I hate Detroit’s trade of righthander Doug Fister to Washington (no matter what happens next), I don’t like A.J. Pierzynski for Boston, I like Oakland’s trade for closer Jim Johnson because I’m a Rangers fan, I’m confused by the Tigers giving Alan Trammell’s number to Ian Kinsler, I’m fascinated that the Angels reportedly offered Howie Kendrick to Detroit for Fister before the Tigers took Kinsler for Prince Fielder, and I’m intrigued by a handful of the players set free by their clubs in advance of yesterday’s non-tender deadline (including righthanders Andrew Bailey, Daniel Hudson, Ronald Belisario, Ryan Webb, and Sandy Rosario, lefthander Wesley Wright, and catchers Lou Marson and J.P. Arencibia), but today I have just two things I wanted to share with you:
Ricky Nolasco’s free agent deal with Minnesota (four years/$49 million) will pay him $12 million in 2014.
Scott Kazmir’s two-year deal with Oakland: $11 million in 2014.
Tim Hudson: $11 million in 2014.
Tim Lincecum: $17 million in 2014.
Dan Haren: $10 million in 2014.
Phil Hughes and Josh Johnson: $8 million in 2014.
Jason Vargas: $7 million in 2014.
Yu Darvish $10 million, Matt Harrison $8 million, Derek Holland $5.4 million, Martin Perez $1 million, and Alexi Ogando somewhere around $2 million.
A complete rotation — and a very good one — for under $27 million in 2014, or less than what the Giants will pay Hudson and Lincecum (their number three and four starters?) alone.
I’ve recommended Joe Sheehan’s Newsletter to you before, and will do it again. He didn’t ask me to plug his work. I asked him if I could share with you guys what he wrote on Sunday. He said sure.
Months ago, before we had a clear idea of when mom’s surgery date would be, I committed to seeing “Betrayal” on November 20. One of the reasons I love New York is that I very much enjoy theatre, not so much the big musical productions but plays, and you have terrific access to those here. I like — this won’t come as a surprise to those of you who know my love of Aaron Sorkin — well-written dialogue. “Betrayal” fit that, and was something of an event here in town, with the married Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig as husband and wife in two of the three lead roles. Despite recent events, I didn’t want to stand up my friend who’d gotten the tickets, so I gathered myself together and went.
(Nickel review? Not bad, not great. I imagine it made a greater impression in pre-Thatcher London than it possibly can in a media environment where talky dramas are plentiful and adultery has lost its ability to shock. I did not like the conceit of telling the story in reverse. Also, the Barrymore may be a touch too big for a performance that is quiet, subtle, reserved.)
So i was completely out of touch when the Ian Kinsler/Prince Fielder trade went down, learning of it — as I learn almost everything nowadays — via Twitter on the 1 train headed home. My first reaction was…no reaction at all. I am a professional opinion generator, and the deal had broken me, the way Flash ads break my Firefox twice a day. i scrolled through others’ takes, sent some text messages and generally tried to figure out how this had happened.
It’s not as it this idea was completely random. Two years ago, when Fielder was a free agent, I beat the drums hard for the Rangers to sign him. They went with Yu Darvish instead, a decision that certainly cannot be criticized. However, their lineup was a bit lacking in 2012 and a real problem in 2013, a fact masked by a home ballpark that inflates run scoring. Darvish has been excellent, but the Rangers could have used Fielder as well. I had a good read on Fielder’s price — “an eight-year, $200-million contract” when he eventually got 9/214 — and foresaw that the Rangers would allow Hamilton to leave via free agency, creating a hole in the middle of the batting order.
“Prince Fielder is the one free agent the Rangers should target. He fills their position of greatest need; he is young enough that they would be buying his peak; he balances their lineup; and he provides a solution to the vexing problem of how to handle Josh Hamilton’s upcoming free agency. Even if it means stretching the budget a bit, the Rangers should make this move — it would swing the AL West back in their favor for now and years to come.”
The Rangers lost the AL West in 2012 by a single game and missed the outright spot in the Coin Flip Game by that much in 2013. Given that Mitch Moreland has failed to develop (.250/.308/.450 at ages 26 and 27), there’s a strong argument that pushing the payrolls the past two years to $140-145 million by signing Fielder could have been the difference between making the real postseason twice and not doing so at all.
The Rangers have now acquired Fielder and the seven years left on his contract in exchange for Kinsler and the four years left on his, with the Tigers sending $30 million over the last five years of Fielder’s deal to help make the trade happen. Fielder is a less attractive property than he was as a free agent, two years older — two peak seasons, ages 28 and 29, gone — and perhaps with more questions about what his performance will be in his thirties. His two years in Detroit were just all right: .295/.387/.491, playing in every single game, hitting 55 homers. Fielder’s 2013 line of .279/.362/.457 was his worst since his rookie season as a Brewer, and Fielder actively hurts any team as a fielder and baserunner, costing a team about a win a year with his glove and his legs. Per baseball-reference’s WAR, Fielder was just a single win better than Moreland in 2013, largely because of how poorly Fielder plays his position. It’s tempting to blame Comerica Park, but Fielder did not show unusual home/road splits during his time with the Tigers, and his poor 2013 stats weren’t any better away than they were at home.
Fielder’s defense may be bad enough that the Rangers can make him a DH and get more value from him than they would by leaving him at first base. Even if he doesn’t hit quite as well as a DH — most players don’t — they’d be getting back eight to 12 runs a year, and quite possibly more that that as Fielder ages. There are soft factors here to consider, as not all 30-year-olds take to becoming designated hitters, and you don’t want to start the relationship with your new #3 hitter by pissing him off. However, the most important things Fielder will do for the Rangers, he’ll do in the batters’ box; the Rangers need him to be the .300/.400/.550 guy they missed last year.
Will he be? Fielder has a very good strikeout rate for a hitter with his power, and excellent command of the strike zone. That’s enabled him to hit .286 in his career, and peak with three years of .299 or better. His strikeout rate has actually declined even as league strikeout rates have risen. His unintentional walk rate is down from its 2009-10 peak. I first thought that might be because he’s batting more with runners on base, but that doesn’t seem to be the difference. Per Fangraphs, though, Fielder does make contact more often now, when he swings, than he did earlier in his career. So the missing walks are the result of an improvement in his game. With his batted-ball data relatively stable, I see no reason to think Fielder’s plate discipline will be a concern. Fielder has never been a Three True Outcome player, which is what has separated him from the Adam Dunn class of batters, and which should be a separator for him — allowing him to continue to be productive — for the next few seasons at least. Fielder’s career slash line of .286/.389/.527 seems like a reasonable median expectation for him through 2016. There’s some downside risk here, because Fielder is a one-dimensional player and he’s signed for a long time, but he’s good enough at the plate now to warrant taking the risk.
The other player in the trade is substantially more risky. Ian Kinsler may have a broader skill set than does Fielder, and he’s signed for fewer years, and he has more positional value…but to my eyes, he’s showing many more markers of decline. Kinsler is a 32-year-old second baseman coming off two of the worst offensive seasons of his career. Never much of a hitter for average, Kinsler saw his power fall off — he slugged .423 and .413 the past two years despite a great home park for power — and his once-vaunted basestealing skills disappear. An 86% basestealer through 2011, Kinsler was 21-for-30 in 2012 and a wretched 15-for-26 last year. His 2013 bWAR was propped up by strong defensive numbers, ones that for Kinsler have bounced around considerably throughout his career. (Defensive bWAR, starting in 2006: 0.0, 0.8, -0.5, 2.6, 1.0, 2.2, 0.3, 1.5. Go ahead, predict the next number in that sequence.) Kinsler is closing in on 10,000 defensive innings at second base. He’s been prone to the kind of minor, nagging injuries that chip away at playing time and performance. Did I mention that he’s 32?
Perhaps the biggest concern is that outside of Texas, Kinsler has been an ordinary hitter. On the road, he’s batted .242/.312/.399, with stark changes in his strikeout rate and K/UIBB as compared to his work in Texas. Now, those road stats are skewed a bit — the AL West parks other than Rangers Ballpark have been excellent pitchers’ parks and the teams Kinsler has faced more with the unbalanced schedule have been good pitching teams — but the idea that Kinsler is a power/speed second baseman is belied by that .399. It’s not like Kinsler’s road stats are weighted by a couple of bad years. His road OPS, walking backwards from 2013: 735, 611, 730, 710, 672. This is who he is. When you add the road performance to the short-term decline to the age to the minor injuries…it’s a very problematic package.
Now, this could work out, but it hinges on Kinsler making fundamental changes to his approach. Kinsler hits a lot of pop-ups. That’s an effect of his being a flyball hitter, which you could argue was his attempt to take advantage of his home park. If Kinsler ports his pull/pop-up style to Comerica Park, he could have a very long season that accelerates his decline. If he changes, though…if he does something similar to what Torii Hunter has done the past two seasons and becomes a line-drive hitter with pop who can put balls in play in Comerica’s expansive outfield, then I think he could have more success than his home/road splits indicate. Projecting whether players will change in mid-career is a fool’s errand, but we’ve seen enough players make changes, even in just the last couple of years, to underline the point that adaptations happen. The current version of Ian Kinsler will get worked in his new home; if he builds a new version, though, he can help the Tigers win and perhaps stave off his decline. There’s a good outcome in which Kinsler hits .310 with 45 doubles and a dozen homers and his usual walk and strikeout rates.
The Rangers now have Fielder for the next seven years at a net cost of $138 million, or about $20 million per year. The Tigers have Kinsler for four years at a net cost of $92 million per year. I don’t think the money really matters all that much — you’re trying to win games and divisions and championships, rather than a wins-per-dollar title — but looked at that way, I think the Rangers did well for themselves. I would rather have Fielder under his terms than Kinsler under his.
Of course, this trade didn’t happen in a vacuum, which is why it’s such a fascinating deal. I’m certain that I’ve made fantasy baseball or Strat-O-Matic trades that were like this, where the fit between two teams was just so perfect that you could make a one-for-one swap that made both teams better the moment the deal happened. It’s extremely rare to see it happen in MLB; the first one that came to mind was the Padres/Blue Jays deal that, similarly, swapped a second baseman in Roberto Alomar for a first baseman in Fred McGriff, with Joe Carter and Tony Fernandez along for the ride. The Jesus Montero/Michael Pineda deal wanted to be this type of trade before it drank battery acid. The allure of the never-was-happening Oscar Taveras-for-Jurickson Profar trade was just this: to make the puzzle pieces fit better.
This trade isn’t about Fielder and Kinsler, really. It’s about Miguel Cabrera and Profar, and Nick Castellanos and Elvis Andrus. It’s about the puzzle pieces. This trade is designed to help the Tigers and the Rangers both align their talent better. So whether Fielder or Kinsler is the better player in 2014 or 2015, or whether one player’s contract commitment is now more or less onerous than the other, isn’t the point. The point is that both these teams expect to be better because of this deal.
For the Rangers, the immediate gain is obvious: After a year of being mishandled, Profar can now get on with his life as a second baseman. There’s some cost there, as Profar would be about a half-win more valuable per season, all things equal, as a shortstop, and he absolutely can be a major-league shortstop. However, simply being able to play him every day at a single position is worth that cost. Health allowing, the Rangers now have a championship-caliber middle infield locked in for the next six years, a combination that should be worth six or seven wins next year and could peak at 10 to 12 wins above replacement. Just putting an average team around Profar and Andrus makes the Rangers a contender. They also fill a hole; in the first year post-Josh, Rangers’ left-handed batters slugged .389 with a .300 OBP, numbers Fielder will certainly help improve.
The Tigers’ gains aren’t quite so obvious, but this trade should cancel everyone’s favorite show, “Miguel Cabrera, Almost Third Baseman”. Cabrera was a poor defensive player at full health, and when injuries limited his mobility in the second half of 2013, he became one of the worst defensive players we’ve seen in a while. The Tigers’ roster construction left them no solution other than to keep playing Cabrera and hope for the best. While the Tigers put on a good face for two years, trading Fielder concedes the point that Cabrera can’t continue playing third base. With Fielder gone, Cabrera can not only move back to first base, he can spend time at DH when his body demands time off the field. The Tigers stand to gain 20-30 runs just by putting a capable third baseman on the field. Add that to the upgrades at second base and first base, and it becomes clear that this deal is going to make the Tigers better in the short term.
The Tigers fill a hole at second base that was opened by Omar Infante’s free agency, and they’ll have the option to move Castellanos, originally a third baseman, back to the hot corner. Castellanos was moved to the outfield as a downstream effect of Cabrera’s initial move to third in 2012, but his bat will play considerably better at third base. His defense at third did not warrant the initial position switch, and frankly, after two years of running Cabrera out there, the Tigers don’t get to tell anyone they can’t play third base for reasons of defense. Castellanos hasn’t exactly raked above A ball — .271 with middling power and a 176/65 K/UIBB in a bit more than 900 PA — so he’s got a much better chance of having a career if he’s not a corner outfielder.
I think back to that train ride home, and my inability to form an opinion on this deal. It’s because this trade, this bolt from the blue, doesn’t fit what we do any longer. It’s a baseball trade — forget the $30 million. It’s a baseball trade that aligns the talent of two teams better, that should make those two teams better, that makes sense no matter how you look at it. You can’t snark it, you can’t reduce it to 140 characters, you can’t make a sound bite out of it. You can just sit back and appreciate the creativity and the craft of Jon Daniels and Dave Dombrowski, two men who do their jobs as well as anyone in the industry. Who won? They both did.