Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Tigers Sign Prince Fielder. What? YES! Wait?

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The big question last week was how the Detroit Tigers would respond to the loss of Victor Martinez to an ACL injury. Well, owner Mike Illitch and General Manager Dave Dombrowski surprised everyone again yesterday by signing slugger Prince Fielder to a 9-year $214 million dollar deal. 

I had a "Wait. What?" reaction when I first came across the news and spent most of the afternoon following  #Tigers trend on Twitter and trying to find confirmation and reading and listening to reactions.

Indeed, the addition of Fielder makes the Tigers line-up downright fearsome. Fielder is a devastating hitter who gets on base and hits for power who will more than provide protection for Cabrera and provide left/right balance in the Tigers line-up.

It's exciting. The Tigers now have three MVP caliber players and two of the most feared hitters in the game. It's impossible to think of having Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, and Prince Fielder on the same fantasy baseball team, let alone the same MLB team. I was in shock yesterday, and am more excited for Tigers baseball than I was 24 hours ago.

However, after being able to sleep on it, I'm beginning to develop some concerns. I'm experiencing deja vu of 2008 when everyone had the Tigers pegged to win the World Series and break the record for runs scored after acquiring Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis, Edgar Renteria, and Gary Sheffield in the off-season.

I love having an owner Mike Illitch that is determined to winning a championship with the Tigers as he has with the Red Wings, and he's more than willing to make the (irrational?) investments to see that happening

The problem is that the Fielder signing makes the Tigers slower, poorer defensively, limits line-up options, and the 9-year $214 million deal hinders long term budget flexibility.

SPEED: The Tigers were one of the slowest teams in the league last year. Austin Jackson lead the team with 22 stolen bases last year. Next on the team: Brennan Boesch with 5. Don't discount the Tigers making more moves - they may still go out and sign Cuban prospect Yeonis Cespedes (what's another $30-60 million), but they haven't made a move to get faster. COUNTERPOINT: Who cares. You aren't going to run and risk getting thrown out with Cabrera and Fielder in the line-up.

DEFENSE: The Tigers just added another average or below average defender first baseman who will shift another below average first baseman to third base. What? Yes, Cabrera has played third base in the past, but that was five years and 30-40 lbs ago. Defense still matters. Especially behind groundball pitchers such as Rick Porcello and Doug Fister. An infield of Fielder, 2B Ryan Raburn, SS Johnny Peralta, and 3B Cabrera cannot be reassuring to those guys who may see innings drag on and see pitch counts rise. COUNTERPOINT: Miguel Cabrera is open to switching positions and if he commits himself, loses weight, and becomes a serviceable defensive third baseman, he'll make himself even more valuable to the Tigers, fantasy owners, and Tigers fans who won't have to witness Brandon Inge strike out as much. If it doesn't work, Cabrera and Fielder can switch off at 1B and DH and Dombrowski can trade Martinez.

OPTIONS: Now I wouldn't still be surprised to go to Comerica Park next summer and pay to watch the Jim Leyland Triple-A all-stars line-up as he gives Fielder and Cabrera a day off, but it will make Leyland's job slightly more difficult. In recent years, the DH is evolving from aging sluggers to a way to increase line-up flexibility by allowing teams to rest players, maximize match-ups, and bolster defense. Now the Tigers have three players whose best role is as a full-time DH signed for the next three years in Cabrera, Fielder, and Martinez. COUNTERPOINT: Wait, penciling in Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Victor Martinez into your line-up everyday is a bad thing? That's a problem most managers would love to have.

COST: You can't avoid the 9-year $214 million price tag. Now Illitch has every right to spend his money the way he wants, but the Tigers payroll is now close to $140 million. The Tigers owe more money to just four players over the next 3 years (Cabrera, Fielder, Martinez, and Verlander) than a lot of team payrolls. Those types of commitments make it more difficult to sign the next round of stars to long term deals (e.g. Avila, Boesch, Turner, Castellanos) or re-sign Verlander or Cabrera. Tigers fans may have to eat more Little Caesors pizza. COUNTERPOINT: The good news is that the Tigers farm system is still intact. By signing the free-agent, Fielder, Dombrowski did not have to give up a single prospect (although they do lose a draft pick next year). The cupboard is still full of blue chip prospects such as pitcher Jacob Turner and 3B Nick Costellanos to fill in around the MVP caliber cornerstones of Cabrera, Fielder, and reigning AL MVP and Cy Young winner, Justin Verlander. The presence of the stars diminishes the pressure on the prospects.

World Series?
Don't order those World Series rings just yet. The Fielder signing solidifies the Tigers as the favorites in the AL Central, but it merely helps them keep pace in the American League arms race.  In the AL EAST, the New York Yankees bolstered their rotation with Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda; the Tampa Bay Rays still have the leagues best rotation and get a healthy Evan Longoria and full seasons from SP Matt Moore and OF Desmond Jennings; and last year's off-season winners, the Boston Red Sox, can't be counted out with Jacob Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez, and the possibility of Carl Crawford returning to form. Out in the west, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim signed Albert Pujols, added SP C.J. Lewis to an already imposing rotation, add OF phenom Mike Trout, and get Kendry Morales back from injury. The ALCS champion Texas Rangers still have the league's best top-to-bottom line-up and added Japanese phenom pitchers, Yu Darvish.

Pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training  is only a month away.

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