-handed power than Comerica Park; according to The Bill James Handbook 2014, Fielder's new home has a three-year left-handed home-run park factor of 120, while his old stomping grounds were at 108. Thus it shouldn't be a surprise if he returns to 35-40 homer range.
On the other side of the deal is the 31-year-old Kinsler, who has spent more than a year in the middle of rumors regarding either a trade or a shift off second base, either of which would have allowed the Rangers to play Jurickson Profar, the consensus top prospect in baseball coming into 2013, at the keystone. The three-time All-Star didn't have a great year with the bat, hitting .277/.344/.413 with 13 homers and 15 steals in a hitter-friendly environment, good for just an OPS+ of just 105. Thanks to strong defense (+11 DRS), he was still good for 4.9 WAR, a solid rebound after just a 2.1-WAR season in 2012. Since 2007, he's averaged 4.7 WAR; among second baseman, only Robinson Cano, Chase Utley and Dustin Pedroia have been more productive in that span.
Kinsler signed a five-year, $75 million extension with the Rangers in April 2012, covering his 2013-2017 seasons; he made $13 million this past year and is thus guaranteed another $62 million, including a steep $5 million buyout of his $10 million club option for 2018, his age 36 season. That money isn't exorbitant, but with Profar ready and both third baseman Adrian Beltre and shortstop Elvis Andrus also on long-term deals, finding room for Kinsler going forward had already become a problem. He resisted the possibility of moving to first base, and neither that nor a potential move to left field would have taken advantage of his particular combination of skills; he's too good a defender to waste in either spot, but not a good enough hitter to offset that loss of value.
This trade allows both teams to reconfigure their infields. Fielder represents a huge offensive upgrade at first base over Mitch Moreland, who hit just .232/.299/.437 (98 OPS+) in 2013. In fact, the .223/.295/.405 line the Rangers received from all of their first basemen was the league's second-worst, ahead of only the mess the Yankees made in papering over the loss of Teixeira. Profar hit just .234/.308/.336 in 324 plate appearances this past year, but that had much to do with sporadic playing time and a whole lot of bouncing around the diamond; he saw time at DH, third base and left field in addition to second base. In 2012, the season that vaulted him to the top of every major prospect list, Profar hit .281/.368/.452 with 14 homers and 16 steals as a 19-year-old at Double-A Frisco. He boasts an exceptional arm and approach at the plate, not to mention good power; as ESPN's Keith Law wrote back in January, he offers "an incredible combination of tools, skills, and baseball instincts rarely found in players who play in the middle of the field." By keeping Profar instead of trading him, the Rangers also retain some amount of insurance in case Andrus opts out of his eight-year, $120 million deal after the 2018 or 2019 seasons, as they can move him back to shortstop.
As for the Tigers, Kinsler will remain at second base and replace Omar Infante, who shored up a longstanding problem at the position upon being reacquired in mid-2012, and reached free agency after a strong season (.318/.345/.450). With Fielder gone, Miguel Cabrera can move back to first base, where he spent most of his first four years with the Tigers (2008-2011) prior to Fielder's signing. Jose Iglesias, who was acquired from the Red Sox in a three-way deal in late July, will be the full-time shortstop. At third base, the team can either sign a free agent — not Jhonny Peralta, who's seeking much bigger money than the Tigers aim to spend — or return top prospect Nick Castellanos to his old position.
A 2010 supplemental first-round pick, the 21-year-old Castellanos has ranked among Baseball America's Top 100 prospects in every year since, topping out at No. 21 prior to this past season. For the year, he hit .276/.343/.450 with 18 homers at Triple-A Toledo, then played 11 game with the Tigers, going 5-for-18. Castellanos was a full-time third baseman until the middle of 2012, when the team began experimenting with him in the outfield corners in light of the Cabrera-sized obstacle in his path; he spent all of 2013 in left field. Prior to shifting, his defense at third base drew mixed reviews, with some praising his arm strength and quick reactions and others finding him stiff and often caught between hops.
Factoring in the money and the contracts changing places, the Tigers will save $76 million, including $8 million on their 2014 payroll. In the short term, that money can help them add a free agent at whichever of the two positions Castellanos doesn't play. In the long run, this could help a team that's reached the ALCS in three straight seasons keep the window of opportunity open even longer: The savings can be put towards extensions for Cabrera, whose current deal runs through 2015, and Max Scherzer, who can be a free agent after the 2014 season. Presumably, the savings mean that the Tigers won't trade Scherzer, whose name has been floated in recent rumors.
The Rangers are thus taking on an additional $76 million in commitments over the next seven years, but have added just $8 million to their 2014 payroll in doing so, netting the long-sought big bat without having to surrender the draft pick that it might have cost them. Which isn't to say that they won't do so by signing a free agent who received a qualifying offer, but at the very least, the addition of Fielder presumably takes them out of play for Mike Napoli unless they envision Fielder as a very expensive full-time designated hitter. In the short term, this deal that should help both teams remain contenders while taking the wraps off exciting young prospects. In the long run, however, the bulk of the risk in this trade has been assumed by the Rangers. They'll need Fielder to age particularly gracefully if it's to pay off in the end.