November 21, 2013 at 11:26 am

Lynn Henning

Savvy blockbuster trade gives Tigers what they needed most: flexibility

Occasionally during the past few months, there were suggestions the Tigers should trade Prince Fielder.

Now there was a good one.

Fielder? The man with $168 million remaining on his Tigers contract? Fielder? The first baseman who sometimes had issues hitting the fastball in 2013? Fielder? The guy who shrugged his shoulders and infuriated his bosses when he said during the playoffs that he “hit mistakes” and implied that he probably wasn’t going to hit much else?

There was no chance. Tigers owner Mike Ilitch owed a 29-year-old first baseman nearly as much money as he paid for his share of building Comerica Park. The contract was all but immovable, as entrenched as the Lodge Freeway.

But early Wednesday evening, a power hitter who once was regarded as a Tigers savior was on his way to the Rangers in a colossal deal that brings second baseman Ian Kinsler to the Tigers and rids the Tigers of an enormous obstacle, financially and tactically.

Fielder’s exit unclogs the entire Tigers lineup and reduces what could have become a paralyzing payroll albatross in the years ahead. The Tigers can consider it a bargain, not only because of the payroll obligations it sheds, but more integrally, because of the lineup efficiencies it stands to create.

Begin with Miguel Cabrera. He can move to first base, where he played ahead of Fielder’s arrival in January of 2012. Cabera enjoys third base. He more enjoys winning. And this trade should help the Tigers become a more solid, more rounded team in 2014.

Next in line: Nick Castellanos. The Tigers love him. Scouts across baseball love him. He is 21 years old. He is projected to be a middle-of-the-order batter on the scale of Rays star Evan Longoria. But he is a natural infielder, a third baseman, and his duck-out-of-water shift to left field was neither benefiting Castellanos nor the Tigers. They needed a faster, more defensive-oriented left-fielder with a bat to match. They were staring at the prospects of a Castellanos trade as long as Cabrera at third and Fielder at first were creating an infield blockade for years to come.

Now, the infield, as well as new manager Brad Ausmus’ lineup, have been liberated. Castellanos and Cabrera could be at the infield corners. Kinsler, who is 31, settles a position that was in flux due to Omar Infante’s free agency. He becomes the seasoned second baseman and top-of-the-order bat Ausmus will happily deploy alongside shortstop Jose Iglesias.

That leaves left field. There is no doubt Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers front-office chief who has engineered another Richter-scale deal, will delight in shopping for a new left fielder.

He can take a shot at Carlos Beltran, a free agent whose bat and savvy could help offset Fielder’s departure. Tigers owner Mike Ilitch might authorize an investment in another blue-chip free agent, Shin-Soo Choo, the brilliant, all-tools outfielder whose speed, defense, and left-handed bat could make him the lineup locomotive Dombrowski wanted even before Fielder was ostensibly shipped to Texas.

“We need to kind of digest this,” Dombrowski said late Wednesday night.

He was referring to a host of complexities that, if they go Detroit’s way, could make the Tigers better in 2014 and beyond.

Issues remain

For openers, Dombrowski must speak with Cabrera about his comfort in moving to first base. He and his lieutenants will mull how long it might take Castellanos to re-settle at third. The outfield is anyone’s guess. A new left fielder is a given, but the realignment could extend beyond left field, particularly if the Tigers take a stab at Jacoby Ellsbury, which might make Austin Jackson expendable.

The possible roster arrangements and potential autumn/winter deals are wide open now that Fielder and his seven remaining years at $24 million per are history.

The Tigers made a trade Wednesday that, in its ability to realign a team, ranks among the four biggest Tigers deals of the past 50 years. It is not as big as the 2007 blockbuster that brought Cabrera to Detroit, but it is a trade that compares to the Red Sox swap 16 months ago that sent $270 million in salary and a slew of billboard players to the Dodgers.

That deal, incidentally, helped two teams, just as this trade can benefit two clubs, including the Rangers, who know that Fielder helped bring two American League Championship Series and a World Series ticket to Detroit during his two years here.

This transaction, however, is more like the 1970 trade that transferred another marquee Tigers player. Denny McLain was the Tigers celebrity who highlighted that deal with the old Washington Senators, who two years later became the Rangers. His relocation helped the Tigers transform their infield (Eddie Brinkman and Aurelio Rodriguez) as it delivered a 20-game winner in Joe Coleman.

This trade is of a different flavor, with different ramifications.

But it is a remarkable moment in baseball flesh-peddling, no matter how it turns out. The Tigers, beyond the tens of millions they appear to have paid the Rangers as part of this package, will owe Kinsler as much as $69 million on the remaining years of his contract. And they could easily spend another $70 million-$100 million on their new left-fielder, if it’s a free agent on the level of Beltran, or Choo, or Jacoby Ellsbury, which is all the more conceivable should Austin Jackson become trade bait.

And if they spend a fortune on any of the above free agents, the Tigers will be the happiest debtors in all of baseball. Fielder filled in nicely following those dark days when Victor Martinez shredded his knee in January of last year. But his immediate value had expired. The Tigers have since changed. They have a new manager. They need more defense and speed.

They needed, above all, to be free. Free to play Castellanos. Free to get better in left field. Free to use those dollars and their personnel more effectively than could ever be the case with Fielder indentured in Detroit.

Ian Kinsler, 31, gives the Tigers a solid second baseman with Omar Infante becoming a free agent. / R. Yeatts / Getty Images
More Lynn Henning