Fielder-Kinsler swap has MLB-wide impact

Prince Fielder beats the tag of Ian Kinsler in Detroit. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

If any doubt remained about the plausibility of trading big-money contracts, the Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers erased it Wednesday. Prince Fielder, one of four players in history to obtain a $200-million contract, was dealt to Texas in exchange for Ian Kinsler, who obtained one of the largest contracts ever signed by a second baseman with a $75 million deal in 2012.

Other teams have successfully worked their way out from under a number of $100-million contracts in recent years. The Boston Red Sox shipped two $100-million players to Los Angeles last summer, trading Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford to the Dodgers. The year before the Toronto Blue Jays shipped Vernon Wells to Anaheim in an equally surprising move.

As television revenues continue to flow steadily into the game, teams are well equipped to take on tens and even hundreds of millions in future salaries. Free agents may be the primary beneficiaries of this cash influx, but they aren’t the only ones. Deals like this Tigers-Rangers swap show that the trade market now includes more possibilities than before.

Here’s what the Fielder-Kinsler deal means for Detroit, Texas and the league as a whole:

Detroit Tigers

FINANCIAL BREAKDOWN: By the time the figures were finalized late Wednesday evening, GM Dave Dombrowski of the Detroit Tigers had agreed to take on the four years and $62 million remaining on Kinsler’s contract while sending $30 million to Texas to cover part of the $168 million remaining on Fielder’s deal. Overall this frees up $76 million for the Tigers.

NEW LOOK INFIELD: This trade will reshape the Tigers’ infield. Detroit no longer needs a second baseman, meaning it’s all but certain that free agent Omar Infante will be playing elsewhere in 2013. Yet the rest of the infield remains in flux. Dombrowski said Wednesday that Miguel Cabrera could shift across the diamond to first base, a move that would open up the hot corner for top prospect Nick Castellanos. Alternatively, the Tigers could ask Victor Martinez to play first, keep Cabrera at third and shift Castellanos to left field. Either way, this should be a stronger defensive team in 2014 when Kinsler joins newcomer Jose Iglesias up the middle.

MONEY TO SPARE: Dombrowski said money saved through the deal could be directed toward Max Scherzer, the 2013 American League Cy Young winner who’s now one year away from free agency. Extending the right-hander would cost well in excess of $100 million, and it may be difficult for him to resist free agency with just one year of arbitration remaining, but fitting him into the budget just got a little easier. The same could be said for Miguel Cabrera. The two-time defending American League MVP is now just two seasons away from hitting free agency and could also be viewed as an extension candidate.

NEED FOR LEFTY BAT: The Tigers could use a left-handed bat to replace Fielder in the lineup, meaning free agents such as Shin-Soo Choo and Jacoby Ellsbury could have appeal to Dombrowski. Former Tiger Curtis Granderson and switch-hitting free agent Carlos Beltran may also be considerations in Detroit. Though left field has typically been a weak spot for the Tigers in recent years, they’re well positioned to find an upgrade in the coming weeks.

Texas Rangers

FINANCIAL BREAKDOWN: In swapping Kinsler for Fielder, GM Jon Daniels of the Texas Rangers took on $76 million in future salary commitments. The Tigers are covering $30 million of the $168 million remaining on Fielder’s deal and absorbing the $62 million left on Kinsler’s contract.

REBOUND CANDIDATE: For most players, hitting 25 home runs, driving in 106 and posting an .819 OPS would represent a career year. For Prince Fielder it represents a letdown. There’s no denying that 2013 was a difficult year for Fielder—he recently divorced—but his history of slugging 30-50 home runs suggests he’s capable of bouncing back in 2014 when he heads to a hitters’ park. Still just 29 years old, Fielder could hit 35 home runs next year without surprising anyone.

BOLD MOVE: A year ago the Rangers passed on making major trades or free agent signings. Their biggest off-season expenditure was Lance Berkman’s $10-million contract. But after seeing another promising season end in disappointment, Daniels moved aggressively this off-season.

INFIELD SHIFT: With Fielder in the mix, Mitch Moreland could move to the outfield or remain in the mix at first base or DH. And don’t be surprised if teams such as the Milwaukee Brewers, Colorado Rockies and Tampa Bay Rays inquire about his availability in trades.

The deal also opens up second base for top prospect Jurickson Profar or, if the Rangers aim to continue spending, a free agent addition. The 20-year-old Profar could see extended time at second next year after playing four positions in 2013. But as long as Robinson Cano remains unsigned, the Rangers loom as a potential suitor for the off-season’s top available player.


SECOND BASE MARKET: The Tigers were once viewed as a sleeper team for Cano, but it’s now clear that’s not happening. The Rangers, on the other hand, could conceivably add him. That possibility alone could be used by agents Jay Z and Brodie Van Wagenen to Cano’s advantage.

NEW FREE AGENT NEEDS: The Rangers’ free agent shopping list shifted with Wednesday’s trade, meaning some free agents gained leverage and others lost it. For example, Brian McCann and Mike Napoli were viewed as fits for Texas earlier this week. But after adding a left-handed power bat, their interest in McCann could diminish, and with Fielder in place at first, Napoli isn’t the clear-cut fit he once was.

BORAS FACTOR: Agent Scott Boras operates in the free agent market, not the trade market. Yet he’s connected to this deal in many ways. Boras represents Fielder, who had to waive a no-trade clause to accept the move; he represents Scherzer, whose chances of receiving an extension just increased; he represents Ellsbury and Choo—potential Rangers targets who just became fits in Detroit.

ALL THINGS CONSIDERED: It’s easy to see why the Rangers wanted Prince Fielder, and he’ll improve their lineup. But Kinsler is an under-appreciated player who generated more overall value than Fielder in 2013 and over the course of his career to date, based on wins above replacement. Swapping one all-star for another makes sense given the Rangers’ needs. But taking on $76 million in future commitments was an extremely rich price to pay.

This deal makes the Tigers better on the field and saves them money, meaning it’s a clear win for Dombrowski. Not only does Kinsler address Detroit’s need at second base, the move allows Miguel Cabrera to play a less demanding defensive position and creates payroll room for further additions.

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