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Why the Prince Fielder–Ian Kinsler Megadeal Is a Smart Trade for Both the Tigers and Rangers

Ian Kinsler and Prince Fielder

In the first blockbuster trade of this offseason, the Detroit Tigers sent Prince Fielder and $30 million to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler. This deal makes a ton of sense — for both teams.

Still, a one-for-one trade has rarely been so complicated. Given all the repercussions likely to follow, let’s simplify this by examining the impact one team at a time.

What This Means for the Tigers

The Tigers had the most inflexible roster in baseball last year, and it wasn’t even close. In Miguel Cabrera, Fielder, and Victor Martinez, they carried three designated hitters who all needed to be in the lineup. That meant Fielder playing below-average defense at first base and Cabrera showing statue-like range at third. It all came to a head during the playoffs. Groin and abdominal issues further degraded Cabrera’s already poor defense, but the Tigers couldn’t shift their injured but still potent star to DH with Martinez raking and Fielder providing their biggest source of left-handed power. Trading Fielder loosens that logjam. Now Cabrera can move back to first base, where he’ll do less harm to Detroit’s defense. And if new manager Brad Ausmus decides to give Cabrera a bit of a breather, he can slide the two-time MVP to DH and let Martinez play first base, a position he has shown he can play semi-competently.

While the Tigers had three DHs, they had zero viable options at second base. In Kinsler, they now have a second baseman with All-Star upside whose worst season is comparable to the best efforts of 2013 starter Omar Infante, a free agent who’s now sure to sign elsewhere. There’s some cause for concern, however, as Kinsler just delivered his worst season since his rookie year. The 13 homers he hit in 2013 and his .136 isolated slugging mark (slugging average minus batting average, a measure that does a better job of examining doubles and triples in addition to home runs) were the worst numbers of his career, discounting an injury-shortened 2010. Kinsler has slowed noticeably over the years, and he ranked as a below-average baserunner for the first time in 2013, per FanGraphs. He walked far less often in 2012 and 2013 than he did in 2011. His defense might be toughest to gauge: Ultimate Zone Rating ranked him as a pedestrian fielder in 2013, while Defensive Runs Saved rated him as one of the best defensive second basemen in the game. The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle, with Kinsler right around league average or a tick better.

Nate Silver is one of several analysts to study age curves for second basemen, only to find some scary results: Those who man the deuce peak early, then suffer an ugly and rapid decline. There are a couple of things that might explain this trend. Second basemen might take more punishment than players at most other non-catcher positions, having to stand in on double plays while runners barrel into them; Kinsler has struggled at times with injuries, missing 59 games in 2010 and 26 in 2013, though just 12 games combined in 2011 and 2012. Also, second basemen are often inferior athletes compared to shortstops, and less-talented players tend to excel for shorter periods of time. At his best, Kinsler has shown that he’s a very good athlete, someone close to a five-tool player. But at age 31, with his power and speed ebbing, Kinsler’s best days might be behind him. Plus, as Craig Goldstein and Paul Sporer noted in a recent Baseball Prospectus post, Kinsler owes some of his offensive success to his very friendly home ballpark: He has posted a .207 isolated slugging mark at home in his eight-year career and a .157 ISO on the road.

That doesn’t make Kinsler a bad pickup by any means. For 2014, the best bet on a healthy Kinsler would be something in the realm of a three-win season. With four years and $62 million left on his contract, that kind of production, followed by a moderate decline, would be a reasonable deal, given the explosion of revenue across the sport. Sticking with the money angle, the Tigers are adding Kinsler’s contract but subtracting $138 million in future obligations: the $168 million Fielder is owed over the next seven years, minus the $30 million the Tigers are sending Texas to cover a chunk of that contract. The worst part of any big-money, multiyear deal tends to come at the finish, when teams are often paying dead money to a player near the end of the road. Even if you acknowledge that Fielder is younger than Kinsler, and even if you’re willing to overlook Fielder’s physique and the fate that befell big, barrel-chested sluggers like Mo Vaughn or Cecil Fielder once they got past their early thirties, this remains a smart move for the Tigers, who at the very least get out of one big-salary season given that Fielder has three more years left on his deal than Kinsler does.

According to ESPN’s Buster Olney, the Tigers soured on Fielder after the first baseman’s miserable performance during the 2013 playoffs, along with what they perceived to be his excessively nonchalant comments about his struggles. That may not be fair: It’s probably premature to stamp Fielder as a lousy playoff performer, given the inherent sample size issues at work, and what might come across as a lack of caring to some could just be Fielder’s way of coping with pressure situations. A far more tangible factor to consider is how Fielder’s departure affects the Tigers lineup.

In addition to solving the three-DH problem, moving Cabrera from third to first (if it happens) could open up the hot corner for top hitting prospect Nick Castellanos, thus giving Detroit a Cabrera-Kinsler–Jose Iglesias–Castellanos infield defense that looks a hell of a lot better than what the team had on Opening Day this year. The Tigers would then still have to address their hole in left field. But unloading Fielder’s contract gives the team some options. If Detroit wants to rebalance the lineup, it could pursue Shin-Soo Choo to fill the vacant outfield job, thus adding a very good left-handed hitter to replace Fielder while also addressing the team’s need for a strong on-base source at the top of the lineup. Choo was terrible as a center fielder in Cincinnati last year, but he should be able to hold his own in left; he’d look a lot better than Jhonny Peralta out there, that’s for sure.

Another logical use of those freed-up Fielder funds would be re-signing Max Scherzer. The newly minted AL Cy Young winner’s name came up in trade rumors recently, since Scherzer, a Scott Boras client, has just one year left before free agency and isn’t likely to sign a team-friendly extension. Still, flipping Fielder might compel the Tigers to make a big run at locking up Scherzer, even if it means paying full fare. Boras has shown he’s willing to adapt to teams’ increased emphasis on signing players to long-term deals before they can hit the open market, as long as his client cashes in. See the eight-year, $120 million extension Texas gave to Boras client Elvis Andrus in April.

We can’t fully evaluate the effects of this deal until we see what the Tigers do next. They’re short at least one hitter, they have the Scherzer dilemma to handle, and they still have multiple bullpen spots to fill. What we do know is that they’re now a better defensive team, and one with more speed and greater lineup flexibility. If GM Dave Dombrowski can push the right buttons from here, this could end up being a wildly productive offseason for a team that fell just two games short of the World Series.

What This Means for the Rangers

The Rangers had three glaring roster issues to address this winter. First, they needed to fix their lack of power. Though the offense-jolting effects of Rangers Ballpark obscured that missing pop a bit, losing potent hitters such as Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli and seeing Kinsler’s numbers falling off from his 32-homer peak in 2011 reduced the lineup to Adrian Beltre and a bunch of decent-to-punchless hitters. Second, the lineup skewed heavily right-handed, with Beltre, Kinsler, Andrus, Alex Rios, Geovany Soto, and Craig Gentry all batting from that side. Third, Texas had too many middle infielders, with Kinsler, Andrus, and super-prospect Jurickson Profar all good enough to warrant everyday jobs.

Trading Kinsler for Fielder addressed all three issues at once. Even in a down year, Fielder still slugged 25 homers in 2013, and that was in a stadium that’s roughly average in terms of yielding home runs. Shifting to Rangers Ballpark, one of the friendliest parks in the majors for homers, could provide Fielder with a power lift.

One thing we say a lot around these parts is that baseball players’ careers rarely look like perfect bell curves. We rush to declare that a player has passed his prime and is on the way down, when a subpar season might simply be an aberration; ask the Red Sox how they feel about getting Shane Victorino for three years and $39 million coming off a down season. Fielder hit .299/.415/.566 in 2011 and .313/.412/.528 in 2012, netting a pair of five-win seasons. We can obsess over Fielder posting his highest strikeout rate in three seasons and his lowest walk rate since his rookie year, his drop in power, and his awful numbers in October. Or we can keep in mind that he’s just 29, averaged 38 homers per year over the previous six seasons, is headed to a ballpark that could enhance his production, and ranks as one of baseball’s most durable players (he has missed just 13 regular-season games since his first full season in 2006), before deducing he could bounce right back to being the elite slugger he was as recently as a year ago.

Texas is taking a sizable financial hit by swapping Kinsler’s contract for Fielder’s, but this is an investment the team can easily afford thanks to the combination of the new national TV deal that’ll rake in an extra $26 million per team starting in 2014; the Rangers’ massively lucrative local TV deal; a bunch of salary commitments coming off the books with the likely departures of Nelson Cruz, Joe Nathan, A.J. Pierzynski, and others; and the $30 million reaped in the trade.

Plus, while the notion that the Rangers absolutely had to trade one of their three middle infielders was a faulty one, there’s little doubt that Fielder will provide more offense as the Rangers’ starting first baseman in 2014 than Kinsler would have had he shifted to that position.

As with Kinsler going to the Tigers, we can’t fully gauge the impact of Fielder’s addition without seeing what the Rangers do next. The double-play combination of Andrus and Profar should be electric, one of the best in baseball defensively, and one with serious offensive upside if Profar develops as expected and Andrus, who has 40-plus stolen base potential, resumes the progress that saw him post a .349 on-base percentage in 2012. There’s been some unfounded speculation that another monster deal awaits, with Texas potentially going after Robinson Cano, then turning around and trading Andrus for outfield help. That seems like a long shot.

But there are certainly moves left to make, starting with trading Mitch Moreland (assuming the Rangers are determined to play Fielder and his lousy glove at first, rather than DHing him). Choo could make lots of sense as the Rangers’ new leadoff man, too, and there’s certainly room for him on the roster with Cruz opting for free agency and David Murphy signing with Cleveland. Blessed with a deep starting rotation, Texas could get creative by pursuing someone like Masahiro Tanaka, then turning around and trading one of its top four starters for a quality outfielder.

However it plays out from here, one thing is clear: Hot stove season is officially in full swing. Given Adam Scott’s prophecy, we probably should have seen this coming.