Ken Holland of the Red Wings has been Detroit’s patron GM for awhile, but I think Dave Dombrowski has finally overtaken him. It’s a process that took time, since Holland was so masterful in building the Red Wings, and he may reclaim it as these young Red Wings mature, but for right now, I think it’s fair to say that Dombrowski has established himself as one of the craftiest GMs in all of baseball. Let’s forget the obvious stuff – the swindling he does at the trade deadline, fleecing Seattle for Doug Fister in 2011 and then Miami for Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante in 2012. What he managed to do that’s set him apart now is that he managed to shed Prince Fielder in the offseason of 2013; beyond his other deals (besides acquiring Miguel Cabrera), this one will mark the franchise the most. We’ll look back in 2019 and shudder at what might have been.
I wrote a month ago about what I saw as the plight of the Tigers, that they were burdened by too many large contracts and it was likely to cost them some of their impending free agents, likely one of (if not both) Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera. I remarked at the more balanced budgets of St. Louis and Boston, and noted that balance might lead to championships more than star power. I noted that it seemed impossible for the Tigers to exist competitively down the road with both Cabrera and Fielder, and that the ideal situation might actually be to move Fielder, if possible. Clearly, this possibility gained traction within the Tigers’ organization after Fielder’s poorly timed bluntness about the ALCS loss. Detroit fans are a passionate bunch; that’s why we react positively to Torii Hunter’s boldness (even if he bats poorly) and negatively to Fielder’s nonchalance. There’s inherently wrong with what Fielder said; it’s totally realistic to take the loss in stride, to look forward to getting back to family. But it plays poorly with fans; with the loss still raw, it was a poor decision for Fielder to publicly voice how little it seemed to matter to him. When fans considered his poor postseason performance (dating back to 2012, also) and his mega-millions contract… it’s a bad combination.
The simple baseball reality was just as stark – Cabrera, injured or not, is a limited third baseman; Fielder, injured or not, is a limited first baseman. In an ideal world, Cabrera plays 1B and Fielder plays DH. But the Tigers currently employ Victor Martinez as DH, who makes up for a lack of power with remarkable consistency and tenacious at-bats. It should also be noted that the top prospect in the Tigers’ system, Nick Castellanos, is a third baseman. They’ve been working on converting him to left field, but suddenly, this move lets him play his natural position when he makes the big league. It also means that as Cabrera ages, assuming the Tigers retain him (which seems the obvious intent now), there’ll be no one to block a move to DH. Suddenly, the Tigers are looking like a more complete team, one that will be set up to age better, one that will have more defensive range in the field, and more flexibility in the batting lineup.
Piling on Prince is unfair, though. Prince Fielder is a good ball-player and has certainly played his heart out in a Tigers uniform at times. I think it’d be unfair if Tigers’ fans remember him for his poor choice of words, his playoff disappearance, and his epic belly flop after a terrible base-running decision. I think it should be noted that Prince Fielder’s poor offensive performance as a Tiger came after moving from the Brewers’ Miller Park – a very hitter-friendly park; Comerica Park does hitters no favors. In fact, one of the Detroit News writers speculated last season that Miguel Cabrera would hit anywhere from 5-10 more HRs per year had he gotten to play in Tiger Stadium instead of Comerica Park; this is conjecture, but I’m confident if someone did the math with Cabrera’s hit chart and Tiger Stadium’s dimensions, it would hold up. Likewise, Prince gets more traction in a hitter’s park; in fact, I bet he has a serious resurgence in Texas next season. The major difference between Cabrera and Fielder in their play at Comerica is that Miggy seems happy to take all of the doubles that Comerica affords him; Prince, on the other hand, can’t match Cabrera on the basepaths, and what power he loses in the spacious park simply relegates him to more singles. Maybe the pressure of Detroit was too much for him, too; Detroit forces the issue of his tenuous relationship with his father, a former Tiger, after all, and he had to play up to his contract. We can joke all we want about lamenting the misfortunes of millionaires, but I have no doubt some people just want to play ball, and don’t want that kind of pressure – maybe Prince is one of those guys.
It’s strange to see deals that work out so well for both teams. The Tigers acquired Ian Kinsler, an All-Star 2B at age 31. For the Tigers, this is an upgrade over the departed free agent Omar Infante and a better expense than Fielder; Kinsler should be able to sustain his production through his contract (ending in 2018) and give the Tigers time to develop a 2B-of-the-future, something that does not exist in their organization right now. Likewise, they open up flexibility at the corners – as I noted above, Miggy can move to 1B and Castellanos can play 3B. The Tigers cleared a glut at the corners to fix lack of depth up the infield. Well done. For Texas, the situation is reversed – they acquire depth at the corners and alleviate a glut in the middle infield. Their own top prospect, the incredibly named Jurickson Profar, is a 2B, but Texas had locked up their middle infield in Kinsler and Andrus a couple years ago, relegating the MLB-ready Profar to a bench role. Meanwhile, while set at 3B with Adrian Beltre, they lacked a solid 1B. Now with Kinsler gone and Fielder acquired, Profar will slide into an everyday 2B role, giving Texas a very potent-looking daily infield. The Tigers, meanwhile, will hope that Castellanos – who raked in the minors last year and looked capable in limited MLB action in September – makes the team out of spring training, giving them an attractive infield of Cabrera/Kinsler/Iglesias/Castellanos.
It seems likely that the Tigers aren’t done shopping, that they’ll look for a solid outfield bat to add – but that kind of shopping, which seemed prohibited by finances prior to this deal, suddenly seems more reasonable, as does retaining Max Scherzer. The future that I saw in October – of a slow, aging Tigers lineup unable to overcome big contracts – suddenly seems less likely to happen. The Tigers now seem poised to lock up Scherzer, guaranteeing a future top-3 rotation of Verlander/Scherzer/Sanchez, and set to extend Cabrera’s contract whenever those talks become necessary. That’s a core that Tigers fans will stand behind and can have faith in to guide a future of continued contention. That window, that I feared was closing a month ago, suddenly seems to have gotten propped up a little higher.