The Rangers traded Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder. You know this already. I’ve already written a post about this trade, in fact, detailing why I love this deal for the Tigers. If baseball trading were a zero sum game, this would mean that I hate this move for the Rangers, since a big win would have to be offset by a big loss on the other side. But baseball trades are not a zero sum game. There are mutually beneficial trades. The Rangers are now hoping this is one of those deals where both sides get better.
The Rangers had to move a middle infielder. They couldn’t go into 2014 with Jurickson Profar as a super utility guy behind Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler again. They had three starting middle infielders, and Kinsler wasn’t interested in becoming a starting first baseman, so shifting him over to make room for Profar probably wasn’t an option. Someone had to go.
So, in that sense, this deal is not quite as straight forward as it is from the Tigers perspective. Detroit turned a +3 WAR player into a +3 WAR player and saved a bunch of money in the process. For the Rangers, though, the context is the reason the deal got done, and simply comparing the value of the player going out with the value of the player coming in doesn’t work. This deal was made because of the other players on the roster, the ones not getting traded. So let’s try and sort this all out.
The Rangers are getting, in Prince Fielder, a player who projects for somewhere between +3 and +4 WAR next year. Steamer has him at +3.7, but as I noted in the analysis of this deal from Detroit’s perspective, that’s based on some pretty generous assumptions about his baserunning and fielding values; I’ll take the under on that, personally. Before the trade, Mitch Moreland was penciled in as their starting first baseman, and he’s a below average player, with Steamer projecting him for +1.3 WAR as a regular. This is a pretty clear upgrade for the Rangers at first base.
However, they’re also taking a downgrade at second base. Whereas Steamer saw Kinsler as a +3.3 WAR player, it only projects +1.6 WAR from Profar. If you take these projections at face value, a Kinsler/Moreland combo is expected to produce nearly the same value as Profar/Fielder. In just a straight two-for-two analysis, this doesn’t actually seem to be a huge upgrade for the Rangers, which is a bummer given that they’re taking on an additional $76 million in salary in the trade.
But the reality is that the Rangers weren’t keeping Ian Kinsler. They like Jurickson Profar’s future an awful lot, and he was only going to have that future with the team if they traded Kinsler to make room for him. You could view all of Profar’s future value as an ancillary benefit of the trade, because if Kinsler isn’t traded, you’re probably dealing Profar away for whatever short-term upgrade you can make instead. The Rangers are taking on a lot of extra long term salary, but they’re also creating long term value by going younger at second base instead of sticking with Kinsler and shipping out Profar.
So, if we start with the assumption that Kinsler was going to get traded this winter no matter what, then the Kinsler/Moreland hypothetical wasn’t actually an option. Not a real one, anyway. Kinsler had to go away, and with a guaranteed $62 million left on his contract, he wasn’t going to be super easy to move. Not with Robinson Cano and Omar Infante hanging out in free agency, or with the Angels shopping Howie Kendrick and the Reds making Brandon Phillips available. This was a pretty crappy winter to be trying to sell an aging second baseman making $15.5M per year for the next four years.
Let’s assume, then, that there’s a good chance the Rangers would have had to pay a portion of Kinsler’s salary simply to give him away. Phillips makes $50 million over the next four years, and is probably viewed as a better player by a good portion of MLB teams, based on his superior athleticism and defense, and the fact that Kinsler’s skills are generally undervalued. To make Kinsler a superior option to trading for Phillips, the Rangers might have had to market Kinsler as a $40 million player, picking up $22 million of the cost to woo buyers away from Cincinnati. That doesn’t mean that Kinsler is actually overpaid by $22 million, but that in this particular market, it would be very difficult for the Rangers to move him without giving a discount in order to do so.
If you’re Jon Daniels, and you want to move Ian Kinsler and acquire a first baseman, it isn’t that hard to see this as a potentially better option than just paying to get rid of Kinsler and then bidding up a free agent first baseman. After all, with the Tigers kicking in $30 million, and the $22 million that you aren’t paying to dump Kinsler, now the effective cost of Fielder’s total contract might be viewed as low as $116 million. That’s $16.5 million per year for the next seven years. Fielder’s probably overrated, but that’s not an outrageous commitment for an above average first baseman, especially given the way the market prices power hitters.
Even in the midst of his down season, I guessed that the Tigers would have to pay $48 million to dump Fielder’s contract. They actually paid $30 million, so if you think that Kinsler was a negative $18 million value based on his remaining contract, that this deal would line up with that guess spectacularly well. Given that Kinsler was blocking Profar, and it’s a tough market to be selling a second baseman, swapping Kinsler for Fielder does have some appeal.
They get a good player at a position of need, break their own positional logjam, and avoid the uncertainty of luring a buyer for Kinsler and hoping that they can get a free agent to choose them over other deep-pocketed contenders. There is value in not having your off-season plan built around outbidding the Red Sox and Yankees, after all. This deal was a bird in the hand, and while it was an expensive bird, it’s not a guarantee that pursuing an alternate strategy would have resulted in a better outcome.
That said, I think it might have been worth trying, at least. Even if we assume they would have had to pay $22 million to get rid of Kinsler and had to overpay for Mike Napoli, Napoli’s not going to cost you anything close to $116 million, so it almost certainly would have been cheaper to sign Napoli to play first base and just pay Kinsler to go away and get nothing in return. Napoli’s not as good as Fielder, but the gap isn’t enormous; Steamer has Fielder about +1 WAR better. If Napoli costs 3/45, for instance, and you pay the $22 million to dump Kinsler, then the total cost of acquiring a +2.5 WAR first baseman instead of a +3.5 WAR first baseman would have been $67 million, or basically half of the $138 million they’re going to pay Fielder instead. Is getting a slightly better player worth the extra $71 million in guaranteed money, even if it does buy you four extra years?
And the alternative didn’t have to be Napoli, if you’re not a big fan of his. Could they have signed Shin-Soo Choo for $116 million, then paid someone the $22 million to take Kinsler? Maybe you prefer Fielder to Choo, but I don’t think it’s obvious that one should. They’re probably close in expected future value, depending on how you think about how Fielder’s body is going to hold up. Maybe this is a better option than that, but then again, maybe it wouldn’t cost $22 million to get someone to take Kinsler either. Or, if you’re paying that much to get rid of him, maybe you’d get something interesting in return, and now you’re not getting that.
For the Tigers, it’s easy to see how this trade shakes out and makes them better. For the Rangers, it’s not as easy. They just got better at first base by about the same amount they got worse at second base, and now they have less money to spend than they did before. It is not obvious to me that the Rangers are now better than they were, or at least, are not better than they could have been by spending the money they’re giving to Fielder on other free agents and paying Kinsler to play for someone else.
I don’t hate this for Texas. I don’t think this is a clear loss, where they got hosed and should immediately regret their decision. They got a good player, and they opened up a spot for a kid who may very well become a very good player. But it was an expensive trade to make, and no team has unlimited resources. The Rangers just spent some of their resources to rearrange things, but I’m not sure they improved much if at all. It’s a different Rangers team. We’ll have to see if it’s a better Rangers team.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.