Prince Fielder hit .279 with 25 home runs for the Tigers last season. (USA Today)
More than any general manager, Dave Dombrowski traffics in what people like to call a good baseball trade. Most deals today consist of known quantity for future potential, and those are all well and good. A good baseball trade – an old-school swap of major league talent that materializes seemingly out of nowhere, also known as a challenge trade – takes a certain amount of artistry and the sort of conviction very few in baseball possess.
Take, for example, the Prince Fielder-for-Ian Kinsler blockbuster that went down Wednesday night. It makes sense. It makes absolute, perfect, why-didn't-anyone-think-of-it-before sense. So much sense that Dombrowski, the Detroit Tigers' GM, and Jon Daniels, his counterpart with the Texas Rangers, didn't spend an excessive amount of time haggling over extra pieces or parts or details. They saw their clubs' strengths and weaknesses, surveyed the free agent and trade markets, realized they were a good fit, agreed upon $30 million heading south, got Fielder to waive his no-trade clause and pulled off a deal of two All-Star regulars.
Ultimately, this trade will be about two things: How Fielder ages and what comes of the $76 million in salary relief for the Tigers. The calculus of most trades reveals itself within a year, maybe two; this one could take a half-decade, which, in the meantime, renders it something of a win-win – with Texas the bigger of the wins.
And, no, that is neither a reference to everything being bigger there nor Fielder's physique. For all of the joking about his girth and immobility and awful belly-flop skills, a truth always remained about Prince Fielder, the sort that places him in an exclusive category of baseball players: He hits home runs like few others, and in a game where power is such a limited commodity, the prospect of bringing in one of baseball's biggest bats, even coming off a mediocre-by-his-standards season, proved too good to pass up.
The cost in dollars is significant. With the $30 million lagniappe, Texas owes the 29-year-old Fielder $138 million over the next seven seasons. With the prices of free agents what they are – Jacoby Ellsbury wants $140 million, Shin-Soo Choo $125 million, Brian McCann $90 million-$100 million – the idea of getting Fielder at those dollars mitigated the risk that comes from players with his body type.
It is true: Fat guys do not age well, and carrying close to three bills on a 5-foot-10 frame places Fielder among the heaviest the game has seen. The Rangers can take comfort in Fielder's ability to stay healthy – and health, while often a factor of luck, is nevertheless seen in the same light as a skill, something players can indeed possess – as well as better-equipped training staffs to deal with older players.
Jim Thome, Jason Giambi and David Ortiz. All were first basemen who eventually moved to designated hitter, which is a given for the iron-gloved Fielder sometime within the next three seasons. All have spectacular eyes at the plate. And all launch home runs on the regular. From their 30th birthdays and beyond, the cumulative slash lines for all three more than make up for their lack of help in the field: Thome hit .270/.396/.561, while the success of Giambi (.261/.401/.515) and Ortiz (.290/.392/.560) is complicated by their ties to performance-enhancing drugs.Still, the sample size of players Fielder's size is so small, it's difficult to hazard a guess as to which side he'll fall on. Fielder has plenty in common with the three most effective hitters over 250 pounds:
Because of his wretched postseason performances, Detroit huzzahed the quick exit of Fielder just two seasons into his nine-year, $214 million deal. The return of Kinsler is notable in that he'll make $62 million over the next four years, assuming the Tigers decline his 2018 option, and will replace Omar Infante at second base. At 31, Kinsler lost the dynamism of his late-20s self over the last two seasons, and headed to Comerica Park from Rangers Ballpark isn't the sort of move that often inspires a renaissance.
No, this was about what Kinsler isn't: a $168 million cost over the next seven years. Even after sending cash to Texas, Detroit freed up $76 million to lock up Max Scherzer long-term or re-up Miguel Cabrera before his contract runs out after the 2015 season. Coming off the AL Cy Young, Scherzer likely never will find his market value as high as it is now. That didn't stop Detroit from giving Justin Verlander a $180 million contract over seven seasons after back-to-back years in which he finished first and second in Cy Young voting, and unless the Tigers divert their pot of gold to a left fielder – Choo makes all the sense in the world, actually – it could be Scherzer's.
Just as likely is Detroit putting it toward the Let Miggy Retire a Tiger Fund. This is worth remembering: Cabrera will be only 32 after the 2015 season. Jayson Werth received $126 million at age 31. A $200 million contract for Cabrera is almost a certainty, even if he does go to first base, which is the logical next step after the Fielder deal.
With less wear and tear on Cabrera at first, the back-to-back MVP can focus on what he does better than anyone: hit the ball. The likeliest possibility at third is rookie Nick Castellanos, a top prospect who will help fortify a lineup now missing a star bat thanks to the void the Fielder deal created.
Texas wins in multiple ways, from throwing Fielder into the Rangers Ballpark bandbox with its inviting right field to freeing up second base for 20-year-old Jurickson Profar. With less than $100 million on the books for 2014, the Rangers still have enough room to maneuver in free agency or dangle their cache of prospects for more help at the major league level. While the flexibility of being able to trade one of their three middle infielders is gone, the Rangers gladly exchanged it for the power bat they coveted.
And so went the latest good baseball trade, one that left both fan bases edified. The city of Detroit was thrilled it took just $30 million for Fielder to leave, and the Metroplex was elated that the Rangers got $30 million back because they'd have been fine with less than that.
It's different than Dombrowski shipping out Curtis Granderson and getting back Scherzer and Austin Jackson, different than the three-way Jose Iglesias-Avisail Garcia-Jake Peavy action he drummed up in July. Prince Fielder's name is on the fifth-biggest contract in American sports history, and he was dealt so the Tigers can put another name on another deal of such magnitude.
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