With one move, Tigers reinvent themselves on offense and defense

Thursday February 27th, 2014

Ian Kinsler's addition and Prince Fielder's departure allow Miguel Cabrera to move from third to first.
Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

Last Nov. 20, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels gathered the members of his front office together for a brainstorming session. The central topic to be discussed was what to do about the glut of middle infielders the club had on its roster. The Rangers had Ian Kinsler, a 31-year-old three-time All-Star, at second base. They had Elvis Andrus, a 25-year-old two-time All-Star, at shortstop. They also had Jurickson Profar, a 21-year-old who prior to last season had been named by Baseball America as the game's top prospect, ready to step in on a full-time basis at either position. They had, in other words, three very good players for two spots -- and, rising fast through the minors behind them, another pair of highly rated Venezuelan middle infield prospects, Luis Sardiñas and Rougned Odor.

The Rangers executives considered trade possibilities centered upon each of the three big leaguers. Then A.J. Preller, an assistant GM, suggested that perhaps the Tigers might be inclined to move Prince Fielder -- the 29-year-old former Brewer who had struggled, by his standards, in his second season in Detroit (he batted .279 with 25 home runs and 106 RBIs) -- for Kinsler. It was, all agreed, an intriguing idea.

The very next day -- Tuesday, Nov. 21 -- Daniels' phone rang. Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers' GM, was on the line. Might Daniels be interested in a trade involving Ian Kinsler and Prince Fielder? Yes, Daniels said. He would be.

In the hours to follow, the two GMs discussed what the trade would look like. Would there be other players involved? There would not, they quickly concluded. How much money would the Tigers send to Texas to offset some of the nine-year, $214 million free-agent contract they had given Fielder just 22 months before, which was still the fifth-largest pact in baseball history? An even $30 million, they agreed, payable in annual installments between 2016 and 2020. By Wednesday afternoon, they had a deal. Rarely has a blockbuster been so easily consummated, in part because rarely has one made so much sense for both sides.

JAFFE: Fielder-Kinsler swap should help both teams short-term

For the Rangers, the trade was a matter of allocating their assets not to change their lineup's style, but to enhance it -- and even to rediscover it. In 2011, they ranked third in the majors with 855 runs scored and reached their second straight World Series, but by last season, their offense's potency was more a matter of reputation than reality. "Everyone thinks we had this dynamic offense, and we were okay last year, but we were lacking," Daniels said.

In 2013, without Josh Hamilton in the lineup, the Rangers fell to eighth in runs, and they were particularly bereft of the lefthanded power Hamilton had once given them. The 69 home runs their lefties struck ranked them 10th in the American League. Since 2007, the lefthanded-hitting Fielder has blasted 255 homers, 13 more than any other lefty, and with a messy divorce behind him and with Texas' short rightfield fence in front of him, the Rangers could reasonably expect a power renaissance. Texas had added a durable slugger at a cost of a million and a half dollars a year fewer than the Yankees would commit the following month to Jacoby Ellsbury.

The Tigers' side of the deal was billed as a re-imagining of their style and even their identity -- and it was, as became clear when they reported for their first spring training under new manager Brad Ausmus. There were no tallboys strategically spaced around the diamond, but the Tigers of the Fielder era were, in many ways, the world's greatest slow-pitch softball team. They didn't run so much as amble around the bases, waiting for the big blow. Last year, they mustered 35 steals, the second fewest by any team since 1994. Between July 23 and Aug. 27, a span of 34 games, they swiped one bag.

Their hitters, led by Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez, were so good that this worked a lot of the time -- Detroit scored 796 runs, second in baseball behind the Red Sox -- and it often did so in bunches. The Tigers were 33-15 in games decided by five runs or more. When it didn't work, they had nowhere else to turn. They went 20-26 in one-run games, a record that has a lot to do with luck, but also at least something to do with the fact that they often couldn't manufacture a single run when they needed one most. Three of their four losses in the ALCS to the Red Sox came by one run.

This year's offense, Ausmus told his club right away, might have a little less power sans Fielder, but will be more dynamic, especially on the basepaths. Kinsler has stolen 36 bases over the last two seasons and, as the likely leadoff hitter, will be encouraged to surpass his recent average. Rajai Davis, who was signed to a two-year, $10 million deal in December and will split time in leftfield with Andy Dirks, has passed 40 steals in four of the last five seasons. Austin Jackson, the centerfielder whose steal totals have dropped in each of his four seasons, from 27 as a rookie to eight last year, will be expected to run, as will shortstop Jose Iglesias, who had just five swipes as a rookie. "Everyone talks about Kinsler, Rajai Davis, Austin," Ausmus said. "Jose's just as fast as those guys."

JAFFE: Winter report card: Tigers are significantly improved from last season

Ausmus's green light will glow upon those outside that quartet, and won't be limited to stolen-base situations. The Tigers' station-to-station days are over. "Before I came here, I was with Minnesota, and in that organization we went first to third," Hunter said. "Then with the Angels and Mike Scioscia, it was first to third. Brad Ausmus is bringing that same feel: First to third, no matter what. Base hit, go first to third, even if you're a big guy."

The Tigers' new composition will lead to changes beyond their baserunning. Last season, Detroit was the seventh-worst fielding team in baseball, according to Fan Graphs' Ultimate Zone Rating statistic. The fact that its pitching staff still yielded the second-fewest runs in the American League is a sign that Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and company are even more extraordinary that you might realize.

This season's defense will certainly be much improved, in part because of the slick-fielding double play combination of Kinsler and Iglesias (who is compared almost daily in Tigers' camp to the great Omar Vizquel, his tutor this spring). But Fielder's departure will allow Miguel Cabrera, who was the second-worst third baseman in the league according to UZR, to move back across the diamond to first. In his place will be Nick Castellanos, the top prospect and natural third baseman whose days of shagging balls in the outfield, in a desperate attempt to find a spot in Detroit, are now over. "I'd rather play outfield in the big leagues than third in the minors," Castellanos said, without hiding his relief at no longer having to make that choice (or having it made for him).

The other thing the Fielder trade did for Ausmus is provide him lineup flexibility that his predecessor, Jim Leyland, never had in his last year. Fielder really couldn't play anywhere but first (where he appeared in 151 games) or designated hitter, and that meant that Cabrera almost always had to play third (145 games) and Martinez almost always had to DH (139). Now, Ausmus said, "There's more interchangeable parts," which he can exploit based on pitching matchups, and which will become particularly useful in interleague games in National League ballparks. Those will come early this season, as Detroit plays at Dodger Stadium just a week into the season, immediately followed by a three-game set at San Diego's Petco Park.

Last year, Martinez got just 15 plate appearances in NL parks, a number he'll likely surpass early this season. Ausmus can use him at first base in those games (shifting Cabrera back to third) and even, the manager said, at his former position of catcher in place of Alex Avila, particularly against lefthanded starters. "We need Victor's bat in the lineup," Ausmus said. "We can't have him out five straight games."

So Ausmus' first Tigers team will be different than Leyland's last -- more athletic, more dynamic, more versatile. Will they be better? Well, no, not definitely. It is not easy to replace the production of a player like Fielder, even a down-year Fielder. "You take Prince Fielder's bat out of the lineup, that's 100 RBI, that's nothing to scoff at," Ausmus said.

The fact is that Detroit didn't need to get better. It is de rigueur for teams that don't win the World Series to focus publicly on their shortcomings and explain how they've addressed them so that the result will be different next time. But in the case of last year's Tigers, it was probably just bad luck, played out in the small-sample-size environment of the playoffs. "They were built to win it all," one rival GM said. "They just didn't."

One of the harmless lies we tell ourselves about sports with playoff structures is that the ultimate winner was the best team all along. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. Change a few unfortunate bounces in very tight games, subtract a celebrating Boston cop, and the slow-pitch Tigers could easily have been last year's champions.

Dombrowski might have retained Fielder, and the overall style that resulted from his presence, and he could have been confident that he would again have a legitimate shot at a World Series. A lesser GM might have gone that route, but Dombrowski didn't for one reason: Money. Even counting the $30 million they sent to Texas along with Fielder, the Tigers all at once lopped $76 million in future commitments off their unwieldy books, funds that they might redirect to Cy Young winner Max Scherzer (who is due to become a free agent after this season) or Miguel Cabrera (who can hit free agency after 2015).

The idea is to get your team to the playoff tournament as many times as you can, where the odds say you might eventually hoist a trophy. Dombrowski knew that he needed to trim his payroll in order to fund those shots not just in 2014, but in the years to follow. The Kinsler-for-Fielder trade allowed him to do that in the best way possible: By fielding a team that will still win, just differently. It would be no surprise at all if the trading partners meet again in late October, with a World Series on the line.

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