DETROIT - As the first quarter of the 2014 Major League Baseball season comes to a close, major offseason moves can be analyzed and critiqued for the first time. Tuesday marked the six-month anniversary of Detroit's blockbuster offseason trade that sent Prince Fielder and $30 million in cash to the Texas Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler.
Now the Rangers are in the middle of their only visit to Comerica Park and there's no Fielder in sight.
The move initially looked like a desperate attempt for general manager Dave Dombrowski to save money, as Fielder provided protection for Miguel Cabrera and helped him win two straight MVPs in Detroit. The former Brewer provided a similar boost to teammate Ryan Braun in 2011, when the Milwaukee outfielder won his first career MVP.
Fans were also concerned about the recent performance of Kinsler, who stole just 15 bases last season after recording 51 between 2011 and 2012.
Other major changes to the Detroit roster were sparked by the move before the season even started. Dombrowski constructed a much more flexible and athletic team behind first-year manager Brad Ausmus, adding Rajai Davis and Kinsler to the lineup to set the table for Cabrera and designated hitter Victor Martinez.
Shedding Fielder's contract also helped Detroit sign closer Joe Nathan after ninth-inning disasters haunted the bullpen in 2013. Nathan's signing brought a veteran with All-star experience into the clubhouse to aid an otherwise unproven bullpen.
In light of reconstructing this Tiger team the Fielder-Kinsler trade made sense, but even Dombrowski couldn't have predicted how much better his second baseman would be in his first season with Detroit.
Kinsler laced three doubles against his former team on Friday night, extending his hitting streak to nine games en route to helping the Tigers regain the top record in baseball. The 31-year-old has not only held his own compared to Fielder, he has outshone him in nearly every aspect.
Fielder's season came to an end on Friday when the Rangers announced he will require surgery for a neck injury that sidelined him since May 16. He finished with just three home runs, 16 RBI and a .247 average in 42 games.
Kinsler, on the other hand, has been one of the best hitters in the American League. His three-hit performance on Friday raised his average to a league-leading .326, and he already notched more home runs (four) and RBI (21) than Fielder.
Kinsler is on pace for over 20 stolen bases again this season and has been a terror on the base paths by advancing to third base on flyouts and stretching singles into doubles.
In his first season in Detroit Kinsler is top-five in the AL in hits, runs, batting average and doubles. Perhaps most importantly for the Tigers, Kinsler has played in every single game this season despite a history of injuries during his years in Texas.
What do all of the numbers mean? For fans of sabermetrics, Fielder finished the season with a minus 0.3 wins above replacement, his lowest since 2006. Kinsler currently owns the fifth-highest WAR in all of baseball at 2.5, meaning that he has given the Tigers almost three more wins than Fielder has for the Rangers.
These individual performances have shown in the standings, as the Tigers sit atop the AL Central with the largest division lead in the country. The Rangers are trending in the opposite direction, in fourth place and seven games behind the Oakland Athletics in the AL West.
Shipping Fielder off to the Rangers was just the latest brilliant move by one of the best GMs in the country. Dombrowski noticed a downward trend in the slugger's performance, and traded him for an athletic player that needed a fresh start after a mediocre season in Aarlington.
Kinsler has been the centerpiece for the transformation of the Tigers from a one-dimensional offensive power to an athletic, versatile group that plays strong defense and puts pressure on opposing pitchers.
After losing Fielder for the remainder of the 2014 season, Texas has to worry about the health of their major investment in the long term. Fielder is signed through 2020 and will make $24 million each of the next six seasons. Though the Tigers will pay $6 million of that contract per year from 2016 to 2020, the Rangers have a total of $138 million heading to Fielder over these seven seasons.
Kinsler will cost the Tigers $41 million over the next three seasons and the team has an option to pay him $12 million for 2018. The second baseman has made about $4.35 million through 44 games, about two-thirds of what Fielder has made ($6.22 million), so Detroit has essentially already saved $2 million from this trade and gotten an all-around better player.
The winners and losers of trades that have a major impact over four or five seasons can't be determind after just 44 games, but through the first quarter of 2014 Kinsler's performance has certainly been a much better bargain.
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