Detroit — He arrived in stunning fashion, in a widely applauded move. And Prince Fielder will leave the same way, in stunning fashion, in another applauded move.
This is the price of doing business, and the fallout of postseason failure. The Tigers pulled off a shocker Wednesday night that made solid sense, which shows how far Fielder’s standing had plummeted. GM Dave Dombrowski traded Fielder to the Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler, with the Tigers also reportedly paying $30 million of Fielder’s contract.
This was a possibility the moment the playoffs ended with Fielder slumping badly, and acting bizarrely indifferent about it. Not many in baseball thought the Tigers could find a taker for the $168 million remaining on his deal, but if there’s a lesson here, it’s not a new one — never underestimate Dombrowski and the Tigers’ refusal to sit still.
Fielder’s bat certainly will be missed at times, and you can bet he’ll enjoy the cozier ballpark dimensions in Texas. From a pure production standpoint, the Rangers got a guy they wanted — the same guy the Tigers once thought they desperately needed.
This is a classically shrewd move by Dombrowski, and it isn’t just about reacting to postseason woes and fan furor. The Tigers paid a hefty price for Fielder and weren’t getting enough on their investment, and they have significant, expensive needs elsewhere.
They want to sign Miguel Cabrera beyond 2015 and move him back to first base, which is less taxing on his body. Long-term health of their superstar slugger was a growing concern, although Dombrowski said late Wednesday he wasn’t sure if Cabrera would return to first immediately.
Just as important, the Tigers will try to collect the dough to sign Cy Young winner Max Scherzer beyond next season. The odds of keeping Scherzer just got better, although Dombrowski downplayed the impact.
“It makes it perhaps more possible,” he said. “We have a lot of stars on our club, well-paid stars. It gives us more flexibility as we go forward.”
With one staggering trade, important pieces could fall into place. Kinsler, 31, is a three-time All-Star and career .273 hitter who brings steady defense and a touch of speed (and only $62 million on his contract). Despite winning three straight division titles, the Tigers have been eliminated partly because they’ve lacked such fundamental elements as steady defense and a touch of speed.
Touted youngster Nick Castellanos can take over Cabrera’s spot at third, as Cabrera assumes his former role at first, where Fielder was a defensive liability. Free-agent second baseman Omar Infante likely departs, freeing up more space for a key acquisition such as closer Joe Nathan, one of the best on the market.
If there’s a ruthlessness about this, hey, Fielder knew the situation when he arrived as the most-celebrated and expensive free agent in Tigers history. As the son of former Tiger Cecil Fielder and a favorite of owner Mike Ilitch, Prince seemed like the perfect fit, and at times, he was.
He was paid a lot to be a difference-maker, and in two seasons, he hit .295 and averaged 27 home runs and 107 RBIs. He provided ample protection in the batting order for Cabrera, who merely won two MVPs hitting in front of him. Weight became a question when Fielder slowed down — bat speed and foot speed — but his departure from the cleanup spot does create a hole.
There’s one more reason Fielder’s departure was necessary. When the Tigers needed him most, with Cabrera battling a groin injury that eventually required surgery, Fielder fell apart. He was 4-for-22 this postseason, and had zero RBIs in 45 at-bats in two playoffs.
The most painful snapshot came in Game 6 of the ALCS against the Red Sox, when Fielder was thrown out at third in a base-running blunder. In that moment, when he belly-flopped short of the base and was tagged out, perhaps a fate was sealed. Afterward, he sat in the cramped Fenway Park clubhouse in full uniform longer than any player, as if he knew the repercussions.
When asked repeatedly about his disappointment that night, Fielder answered with shrugs, in a tone that angered fans.
“What am I supposed to do?” he said. “You play hard, you give it all you got, then there’s life. I got two boys to take care of. I’m not gonna sit around and be pouty all day.”
He was speaking moments after the team learned of Jim Leyland’s retirement, which was kept secret for another day. A lot came tumbling down on Fielder, including news during the season of his pending divorce.
Frankly, there’s a chance this is what Fielder wanted, to be freed from the scrutiny, although he’s headed to another desperate-to-win franchise in Texas. (He waived a no-trade clause to go.) Dombrowski said Fielder “never expressed, per se, to me he wanted to be traded,” and his postseason travails weren’t a big factor. But this was becoming a fit that didn’t fit anymore, essentially.
No one knows how the family issues affected Fielder, partly because he wouldn’t talk about them. It took an unsolicited comment from teammate Torii Hunter to alert people to Fielder’s divorce, and at least provide some context to his struggles.
Now, somehow, Dombrowski and the Tigers gathered a bunch of difficult scenarios and made them workable. They’re not stuck with Fielder’s contract for seven more years. They get a solid second baseman for four more years. They should get Cabrera back at first, where he’s much more comfortable. They can focus on signing Scherzer and Cabrera and getting younger with Castellanos.
It’s hard to find a major downside to the deal, which is amazing to say. It really is too bad it didn’t last, because the Cabrera-Fielder slugging combo could be fearsome at its best. When the weight of it all — expectations, money, personal issues — grew too heavy, this relationship was destined to end, practically the same way it began.