For the third consecutive day, my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series stays in the AL Central. Yesterdays celebration of exciting Indians pitcher Danny Salazar saw me most definitely jinx Cleveland’s chances of returning to the playoffs, a destination Detroit has made a habit of easily reaching recently. And while nothing has changed this winter regarding the expectations of the Tigers, in that they’re still widely viewed as World Series contenders, the pack of players that has fallen short for the past two seasons has been shuffled. In the biggest deal of the offseason, 1B Prince Fielder was sent from Motor City to Texas; Detroit in return received financial relief, positional liberation, and Ian Kinsler.
When word came down of this winters big-name swap between the Texas Rangers and Detroit, the prognostication that followed was decidedly mixed in immediately conferring a ‘winner’ of the blockbuster; whereas Dave Cameron of Fangraphs opined “If you’re a Tigers fan, this is a deal to celebrate”, ESPN’s Keith Law expressed a preference to “rather roll the dice on Fielder than Kinsler” (at least from a purely baseball perspective).
I initially agreed with Cameron that Detroit had got the better deal; after all, in swapping Fielder for Kinsler, the Tigers acquired much more than just the second baseman. In their exchange of two players with similar WARP levels, Detroit also secured significant financial relief – saving $76 million in future salary obligations. As Cameron put it: “The Tigers turned a $168 million +3 WAR player into a $92 million +3 WAR player, once you account for the cash they’re sending to Texas”. Not only that, but they freed up their problematic 1B/DH logjam – the loss of Fielder simultaneously permitting Miguel Cabrera to slide back across the diamond to his natural position (after being predictably overmatched at third for the past two seasons), while allowing Victor Martinez to occupy the DH position full-time. Such realignment would leave top prospect Nick Castellanos to slot in at third, Kinsler manning second in place of the departed Omar Infante, and the defensively-excellent Jose Iglesias holding down shortstop. In one trade, the previously imbalanced (and defensively woeful) Tigers infield was solved – which in combination with the savings offered, seemed to represent a coup for Detroit.
If only it were that simple.
No longer trapped by Fielder’s contract, Detroit seemed destined to make another move. Instead, GM Dave Dombrowski chose to… Doug Fister Heist.” href=”http://dugoutperspective.mlblogs.com/2014/02/17/hello-baseball-the-doug-fister-heist/” target=”_blank”>trade away their underrated cost-controlled starter Doug Fister to the Nationals in a deal for three lesser players? Not go out and sign the other starting outfielder (Shin Soo Choo, Carlos Beltran, and Curtis Granderson were all still available) which they have so desperately needed for the past two seasons? Neither lock up Cy Young Winner and impending free agent Max Scherzer to a long term contract, nor ensure the best hitter on the planet – Miguel Cabrera, whose contract expires in 2015 – finishes his career a Tiger? Sure, the Tigers replaced the departed Joaquin Benoit with Joe Nathan, but the other shoe – which in December especially, seemed to be dangling by a thread just millimeters from the earth – is still yet to drop.
Which brings us on to Kinsler, and more specifically, Keith Law’s fear that “Compared to Fielder, Kinsler is showing greater signs of decline”. It’s hard to argue with Law’s assessment; second basemen are notorious for their rates of attrition, and the numbers have been already begun trending downward for the Tiger’s new acquisition. Per the Baseball Professor, his rough indicators of production have experienced a sharp decline over the past three seasons:“In 2011, Ian Kinsler combined for 62 HR and SB. In 2012, that total fell to 40. Last year it was just 28.” Furthermore, playing mostly in the incredibly hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Kinsler slashed .277/.344/.413 and posted an OPS+ of 105 in 2013; for comparisons sake, the man he is replacing in Detroit – Omar Infante – had a mark of 113. Of perhaps even more concern for Detroit fans – and an admittedly popular narrative this winter – are the struggles of Kinsler away from Texas, a perception corroborated by his significant home/road splits; over his career (2399 PAs) the Arizona native bludgeoned his way to a .304/.387/.511 line at home, compared to just .242/.312/.399 on the road (2392 PAs).
All this is not to say Ian Kinsler will be a bust in 2014 – far from it. Once again, he will most probably be an above-average second baseman, perhaps even an All-Star again, and has apparently been working hard this offseason to take advantage of Comerica Park’s quirks and quieten down laymen like me. He’ll presumably offer a much more viable leadoff option than either Austin Jackson or Torii Hunter, and can’t help but add to Detroit’s absent running game. His contract (a front-loaded $62 million over the next four years) remains a bargain in comparison to Fielder, who also exhibited signs of decline in 2013 and is unlikely to age gracefully himself. The positional reshuffle subsequent to his arrival may even help crucial pieces stay healthier late into the season. But his new team have wholly failed to take advantage of the favorable situation created with the removal of Fielder, and look set to enter the season with the same holes that saw easily win the AL Central, but be bounced in the ALCS. It’s World Series or bust once again for the Tigers, and question marks surround their their new second baseman; fairly or not, the spotlight is on Kinsler.