Baseball seasons are long. Ian Kinsler tended to make them seem shorter.
It was the way he played second base. With a surgeon’s focus and with a Navy SEAL’s intensity.
It was the style in which he stepped to home plate, bat in hand, ready to slash, aching to drive that first pitch over the fence or up a gap or on a line past the pitcher’s ear.
It was the way he ran bases. Ruthlessly, daringly, but hardly recklessly, even if he occasionally paid the price for his aggression.
It was the way in which he sat in the Tigers clubhouse. Kibitzing with his teammates. Telling stories. Grabbing a bat to help animate a moment from some past game in his deep archive of big-league years, all as his teammates sat entranced, like kids sitting around a campfire hearing a parent’s ghost tale.
It also was the way in which he listened to reporters’ questions and offered answers hewn from his rich mind. Always fresh and original, those insights and overviews he shared. He was, and is, a terrific thinker. Kinsler dug into discussion topics with the same zest he attacked a ground ball or a first-pitch strike.
And this is how one man made baseball seasons in Detroit less draining than six months and 162 games otherwise can seem in a fan’s or player’s annual baseball experience.
The Los Angeles Angels will learn all of this in 2018. Kinsler was traded Wednesday night, as expected. He went to the Angels in a swap for two minor-leaguers, pitcher Wilkel Hernandez, and outfielder Troy Montgomery.
The Tigers are collecting young blood during a complete makeover, and neither Kinsler nor the Tigers were going to benefit ideally from having him aboard for another year.
He was reasonably expensive for a team trying to lose payroll pounds ($11 million). But his salary wasn’t prohibitive. The Tigers could have carried him next season.
Investing in youth
The Tigers are making a bid to reload a roster with players who in four or five years can resemble a playoff-grade fraternity. They’ll try to hit on early draft picks over the next couple of seasons, alongside kids signed from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. They’ll add to the mix young guns they will have grabbed in trades — a process that began percolating last summer — all enhanced by some celebrity free agents they someday will resume signing. And they’ll hope that by 2023, 2024, somewhere in there, they’ll have a team that can be what the Cubs and Astros have become following a similar process.
That means players such as Kinsler, for all their skills, have little practical value at Comerica Park heading into 2018. The Tigers will lose games galore next season as the rebuild begins. Kinsler would, in many respects, be wasted. Better to deal him to a team that, as he turns 36, can expect to squeeze from him one more solid season, which is the Angels’ hope. Better that the Tigers take a chance on an 18-year-old pitcher with interesting potential, Hernandez, as well as a left-handed hitting outfielder, Montgomery, who might or might not be a factor in coming seasons.
There was your cold, hard analysis as Kinsler prepared for a trade everyone knew was inevitable. The Tigers never were going to get a dazzling return package for Kinsler. But they stood to gain for their gamble a young player or two who might be part of a more inspiring group down the road.
It’s the game the Tigers necessarily will play throughout 2018. And they are not finished. Michael Fulmer. Nick Castellanos. Shane Greene. Don’t be surprised if those three, as well, are swapped in the next seven months for youngsters who will be part of a roster reformation that, in June, will include the 2018 draft’s first overall pick. They could well end up with the first overall pick in 2019, as well.
The Tigers today, in the final hours of the Winter Meetings, will grab at least one Rule 5 player they hope to carry in 2018 as part of the kiddie-corps movement. It is all tied to a total roster re-do. And it must be total, no matter how much it scares fans that in the short term this team is going to get crushed.
It’s the way in which you set yourself up, in a terribly competitive sport, to do what the Astros, Cubs, Indians, Dodgers, Nationals, etc., have done following their own bruising years of refurbishing rosters that now have a shot at the World Series.
Deals such as Wednesday night’s flip with the Angels are part of the process. And the pain.
One step back, two steps forward?
Kinsler was more than special. He came to the Tigers four years ago in an improbable deal that sent Prince Fielder and his monstrous contract to the Rangers. Kinsler himself had a long and expensive pay-package remaining, but it looks now like a laborer’s salary given the energy, production, and professionalism he brought to the Tigers these last four years.
This is not an easy player for a team and a town to lose. Especially when in the past five months the Tigers have said goodbyes to Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez and Justin Upton.
But what the fans should know is this, because it’s the story of every earnest rebuilding project:
At certain points during the next few seasons, probably closer to 2019, fresh faces will begin checking into Comerica Park. Some of these new kids are going to be quite good. From that point the roster’s quality, as well as the team’s record, should begin to move steadily upward.
And then a baseball town as discerning and as demanding as Detroit will begin to appreciate why it was necessary to have said farewell to those golden oldies from earlier Tigers playoff days.
A brighter baseball interlude, with a more viable playoff-grade team, probably will have arrived.
It’s something to think about as Kinsler heads for Anaheim, California. He will do well there. And so will the Angels.
The Tigers’ payoff, if one eventuates, will arrive later, much later.
In baseball, as in any other aspect of life, patience isn’t to be confused with pleasure.