Much like the Spanish Inquisition, nobody seemed to expect the blockbuster trade that transpired today between the Tigers and Rangers. I was sitting at my desk when what at first seemed like a harmless rumor floated across my screen. After all, wild, baseless rumors get started almost every day in the Hot Stove League, and they generally go nowhere. But this is how the offseason operates; one moment the sea is almost completely calm, and the very next instant, two players owed a total of $200 million are swapping teams.
As you may have already heard, the Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers have made a little bit of a splash tonight, trading 31-year old standout second baseman Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder, batsman, bat-flipper, and acrobat extraordinaire. While this trade caught the baseball world off guard, the fact that the Rangers made a big move is not at all a surprise. General Manager Jon Daniels, recently given full control of the team’s baseball operations after the departure of Nolan Ryan, did not mince words at the GM Winter Meetings. According to MLB.com writer Richard Justice, Daniels was the only GM at the meetings actively discussing how the team needs could not be met with internal solutions. The Rangers biggest need was a power bat to replace the departed Josh Hamilton — the Rangers’ slugging percentage dropped 45 points from 2012 to 2013, from .780, 2nd in the AL, to .735, a middling 8th. But the Rangers were not going to find that impact bat on the free agent market, so they had to take a risk and make a trade.
In the Tigers, they found a more-than-willing trade parter, and for good reason. Since the day Fielder’s 9 year, $214 million contract was signed, it has been an albatross hanging around the team’s neck. Recently, Lewie Pollis of Behind the Box Score theorized that the average marginal cost of a win is currently $7 million, not the $5 million figure commonly cited. But even at the increased cost per win, Fielder must produce 30.6 wins above replacement over the life of the contract to be worth the money, or 3.4 WAR a year. However, Fielder stands very little chance of doing that, despite his prodigious power. Over the last four years, the supposed prime of Fielder’s career, he has averaged 3.7 fWAR — his 14.7 fWAR over that time period ranks just 33rd in the major leagues (behind Ian Kinsler, by the way). Some may look at his .901 OPS, and his 143 wRC+ since 2010 and ask how a player with a bat as productive as Fielder’s is not among the league’s most valuable players. And the obvious answer is, Fielder is the most one-dimensional player in the major leagues. Over the last four years, FanGraphs rated his baserunning the second-worst in the league (ahead of only Paul Konerko), and his defense as 3rd-worst, ahead of only Konerko and Billy Butler. Fielder’s bat is enough to make him an above-average player now, but as his bat inevitably declines over the life of the contract, the contract will look worse and worse.
This trade allows the Tigers to unload that horrid contract, making Fielder’s decline someone else’s concern. They get to save a great deal of money; they take on Kinsler’s contract plus an added $30 million in cash considerations, but still manage to shed $76 million. They now have payroll flexibility that will enable them to keep the core of the team, like Max Scherzer (eligible for free agency in 2015) and Miguel Cabrera (eligible in 2016) together. They get a solid major league starting second baseman in Kinsler who has the potential to be more — in 2011, he put together a .255/.355/.477 season, with 32 home runs, in which he was worth 7.3 fWAR. And they can shore up their infield defense, which has contributed to an AL-high .306 batting average in balls in play for Tigers’ opposition over the past two years, by moving Miguel Cabrera back to first and giving top prospect Nick Castellanos a chance to play his natural position of third. The ways this deal helps the Tigers are nearly innumerable.
And for the Rangers, the deal is bad, but not atrocious. They fill a need by adding a power-hitting first baseman, something they lacked even when winning consecutive pennants. Fielder’s swing is an ideal fit for the Ballpark in Arlington. Fielder was said not to enjoy hitting at Comerica Park, where long fly balls would often turn into outs in the park’s cavernous right-center field; he will likely not have a problem with the dimensions of his new home. And, moving Kinsler means the Rangers finally have a spot at the keystone for uber-prospect Jurrickson Profar, who was clearly not suited for the utility role he had last year.
Jon Daniels felt he needed to make a move to acquire a powerful left-handed bat, and he did just that. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski saw an opportunity to shed a bad contract and create payroll flexibility for the future, so he did just that. Both teams addressed areas of concern with their team, the Rangers trying to stay in contention in the present and the Tigers trying to give themselves a chance to contend well into the future. And just like that, the occasionally jaw-dropping, double take-inducing “thrill” ride known as the Hot Stove League kicks off with a bang.