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Trade Retrospective: Tigers trade Prince Fielder to the Rangers for Ian Kinsler

At last, a challenge trade!

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MLB: New York Yankees at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

For the fourth straight offseason, BtBS is looking back on some of the biggest trades from years past. Check out all the entries here. This series was first started in 2016 by Spencer Bingol, who has been part of the Red Sox Baseball Operations department for the past two years. Congratulations to Spencer on the team’s recent World Series championship!

Early after the 2013 season, the Rangers and Tigers executed a good old fashioned challenge trade, exchanging one position player for another. No prospects were involved at all. Prince Fielder got sent to Texas while Ian Kinsler landed in Detroit. The Tigers also sent $30 million to the Rangers to help cover part of Fielder’s onerous contract.

In this trade retrospective series, trades will be evaluated based on what was known at the time. That is the only fair, logical way to evaluate trades and strip luck out of the equation: process over results. Having said that, we will still take a look at how the trade worked out for both parties.

The Deal

Both Fielder and Kinsler were coming off disappointing 2013 seasons, espiecally considering their big contracts. Kinsler had just finished year one of a five-year, $75 million deal, which paled in comparison to the seven years and $168 million left on Fielder’s contract.

Kinsler’s deal was not only reasonable, but downright cheap for one of the best second basemen in baseball. Her signed it in April of 2012, which was a contract year for him. At the time, he had a career line of .275/.355/.469, and he combined that with great baserunning and excellent defense at second base, which allowed him to accumulate 27.6 WAR over the six seasons prior. There is risk to signing a keystone player on the wrong side of thirty, but Kinsler was so good the contract mitigated his age.

After the 2012 season however, the extension did not look as good as it had previously. His .327 wOBA was almost 40 points lower than the year before, and his defensive metrics rated him as a roughly average fielder. The defense turned out to be just a small sample size anomaly when going by DRS and FRAA, but the offense did not improve much in 2013. I am sure that Rangers fans were disappointed with the Kinsler’s bat, but an average hitting second baseman who runs the bases well and plays superb defense is easily worth what he was being paid.

The Rangers had been competitive, but not very successful in recent seasons; they were coming off a 91-win season, but missed the playoffs by one game, a year after losing the division to the A’s on the last day of the regular season. The Rangers might have been souring on Kinsler, plus top prospect Jurickson Profar needed regular playing time. Elvis Andrus seemed to be cemented at shortstop, so second base was the best option for Profar. He was coming off a poor 2013, hitting .234/.308/.336 over half a season, but he was only 20 years old. There was plenty of reason to believe that he would yet become the player that scouts believed he could be with consistent playing time at one position.

Fielder signed his exorbitant deal after the 2011 season. He had a career line of .282/.390/.540 at the time, but he gave a lot of that back through his horrific defense and negative-value baserunning. As a result, he only averaged 3.5 WAR a season, which is good, but hardly worth nine years and $219 million, even when considering he was 27 years old and had proven to be one of the most durable players in baseball. The contract was likely an overreaction by then owner Mike Ilitch’s reaction to Víctor Martínez tearing his ACL. Despite his reputation as a free-spender, I doubt that this was Dave Dombrowski’s call. The signing would allow the Tigers to replace V-Mart’s bat in the lineup. In the age of stingy owners, you have to give the late Mr. I credit — he never hesitated to overspend on his team’s needs.

Fielder raked during his first year in Detroit, hitting .313/.412/.528, and his defense was not nearly as bad as it had been previously. Unfortunately, his wOBA fell forty points in 2013.

A 126 wRC+ is usually pretty good, but not so much with Fielder’s contract, terrible defense, and baserunning. Also, with Martínez back in 2013, they could not hide Fielder at DH.

Furthermore, Fielder playing at first meant that Miguel Cabrera had to play third, and he was even worse at third base than Fielder was at first. One could make a reasonable argument that the massive downgrade in defense that resulted in the aforementioned alignment negated any offensive gains from Fielder’s bat, which by the way, struggled against left-handed pitching. With seven years and $168 million left on Fielder’s contract, the Tigers had a problem. They also needed a second baseman as a result of Omar Infante departing in free agency.

Well, the Tigers and Rangers found a solution to their problems.

Kinsler would be the perfect fit to fill the vacancy at second base, and with Fielder gone, Cabrera could move back to first base. Nick Castellanos, then the Tigers’ top prospect, would slot in at third. It was not a perfect solution, because Castellanos was far from a competent third baseman, but considering that he was replacing Cabrera’s statuesque defense there, the bar was low. Oh, and they got to save $72 million by parting with Fielder.

The Rangers had the room to DH Fielder. Though he was a much better hitter than the incumbent first baseman Mitch Moreland, the defensive difference between them was drastic. If Profar broke through and Fielder bounced back, this trade had the potential to add quite a few wins to the team. It does need to be mentioned that Fielder was a great candidate for a change of scenery. He was dealing with personal problems during the 2013 season, including a divorce.

This trade made lots of sense for both sides, as each team was trading from a position of depth to fill a need. The Rangers were taking on a lot of money here, though, and more risk. If Fielder failed to bounce back from his 2013 season, there was a real chance that he would not even be worth a roster spot in a few years, meaning that the Rangers could end up eating over $100 million. While that is not exactly what ended up happening, what happened with Fielder ended up being even sadder than that.

The Results

The once iron-man durability of Fielder departed him during his first year in Texas. He underwent neck surgery in June 2014, and it ended his season. The injury could have been what was affecting his poor batting line of .247/.360/.360. He bounced back in 2015 by playing the whole season and hitting .305/.378/.463 as the team’s primary DH. The 2016 season, unfortunately, was when Fielder’s career sadly came to an end.

Fielder was one of the worst hitters in baseball in 2016, but that is not why his career ended. In July of that year, he was diagnosed with C4-C5 herniations in his neck. Fielder announced that this injury would prevent him from ever playing baseball again. He still had $96 million left on his contract through 2020.

Fielder is actually not officially retired, because doing so would forfeit the rest of his contract. Instead, he has been on the 60-day DL ever since his diagnosis, and he will continue to be there through 2020. The Rangers are paying only $9 million a year of Fielder’s salary. The Tigers are covering $6 million and insurance is taking care of the rest.

While Profar is still playing, his outcome was pretty disastrous. He missed the entire 2014 and 2015 seasons due a shoulder injury, and then played only 122 games over the following two seasons, hitting only .227/.316/.315. He finally had decent season in 2018 with a line of .254/.335/.458 as a utility player. The Rangers decided it was time to move on, however, and traded him to the A’s last month.

Kinsler continued to be one of the best defensive second basemen in baseball during his first three years in Detroit. His offense did not improve much over the course of his first two years on the Tigers, but he rediscovered some of his lost power in 2016. He averaged nearly 6.0 WAR per season. His offense plummeted in 2017 to below average levels, and with the Tigers tanking, they thought it best to move on from him. They picked up his $11 million team option and traded him to the Angels, who took on his entire salary. He did well with the Angels, thanks again to his defense, and then got traded to the Red Sox, where he was not so good, but still ended up a World Series champion. He recently signed a two-year, $8 million deal with the Padres.

Rangers Results

Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Prince Fielder 7 0.3 $102.0
Baseball Reference

It is possible that insurance helped cover Fielder’s contract during his injuries in 2014 and 2016, but the details are not public. The salary that the Rangers are paying above is adjusted for the $30 million that the Tigers are covering and the $36 million that insurance is covering for the last four years of the contract. These results are as bad as it gets before, but I think we all feel sorriest for the circumstances behind Fielder’s career ending.

Tigers Results

Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Ian Kinsler 5 19.9 $87.0
Baseball Reference

Even when adding $30 million to Kinsler’s salary as a result of the Tigers subsidizing the remainder of Fielder’s salary, these results are outstanding. They got All-Star caliber play from Kinsler during his first three years in Detroit before his bat fell off in 2017. They still got average play from him that year thanks to his defense.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Dave Dombrowski never ceases to amaze me. The future Hall of Famer has repeatedly gotten far better results from trades than was reasonable to expect. What looked to be a more or less even trade for both sides turned into a heavily lopsided one in his favor. I don’t know how he does it.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.