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Big Deal in Detroit

January 28, 2012

Hugh Atkins

The Detroit Tigers reeled in the biggest catch in the free agent market this off-season when they signed first baseman Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million contract.

Fielder is the biggest thing to come to Detroit since his father, Cecil, hit town back in 1990. Actually, at 275 pounds, Prince is the biggest thing to hit Detroit since 1958 when Ford started making the Edsel. But does such a big deal for such a big player make sense for the Tigers?

Fielder hit .299 last season with 38 home runs and 120 runs batted in; he also had an impressive .415 on-base percentage. To make room for Fielder, the Tigers will move incumbent slugging first baseman, Miguel Cabrera, to third base. Cabrera led the American League in hitting last season with a .344 average; he also hit 30 home runs and drove in 105 runs. Cabrera also led the AL in on-base percentage at .448 and doubles with 48. With Cabrera and Fielder anchoring  (“weighing down” may be a better term) the infield, the Tigers should score plenty of runs, even without the services of Victor Martinez, who will miss the upcoming season due to a torn ACL.

Martinez hit .330 with 103 RBIs last year, primarily as a designated hitter. While Fielder should more than account for the loss of offense, playing him at first base and moving Cabrera to third is going to weaken the Tiger defense substantially.

Fielder is not the worst fielding first baseman in baseball but, as Dizzy Dean might have said, he is among ‘em. Fielder does not have much range and, given his girth, it seems that batters frequently would hit the ball right at him; but he still makes a lot of errors. In four of his six full seasons, Fielder had double-digit error totals, including last season when he led the National League with 15.

Cabrera is not any better; he led AL first basemen in errors with 13 in each of the past two seasons. While Fielder replacing Cabrera at first is a wash defensively, the big problem with this move is that Cabrera is also a terrible third baseman.

Cabrera was a regular third baseman with the Florida Marlins in 2006 and 2007 and he made 33 errors at the hot corner in each of those seasons. He has not played third base since his first season with the Tigers and since coming to Motown in 2008, he has played a total of just 14 games at third and yet he still somehow managed to make five errors in that limited amount of duty. So the Tiger infield next season will have a large, immobile first baseman and a large, immobile third baseman, both of whom make a lot of errors.

Brandon Inge made only nine errors in 97 games at third base for the Tigers last season, but he hit only .197 with three home runs and 23 RBIs. Fielder single-handedly may be able to replace the offensive contributions of both Martinez and Inge. If they can find a decent designated hitter, the Tigers should be able to score enough runs to make up for the defensive shortcomings of their corner infielders.

Fielder signing with the Tigers is another blow to the Milwaukee Brewers who, in addition to losing Fielder, will be without reigning NL Most Valuable Player, Ryan Braun, for the first 50 games of the season due to his suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug.

Some of the biggest winners in the Prince Fielder deal (besides Fielder, himself) are the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, and Pittsburgh Pirates. With Fielder joining Albert Pujols in the American League, the other NL Central teams do not have to worry about two of the most explosive hitters in their division. The St. Louis Cardinals, who finished second to the Brewers last season, get a boost from Fielder leaving, but any boost is more than offset by their loss of Pujols.

The biggest winner in the Fielder deal is his agent Scott Boras. He somehow managed to get a poor-fielding, 27-year-old lifetime .282 hitter the fourth biggest contract in baseball history.

Cecil Fielder

Prince Fielder will have to produce some big years to match his father’s first few seasons with the Tigers. In 1990 Cecil led the AL with 51 home runs and 132 RBIs. He led the league with 44 homers and 133 RBIs in 1991 and hit 35 home runs and led the league with 124 RBIs in 1992. Considering the amount of money the Tigers will pay Prince, for this deal to make sense, he will have to match his dad’s first three seasons in the Motor City and then have six more seasons at least as productive as those. I don’t see it happening. Time will only tell if the Tigers are the biggest losers in this deal.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. R. Dale McCarver permalink
    January 28, 2012 10:46 am

    Hugh…you are a great writer, an even better friend…
    Congrats on the new blog!

    Your old Cheap Hill Buddy…



  2. January 28, 2012 11:22 am

    Thanks, Dale. It’s definitely a work in progress…but then again, so am I.


  3. Dale Brinkley permalink
    February 2, 2012 7:02 pm

    Interesting article. It seems to me that a five year contract would have worked better, At that point the teams could determine if he could maintain a decent playing weight, and also if he could play at a high level. He would still be able to sign a long-term contract.


    • February 2, 2012 9:02 pm

      A nine-year deal is a lot for any player. Big players like Fielder (his dad, Greg Luzinski) don’t seem to last long enough to invest that much time or money in. Cecil was out of baseball at 34, Luzinski at 33. Even Frank Howard was done at 36. I think this is a big gamble for the Tigers.


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