(I decided to break this deal down in two separate posts, because there are too many angles to fit it all into one. Texas fans, we’ll talk about this deal from the Rangers perspective in a separate article.)
The Detroit Tigers were a very good baseball team, but with Omar Infante heading for free agency and too much money committed to other players to keep him around, they had a hole at second base. They also had too many designated hitters, with Victor Martinez’s presence forcing both Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera to play the field even when they really couldn’t. With Cabrera’s body breaking down in September, it became pretty clear that something had to give, and an obvious solution was moving one of their DHs could open up some money for them to fill their second base hole.
Instead of making a series of smaller transactions that accomplished that goal, the Tigers instead just found a way to directly exchange Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler, filling their hole at second base, freeing up their DH logjam, and saving enough money to potentially keep the rest of their core in tact. This is a pretty fantastic start to the off-season for Dave Dombrowski.
Before we get too much further into the commentary, let’s break down the specifics of what swapping Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler actually works out to.
Fielder is owed another $168 million over the next seven years, paid in annual installments of $24 million. Kinsler is due $62 million over the next four years, but the deal is actually somewhat front-loaded from here, as it’s $16 million in 2014, $16 million in 2015, $14 million in 2016, and then only $11 million in 2017, then a $5 million buyout that will probably be counted against their 2018 budget.
In terms of annual savings, the Tigers are chopping $8 million per year off their payroll for the next two years, then $10 million, then $13 million, then $19 million, and finally the full $24 million for the last years. That’s $106 million in future salary commitments that were shed by exchanging these two contracts. To offset some of that difference, the Tigers will pay $30 million of the remaining $168 million that Fielder is still owed, so their final savings will amount to $76 million in future payroll obligations.
From the Tigers perspective, this can simply be looked at as swapping Fielder for Kinsler and the right to re-spend $76 million on something else. And there’s just no way that’s not a huge win for the Tigers.
Let’s just start with the basics. Steamer projects Ian Kinsler as a +3.3 WAR player in 2014, which is based on him basically playing at the same level he did in 2012 but playing in a few more games. Nothing about this forecast should be all that controversial. His wRC+ is expected to go from 105 to 108, which is exactly halfway in between his 2013 mark and his career mark. It’s forecasting Kinsler for -2 runs relative to an average defensive second baseman, a little lower than his career +1 UZR/150 and basically the same mark he posted last year. This forecast says that Ian Kinsler should be expected to be Ian Kinsler, and over 150 games, that Ian Kinsler is worth a little more than +3 wins relative to a replacement level second baseman, which is basically what the Tigers had a few hours ago.
To get Kinsler, they lose Fielder, who Steamer projects as a +3.7 WAR player next year. Except that projection actually does raise a few eyebrows, as it forecasts a return to his career average wRC+ — a significant bump over what he did last year — and then projects him to post his best baserunning value since 2007 (-3.7, so still bad but less awful than he has been every year since his first season as a regular) and only penalizes him -1 run on defense relative to an average first baseman, far better than his past performances would suggest. I think this is about as generous a forecast for Fielder as you can get, giving him very little penalty for the non-hitting parts of baseball, and believing that his mediocre 2013 season was not the beginning of any kind of long term downwards trend. And even with those positive assumptions, Fielder is still basically a break even player with Kinsler.
Except those numbers are all in a vacuum. In Detroit’s specific circumstance, Kinsler’s value is even higher relative to Fielder due to the alternatives. By moving Fielder, the Tigers can now shift Miguel Cabrera back to first base and pursue a reasonable Major League third baseman, likely making Cabrera a more valuable player going forward and lessening the wear and tear on their franchise hitter. This might even open the door for top prospect Nick Castellanos to shift back to third base, rather than having to battle for outfield time with another veteran acquisition. Opening up first base creates some significant positive benefits for the Tigers, so moving Fielder doesn’t just give them the value they get from Kinsler, but also those additional improvements as well.
And that’s before we even talk about the $76 million in future commitments they just saved. Or, really, just freed up to re-spend, because the Tigers are in a position where they should absolutely be trying to maximize their current roster to try and win a World Series while they have Cabrera and Verlander and the rest of this group in their primes. And that $76 million can either be repurposed to acquire another player — perhaps a left-handed hitting outfielder — or to help the team retain Max Scherzer. The Tigers had apparently been listening to offers for Scherzer because they were unlikely to be able to re-sign him due to their other commitments, but with Fielder’s contract off the books, they should be able to at least consider keeping Scherzer long term now if they want to.
It’s possible that the money they’re sending to Texas will cover most of the differences over the next few years, and all the savings will be in the back-end of the contract, so that they might not have that much extra payroll to spend this winter. But $76 million in future commitments have still be freed up to offer to other players, even if it’s not necessarily all available immediately, and that’s enough to get you in the ballpark for Shin-Soo Choo, who projects as a +3 WAR player himself. Choo won’t sign for $76 million, but maybe he’ll sign for $100 million, so you could describe this trade as Kinsler and 3/4 of Shin-Soo Choo for Prince Fielder.
But maybe that’s too rich for their blood, and they’d rather just throw the entire savings at Curtis Granderson and a closer. You can probably get Granderson and Joe Nathan for less than $76 million. Kinsler, Granderson, and Nathan, or Prince Fielder? These aren’t even close. The answers are glaringly obvious. No one’s taking Fielder in any of these hypotheticals.
The Tigers turned a $168 million +3 WAR player into a $92 million +3 WAR player, once you account for the cash they’re sending to Texas, only the +3 WAR player they’re getting fits their roster better and allows them to keep Miguel Cabrera healthier and opens a spot for their best prospect. And they saved $76 million in the process, which can probably buy them another three wins assuming they spend it decently. There’s a good chance that, at the end of the day, the Tigers will have taken that $168 million they owed Fielder and basically doubled the return they could have expected from keeping him.
If you’re a Tigers fan, this is a deal to celebrate. Don’t worry about narratives like “big bats” and “Cabrera needs protection”, or listen to the criticisms of Kinsler’s good-at-everything-great-at-nothing skillset. The Tigers just made a fantastic trade that sets them up to be even better in 2014 than they were the last two years.
Dave Dombrowski has made a lot of good trades; this might end up being one of his best.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.