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Fielder gives Tigers a title shot but deal is bad baseball sense


You have to admire the gusto of 82-year-old Tigers owner Mike Ilitch. When Ilitch wasn't happy with patchwork contingency plans about replacing Victor Martinez, he said he turned to GM Dave Dombrowski and said, "You know, I think we should go after Prince."

Dombrowski initially asked Prince Fielder's agent, Scott Boras, to consider a one-year deal and was rebuffed. One year became nine years very quickly -- the deal was on the table last Friday, or just four days after the MRI on Martinez's knee -- and Ilitch threw $214 million at Fielder, the no-brainer solution to replacing Martinez.

This was an ownership-driven, impulsive deal, which is why the Tigers will contend for a World Series and why the contract makes poor baseball sense. Nothing drives an organizational culture like an owner who is consumed with actually winning the World Series, not just competing or making money.

"Only a handful or so owners have that," said one executive, "to the point where that's the first thing they think about when they wake up in the morning. It's a great advantage for those teams."

A top-down will to win is an asset, though not always an efficient one. Said another executive when asked about the Fielder contract getting done at nine years on an ownership level (and similar to Angels owner Arte Moreno driving the Albert Pujols mega-deal), "Lots of low-hanging fruit for the agents. This one was a shocker by any standard."

The first thing that struck me about the Fielder news conference Thursday was Ilitch talking about chatting up Fielder in the "Cigar Room" of Comerica Park. I don't think Ty Cobb enjoyed such an amenity at Navin Field. But the obvious storyline was Ilitch himself. The guy wants to win the World Series, and I don't think he sat down with advanced metrics to work out Fielder's potential WAR as he ages through his mid-30s.

He had a need, Fielder was the best option and he had the money to make it happen. Afterall, this is a guy who gave a hockey player, Henrik Zetterberg, a 12-year contract -- paying him through age 40 -- in his zest for his Red Wings to win a Stanley Cup.

And it was easy to see how Boras, who never panics, could leverage the injury to Martinez and the will of Ilitch to obtain a terrific contract for one of the best players in baseball. Ilitch went out of his way to praise Boras' influence, saying, "He knows this team better than I do . . . He knows everything about the Detroit Tigers. I'm flabbergasted."

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Of course, Ilitch should be getting evaluations of his baseball team from his own baseball operations people, not the representative of a free agent. But no matter. Ilitch got the guy he wanted and now has a team that is capable of winning the World Series. Isn't that the bottom line?

The Tigers should run away with the AL Central, just as they did last year. They have very good righthanded power pitching, a good back end of the bullpen and plenty of offense.

Now, if you want to nitpick, you can find this: They have no speed (they didn't last year, either, when they were last in baseball at attempting and getting stolen bases), they have little lefthanded pitching, they have no leadoff hitter and their defense is atrocious (Fielder, Delmon Young in leftfield, Jhonny Peralta and his limited range at shortstop, the great Miguel Cabrera experiment at third base.)

Manager Jim Leyland showed again Thursday why he is a terrific manager. He praised the skills Cabrera does have at third base (hands and arm) and emphasized he has no plans to remove Cabrera for a defensive upgrade late in games. He might as well have been talking privately to Cabrera with this message: I believe you can do this so don't even think about relying on a caddy at third base to bail you out; and oh, by the way, drop some weight.

Privately, you have to wonder if Cabrera will start more than 100 games at third base and whether he can lose the weight and keep it off. He may be the best pure hitter in baseball, so complicating his game with a position switch and weight loss issues bear watching.

Life for the Cardinals without first baseman Albert Pujols, manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan -- three of the best in the business at what they do -- already has begun. Outfielder Matt Holliday, described by teammate David Freese as "a man on a mission," is stepping to the fore.

Holliday recently invited several top Cardinals hitting prospects to St. Louis. The outfielder put them up at a hotel, took them to a Blues hockey game, brought them through his daily training and hitting sessions and gave counsel on how to improve as a professional ballplayer.

Holliday is a five-time All-Star, four-time Silver Slugger winner, a lifetime .315 hitter, a former batting champion and one of the strongest hitters in baseball, yet somehow has not acquired the reputation of a full-blown franchise player. Without Pujols, and with the reserved Carlos Beltran as the big addition, this could be his time and his opportunity.

Catcher Yadier Molina is an important part of this team and clubhouse because of how he helps run the pitching staff, but Holliday is likely to assume a bigger role with Pujols gone. It appears already that Holliday, 32, welcomes it.