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Prince Fielder, Ian Kinsler, and mouthwatering moves

Nov 21, 2013, 1:18 PM EDT

Opening monologue: How many players in baseball history have a name as incompatible as “Prince Fielder?” Crazy, right? It would be like Bud Harrelson being named “Crown Batter” or Randy Johnson being named “Elfin Junkballer,” or Alex Rodriguez being named “Innocent victim.” Am I right? And what’s the deal with all the questions they ask when you try to pay for your gas at the pump these days? I’m trying to get fill up my car not join a dating service. Do you have a discount card? Do you want a car wash? Are you using credit or debit? What’s your zip code? Who was your favorite member of the Monkees? Why did they make Grown Ups 2?

There was something about the Detroit Tigers the last couple of years that irked me. You can’t call those Tigers underachievers, not exactly, because baseball is now a playoff-based game and the Tigers have done pretty well in the playoffs. They went to the World Series in 2012, and they were only a couple of plays away from making this year’s championship series with Boston interesting.

Still … the Tigers seemed to me like major underachievers both years. In 2012, with the league MVP (who, of course, won the Triple Crown), the guy I think was the best pitcher in the American League (Justin Verlander), a complimentary array of All-Stars and near All-Stars, and a spectacularly bad division to beat up, the Tigers won just 88 games (seventh best record in the league) and took a staggering amount of time to finally dispatch the talent-challenged Chicago White Sox in the division race. I thought it was one of the great under-performances in recent memory, but it was mitigated when they beat Oakland in a Game 5, and crunched the bloated and almost helpless Yankees in the championship series to get to the World Series (where they were trounced by a San Francisco team I think was clearly inferior in talent).

This year, the Tigers were better — but again, they seemed to punch way below their weight. They had the American League Cy Young and MVP winner, three dominant starters, a high-priced lineup that finished second in the league in runs scored, and they still finished with the third-best record in the league and again found themselves locked to the end in a divisional race with a team (Cleveland this time) that did not have the means to buy in their neighborhood. The Tigers, again and again the last two years, seemed to me to be less than the sum of their parts.

In my mind — and I admit right up front that this is wrong and utterly unfair — I blamed Prince Fielder.

When the Tigers gave Prince Fielder that nine-year, $214 million deal before the 2012 season, it seemed like one of those lousy moves rich teams make only because they can. The Tigers had just won 95 games and they ran away with a terrible American League Central division (no other team in the division was even .500). They won the division by 15 games, they scored many more runs than anyone in the division, they hit more home runs than any team in the division, they already had Miguel Cabrera (who led the league in average, on-base percentage and doubles) at first base. Prince Fielder seemed like the last thing the Tigers needed.

But it wasn’t a question of NEEDING Fielder. The Tigers had the money to get him. They had the package to convince him to come. So they got him. Fielder was coming off a monster year in Milwaukee where he hit .299/.415/.566 with 38 homers and 120 RBIs and was a key player in the Brewers reaching the NLCS. The Tigers did not need him but the thought of a Cabrera-Fielder middle of the lineup was mouthwatering.

It was so mouthwatering, in fact, that the Tigers were willing to do drastic and unsound things to make it happen. There was, of course, the humongous and seemingly interminable contract they gave him. It’s pretty obvious to anyone paying attention that long-term contract to players in their late 20s or early 30s pretty much never works. Here are the biggest contracts ever given to everyday players 28 or older (the age represents how old the player would be in his first season of the contract)*:

*I chose 28 because, best I can tell, players peak at 26-27, and so 28 is often the beginning of the decline. But I should note here that by choosing 28, I did leave out a couple of good long-term contracts — the Yankees first big deal with Derek Jeter and the Tigers deal with Miguel Cabrera.

1. Alex Rodriguez, age 32, 10 years, $275 million.
– You want this contract? Anyone?

2. Albert Pujols, age 32, 10 years, $240 million.
– How about this one?

3. Joey Votto, age 30, 10 years, $225 million.
– This contract hasn’t even started yet and — I say this as one of the world’s biggest Joey Votto fans — I predict there’s almost no chance the Reds will be happy they gave it. I know my friend Marty Brennaman won’t be.

4. Prince Fielder, age 28, 9 years, $214 million.
– More on this to come — at least he was a couple of years younger than the others at the start.

5. Joe Mauer, age 28, 8 years, $189 million.
– Now playing in a theater near you as a power-challenged first baseman.

6. Mark Teixeira, age 29, 8 years, $180 million.
– One of the more overlooked albatrosses on the Yankees.

7. Manny Ramirez, age 29, 8 years, $160 million.
– Funny enough, this might be the best deal in the Top 10.

8. Adrian Gonzalez, age 30, 7 years, $154 million.
– Within a year of its start date, the Red Sox were looking all over America for a place to dump this contract.

9. Carl Crawford, age 29, 7 years, $142 million.
– And the Red Sox wanted to dump this contract even more.

10. Todd Helton, age 29, 8 years, $141.4 million.
– Fangraphs had him worth roughly $105.1 million over length of contract so it wasn’t disastrous.

Look at that Top 10. I’d say the only people who would GO BACK and give out those contracts again are: The Red Sox with Manny (for all the trouble he caused, there are still two World Series championships during the Manny years) and Colorado with Helton (as much for sentimental reasons as baseball reasons). Obviously you can’t count the Votto contract yet because it hasn’t even started.

Giving out big contracts to players coming out of their prime is a loser. It just is. Josh Hamilton. Ken Griffey. Alfonso Soriano. Vernon Wells. Carlos Lee. Ryan Howard. On and on and on. Just about every disastrous contract in baseball history was some long-term deal given to a 28-to-32 year old in the hopes that he would (1) Be one of the few to hold off the effects of time or (2) Would be so good in the early years of the deal that the late years could be written off as collateral damage. It almost never works out either way. Option 2 is what I have to believe the Tigers were thinking about Fielder. I can’t believe they really thought Fielder would age gracefully.

So, they gave Fielder the big contract. That was the first thing. Second, they moved Miguel Cabrera to third base to make room for Fielder — one of those rare moves that makes a team drastically worse defensively at two positions.

The first year, Fielder hit more or less like the Tigers hoped he would. He hit 313/.412/.528 — pretty stout numbers. There were a couple of small negative signs. His homers were down and his slugging percentage was down. And while he still reached base a lot, it was in part because he got hit by a lot of pitches and was intentionally walked a bunch and was probably got a bit hit-lucky. Such things have a tendency of turning pretty quickly. Anyway, it was a good offensive season for Fielder, about as good as the Tigers could have wanted.

But were the Tigers a better team because of it? It’s hard to find. They scored 51 fewer runs in 2012 than they did in 2011. This wasn’t Fielder’s fault, of course, but it wash’t something he could prevent either. They were a much worse defensive team. According to John Dewan’s “Team Runs Saves” statistic, the Tigers were a good defensive team in 2011, saving 14 runs. In 2012, they were one of the worst defensive teams in the league, their defense COST them 32 runs. (In 2013, they were even worse with their defense costing them 66 runs). Again, it would be wrong to pin too much of blame on Fielder. But, he is a subpar first baseman. And Miguel Cabrera is a subpar third baseman.

Point is, Fielder had a GOOD year and it was hard to see how this helped the Tigers much.

In 2013, Fielder did not have a good year. His on-base percentage plummeted by 50 points, his slugging by 70, he failed to hit 30 homers for the first time since he was 22, and then he topped it off with another terrible postseason, which did not endear him to the hometown fans.

I hear a lot of people saying Fielder’s struggles were largely because he was going through some personal issues and that might be the big reason. Then again, it’s not like Prince Fielder type players age well. He’s obviously a big guy. I think of Boog Powell — league MVP at 28, dramatic drop at 29, and he had one good year the rest of his career. I think of Greg Luzinski — a 5-WAR player at 27, never a 3-WAR player after that. Kent Hrbek didn’t age well. His Dad Cecil Fielder did not age too well either. It’s hard to compare a player listed at 5-foot-11, 275 pounds with anyone else because, believe it or not, there has never been another player listed at 5-foot-11, 275 pounds. But big, slow, defensively challenged first basemen are not great bets to stay young into their mid-30s.*

*Though it should be said in Fielder’s defense that he has proven to be remarkably resilient and prolific for such a big man. He has played every game for the last three seasons. Among players weighing 235 pounds or more, only Fielder and Carlos Lee have played every game in a full season, and Fielder has done it four times.

All of which leads to Wednesday’s trade: Fielder to Texas for Ian Kinsler. As a pure baseball trade, there are many fun elements to the deal. Kinsler is a soon-to-be 32-year-old second baseman (they don’t usually age well either, but who does?) who plays good defense and was a very good offensive player until about 2011. He’s dropped off quite a bit the last couple of years — his power is down and he’s not finding ways to get on base — and I suspect his offense will fall more once outside the happy hitting haven of Texas*.

*Even when he was a good player, Kinsler didn’t hit much on the road. His lifetime road split is .242/.312/.399.

Fielder meanwhile — it’s fun to think about how well he might hit in Texas. Friend of Blog Brandon McCarthy tweeted this after the deal:

“Wait. Why is the right field fence so close? Quit fooling with me you guys…what? Oh…oh my god” *maniacal laughter* – Prince Fielder

— Brandon McCarthy (@BMcCarthy32) November 21, 2013

The move allows the Tigers to move Cabrera back to first and get a proper third baseman. The move allows the Rangers some freedom to use super-prospect Jurickson Profar. The move frees up money for the Tigers. The move gives the Rangers a major star as their huge television deal gets kicking. It makes sense on many levels for both teams, and it’s a risk on some level for both sides, and that’s what makes it a fun trade.

But I think the Tigers won the deal. They had to throw in $30 million to make it happen, but I still think they won. I think shoring up that infield so it isn’t a sieve, I think having some spending flexibility to work on actual weaknesses, I think Kinsler’s solid all-around play will all help.

Also, I think that the years and money left on Fielder’s contract are radioactive. Brilliant reader Stephen tweeted that Fielder could get a 7-year, $138 million deal on the open market (the Rangers portion of the contract) and that’s probably true because teams spend money poorly. What I see here is that the Rangers brought in s a 30-year-old first baseman who can’t field or run or throw and is coming off the lowest OPS year of his career. Sure, he could rebound. Sure he could put up huge numbers in that hitters’ ballpark. Then again, he could keep on declining. And that contract goes on and on and on.

  1. allforfunnplay - Nov 21, 2013 at 1:42 PM

    as a Giants fan I take exception to the statement that the Giants were a clearly inferior talent in the 2012 World Series.

    This ain’t football where it’s only one game and a good team can have a bad day and a bad team can have a good game which effects the ultimate outcome. THEY PLAYED 4 GAMES.

    And it’s not like the Tigers and Giants were tied at 3 games a piece and the Giants just got lucky in the 7th game. CLEARLY INFERIOR TEAMS DON’T SWEEP THEIR OPPONENTS.

    Maybe the Tigers as a TEAM weren’t as good as you thought they were.

    • thethorntonstrokes - Nov 21, 2013 at 1:57 PM

      Tigers were the better team on paper. That’s all he’s saying. Calm yourself

      • allforfunnplay - Nov 21, 2013 at 2:21 PM

        he didn’t say anything about “paper”. and even if he did the point about “paper” is that it isn’t reality…maybe an indicator of some sort but not reality.

    • paperlions - Nov 21, 2013 at 2:05 PM

      With respect to variation in expected outcomes, 1 game in football is a larger sample size than 4 games in baseball.

      • allforfunnplay - Nov 21, 2013 at 2:23 PM

        i’m not an advanced statistician. so i’d be interested to hear your explanation. 1 game vs. 4 games?

      • paperlions - Nov 21, 2013 at 2:43 PM

        It is the variation that occurs around the parameter. There is much less variation around the true mean in football game outcomes than in baseball game outcomes. If outcomes were true (meaning if the best team always won or the worst team always lost), then the best team in the league should win every game and the worst team should lose every game. That comes much closer to happening in football than in baseball, and not because of sample size, but because there is less chance in football game outcomes than in baseball game outcomes.

        In football, the worst team in the league doesn’t usually finish 0-16, but a winning % less than .200 is very common for the worst team(s) in the league. In baseball, the worst team in the league typically wins more than 35% of their games, despite never facing an less talented opponent.

        In short, the structure of the games is such that chance plays a far bigger role in the outcomes of baseball games than in football games.

    • pastabelly - Nov 21, 2013 at 3:57 PM

      I don’t disagree with you. Detroit won 88 games that regular season and SF won 94. That’s significant. Detroit tends to be overrated because they are a team of stars that has some fatal flaws (depth, bullpen, lack of team speed, and bottom third of their order). They have great starting pitching, but got ZERO wins from Verlander and Scherzer in the 2013 ALCS and they were just worn down or grinded down by the Red Sox.

      While I thought Detroit got the better of the deal with Texas, they have a lot of work to do and are fortunate to play in weak division.

    • atxjustin - Nov 21, 2013 at 4:25 PM

      ‘Clearly inferior teams don’t sweep their opponents’ you say?

      This season the Houston Astros swept the Angles in a 4 game series, and both the White Sox and Mariners in 3 game series. Ergo, Houston is clearly the best of these 3 teams?

  2. mgv38 - Nov 21, 2013 at 1:53 PM

    Perhaps it is possible–just possible–that the responsibility for the regular season “underachievement” of the Tigers the past two years rests on the sloping shoulders of the Smoking Man.

  3. newpairofsox - Nov 21, 2013 at 1:58 PM

    …or Alex Rodriguez being named “Innocent victim.”

    Now we can call him “I-Vic” instead?

  4. bendover09 - Nov 21, 2013 at 2:14 PM

    ” What I see here is that the Rangers brought in s a 30-year-old first baseman who can’t field or run or throw and is coming off the lowest OPS year of his career. ”

    Okay then, Joe Posnanski .. what’s your excuse on your journalism if that’s what you call it . Honestly, if you want to compare numbers into baseball terms with your writing. Eh, you’re batting a measly .220. So I’d look in the mirror before I point the finger. Quit being envious of others

    • 18thstreet - Nov 21, 2013 at 3:10 PM

      James Joyce’s career words over replacement writer KILLS Poz.

      • historiophiliac - Nov 21, 2013 at 3:17 PM

        Thomas Wolfe sniffs at the amateurism.

    • Patrick R. - Nov 21, 2013 at 7:15 PM

      This is so bizarre. What exactly do you take issue with? Also, what exactly is he envious of?

      • cur68 - Nov 21, 2013 at 9:10 PM

        I know this guy, bendover. I recall him being similarly douchey to Craig. Then, when Craig actually did him the courtesy of a reply, he was all gleeful about getting Craig to reply to him. Joe Pos knows what he’s doing by not answering. This isn’t actually any sort of realistic or credible commentary. It’s just being made to get a response, like a guy prank calling people. Ignore the loon.

  5. historiophiliac - Nov 21, 2013 at 2:23 PM

    I believe the trade has hit Miggy pretty hard. He’s been tweeting pics of himself and Prince together much of the day and sent him a message. He will miss his brother.

    Relatedly, the responses to Verlander’s tweet about the trade last night will make you despise human beings.

    • xdj511 - Nov 21, 2013 at 3:00 PM

      Of course Miggy’s upset. Do you think Ian Kinsler will play “Si or no? Si, MF!” with him next spring?

  6. tcb2nyc - Nov 21, 2013 at 2:51 PM

    As a Rangers fan I love this deal. I certainly see how it makes sense for both teams, but just looking at it from a Rangers perspective, its beneficial. Kinsler is so frustrating. He makes awesome plays in the field, and then he lets routine grounders go right between his legs. He’s averaged 17 errors per 162 games in the field for the last 3 years. His 18 last year was one off of the league lead. He’s also a 5-11, 190lb second baseman who only wants to hit home runs. His swing looks awesome when he parks a ball 10 rows deep in left. But he’ll also pop one up to shallow left at least once a game swinging for the fences. He only pulls the ball. I think I read where he had 3 hits to right field all last year, and those were all sliced balls that fell in. He’s a dead pull hitter. Finally … the pick-offs. I promise you, Detroit, you will never see a player get picked off more than Ian Kinsler. I don’t know where to find those stats, but this guy gets picked off more than anyone I’ve ever seen. He’s overly agressive on the basepaths. 15 steals and 11 caught steeling last year. He’ll wow you when he scores from first on a deep single, and then he will make you pull your hair out when he gets caught flat footed and picked off third.

    I understand the Tigers fans were elated to get rid of the Fielder contract. You should be. But as a Rangers fan, I’m just as elated to get rid of Kinsler. He’s maddening. Glad the Rangers are smarter than I am, because I would have given the Tigers $30M to make this deal.

    At the end of the day, hope it works out for both teams.

    • old97 - Nov 21, 2013 at 5:41 PM

      ^^This so much!^^

      Kinsler’s base-running made me crazy. I have never seen someone fall asleep so often – he’d get picked off without taking a step back towards the bag once a week. The Rangers gave up tons of outs on the base paths last year, and most of it was Kins.

      I think this is a trade that will help both teams and both players. Fielder gets that lovely homerun porch in right, and Kinsler gets a change of scenery. The Rangers get Profar into his natural position every day, and the Tigers get Miggy out of the line of fire at third.

      Additionally, I have to think there’s more coming from the Rangers. I have been a fan since the mid-1970s, and have sat through some really bad baseball for a really long time. Now, I am ready for Feb!

      • frank433 - Nov 21, 2013 at 6:06 PM

        Can Kinsler slide? Price can’t slide, he sure can flop though.

  7. moogro - Nov 21, 2013 at 2:53 PM

    Prince basically injured Miggy’s groin by Miggy flopping around out there on third. That could have changed the Boston series right there.

  8. ras1tafari - Nov 21, 2013 at 3:20 PM

    7. Manny Ramirez, age 29, 8 years, $160 million.
    – Funny enough, this might be the best deal in the Top 10.

    This is a deal I would make every day of the week again. Manny lived up to every dollar (even though he was a chooch at times). 2 WS championships, and countless Manny Moments

    • 18thstreet - Nov 21, 2013 at 4:50 PM

      It’s fascinating to me how often people are surprised by how good Manny was. B-b-b-u-t he’s a headcase!

      If you win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press’ll think you’re colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you are a slob.

      Well, Manny Ramirez had an OPS of exactly .999 in 1000 games for Boston. And — people might have missed this — the Red Sox won a World Series with him on the team. Worth every damn penny.

  9. Glenn - Nov 21, 2013 at 3:27 PM

    The Red Sox were not looking all over America for a place to dump Adrian Gonzalez’s contract. They had to include him in the Dodgers trade to get rid of Crawford and Beckett’s horrible contracts. All things being equal, they would stil have him on the team today.

    • 18thstreet - Nov 21, 2013 at 4:56 PM

      I agree. But I think it’s safe to say that, even though they didn’t TERRIBLY overpay him (the way that Prince Fielder or Ryan Howard are overpaid), they probably regret the deal. He wasn’t a great fit for the team or the city.

  10. wheels579 - Nov 21, 2013 at 3:44 PM

    The Tigers have already paid Prince Fielder more ($214-$138 =$76) than Texas will pay him hereafter ($138-[Kinsler] $62-$30=$46). So how exactly does Detroit win this deal? Truth is both sides got what they needed if Prince can bounce back, and he should with his divorce eventually behind him an a DH spot open in Texas that wasn’t in Detroit.

    • spursareold - Nov 21, 2013 at 4:40 PM

      The DH spot was open in Detroit when they got him. In fact, VMart’s blown out knee in 2012 was WHY they got him.

      Get ready for this, Texas: he doesn’t want to DH.

  11. psunick - Nov 21, 2013 at 3:48 PM

    The Giants beat both of these “better teams” in the 2010 and 2012 World Series.
    Also, Joe: if the Tigers underperformed as badly as you explained early in your blog, wouldn’t that be on the manager? I find it hard to put all of that on a first baseman

    • spursareold - Nov 21, 2013 at 4:42 PM

      The manager is responsible for plummeting numbers across the board by his first baseman?

  12. jgillmeister - Nov 21, 2013 at 3:56 PM

    If you believe Albert Pu-juice was 32 when he signed that contract, I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you

  13. wheels579 - Nov 21, 2013 at 5:56 PM

    The DH was NOT open long-term in Detroit. Not with both Cabrera and Martinez CURRENTLY on board. The point wasn’t whether Prince wants to DH. He doesn’t need to right now. He can, however, in the future based on the current roster makeup in order to keep his bat in the lineup. That’s a big reason why Texas made the trade. Prince might warm up to it later on. This is all quite elementary.

  14. sportsfan18 - Nov 21, 2013 at 7:42 PM

    Per usual, great stuff Mr. Posnanski.

    Over the many articles on several sites about this trade, of course it’s been mentioned that the Tigers are sending around $30 million in cash to the Rangers too.

    But I’ve not seen it mentioned by any scribe that Fielder cost the Tigers $78 million dollars for just two seasons.

    No, Fielder didn’t get $78 million, he “only” received $48 million but the organization had to give $30 million of real money to the Rangers.

    This means that Fielder cost the Tigers $78 million dollars for just two seasons and as you said, he didn’t really help them much.

  15. carmensergioramoss - Nov 28, 2013 at 2:29 AM

    Gracias por compartir esta gran ayuda para mí.

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