What does the Prince Fielder trade mean for the Indians?

Jason Miller

What impact does this have on the AL Central race in 2014 and beyond?

As you have probably heard by now, Wednesday night the Tigers traded star first baseman Prince Fielder to the Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler. The Tigers have been the team to beat in the AL Central for a few years now, and look to remain the team to beat for a few years yet, based largely on their ability/willingness to far outspend the rest of the division. What impact will this deal have on the Indians' of contending in 2014 and beyond?

Both players are among the best at their position, but each also suffered a relatively weak season in 2013.

From 2010 to 2012, Fielder posted a wRC+ (a league and park-adjusted hitting metric in which 100 is league average) of 149, 6th-best in baseball. In 2013 though, it dropped to 125, the lowest figure he's put up since his rookie season (2006). It doesn't look like bad luck either, as his BABIP was actually a tick above his career number; instead, it was due to the worst walk rate he's had since he was a rookie, and the worst power numbers of his career. He's a poor base runner and (ahem) fielder as well, so he brings negative value when we look beyond his bat. Fielder has put up ~5 WAR a season in recent years, but that dropped to ~2 in 2013.

Over that same 2010-2012 timeframe, Kinsler's wRC+ was 112, not nearly as good as Fielder's but still good enough to rank 7th among 2B. It's been below that in each of the last two years though, and after averaging 25 steals a year for the previous five seasons and entering 2013 with a career success rate of 84%, Kinsler stole just 15 in 2013, with only a 58% success rate. He was little more than an average offensive player in 2013 (defensive metrics are divided on Kinsler, some had him as average, others as very good).

Fielder has been incredibly durable over the years (he's missed one game over the last five seasons), whereas Kinsler was out for 26 games in 2013 and missed 59 in 2010, and is also two years older than Fielder. You can make a case that Fielder is more likely to hold up, but Fielder already hurts you with his glove and his feet, so if his hitting doesn't rebound, he's going to be a below-average player very soon.

Steamer (the biggest projection system with figures for 2014 already available) has both players as being worth ~3 wins in 2014, meaning that in a vacuum, this trade might not really change the outlook on Detroit for next season. This trade doesn't exist in a vacuum though.

The Tigers were looking at another season with Miguel Cabrera at 3B, which has become less and less tenable (did you see him moving around near the end of this season). Victor Martinez means they couldn't just push Cabrera or Fielder into the DH spot (which they've both hed out against anyway). Meanwhile, Detroit's 2B Omar Infante is a free agent. This deal fills that whole, allows them to move Cabrera back to 1B (where his defense should hurt them less) and creates an opening at 3B for Nick Castellanos, their top prospect. Their infield defense just got better, which makes their starting rotation even scarier.

Just in terms of the players they've got right now, I think this trade is something close to a push. Detroit won't score quite as many runs, but they won't allow as many either. Even if you think the trade hurts them in 2014, I don't see a good argument that it costs them more than a win.

Meanwhile, the two players are both signed to large contracts, but not equally large. Kinsler is locked up through 2017 (4 years) for $57 million, along with an option for 2018, which means he either stays for another $12 million, or is gone with a $5 million buyout. That means Kinsler is guaranteed $62 million dollars more. Meanwhile, Fielder is owed $168 million over the next seven seasons ($24M per year). As part of this trade, the Tigers are paying $6M of Fielder's salary for 2016-2020, a total of $30M. That offsets some of the difference, but still means Detroit is saving itself $76 million.

What this trade really works out to is losing Prince Fielder in exchange for Ian Kinsler and whoever else they can get with that $76 million. That's a huge win for Detroit. That money might be the difference between extending Max Scherzer and letting him walk in a year, or it might allow them to bring in a good corner outfielder and further solidify their roster in 2014.

The Tigers won't be any worse in 2014 for this, and might even be improved, depending on what they do with their savings. At the same time, a contract that might have become an albatross around their neck in a few years is now severely shrunken.

This trade is not good news for the Indians, not in 2014, and not beyond then either.

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