One of my biggest shocks as a Tigers fan came the day the Tigers signed Prince Fielder to a nine-year $216 million contract as a free agent in 2012. The Tigers needed a bat to replace designated hitter Victor Martinez, who would miss the whole season with a knee injury, but who would have guessed that they would acquire one of the premiere sluggers in the game? It was hard not to get excited about the acquisition and it worked out well the first season with Fielder posting a .940 OPS, but the deal never made sense long-term.
With Martinez returning in 2013, the Tigers had three immobile players in the starting line-up including superstar Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera handled a move to third better than many predicted in 2012, but he was a below average defender and Fielder was awful at first base. Fielder would have worked out better as a designated hitter, but that spot was reserved for Martinez. Cabrera's injuries last year highlighted their lack of positional flexibility even further. It sure would have been nice if they could have moved him to the designated hitter spot before his health deteriorated to the point where he could barely move in the field or at the plate.
With the the trade of Fielder to the Texas Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler, the Tigers will no longer have to play players out of position. Cabrera can play either of the corners, but I suspect he'll end up at first. If he gets injured or needs a rest, he can go to designated hitter while Martinez switches to first base.
Even more important than positional flexibility is payroll flexibility. Fielder was owed $168 over the next seven years, while Kinsler is guaranteed just $62 million over the next five years (includes a $ 5 million buy out in an option year in 2018). The Tigers will be sending $30 million to the Rangers, but they still save $76 million in this deal. That money can be used to add pieces this off-season and also for a long-term contracts to Cabrera and perhaps pitcher Max Scherzer.
What about next year though? Fielder hit for just a .819 OPS in 2013, but was likely to bounce back closer to his .916 lifetime mark next year. So, that leaves a big void in the middle of the line-up. They may not want to dip back into the free agent market with a big priced acquisition such as center fielder Jacoby Ellbury or outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, but they will get another big bat, most likely of the left-handed variety. They are probably going to trade a pitcher - either Rick Porcello or Doug Fister or even Scherzer this winter and I'm going to guess that's where the hitter comes from.
Kinsler fills a void by replacing Omar Infante at second base and stops the talk of rookie Hernan Perez getting a starting job. Kinsler has batted .262/.341/.438 over the the last three seasons and is a solid defender. Some are concerned about his lifetime home/road split - .898 at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington and .710 on the road. The Texas ballpark is a hitter's haven, but it's not that much better than other parks, so I'm guessing the .710 does not quite reflect is true talent. I think sometimes players adjust their game to an extreme home park and might suffer on the road because of it. Even if he is a low .700s OPS hitter though, that's about what you'd expect from Infante and that's not terrible.
Will Cabrera remain at third or move back to first? That depends on how well he recovers from his groin injury and what other moves they might make. There is some talk though that the Tigers might now move highly-touted rookie Nick Castellanos back to third. They seemed intent on having him stay in the outfield, but if Cabrera needs to play first and they can't find a third baseman, Castellanos could be the best solution. I would expect to see him playing some third in winter ball fairly soon.
The deal is far from a slam dunk in the short-term. The Tigers still have a lot of work to do this winter - most notably a bat to replace Fielder and multiple relievers. Long-term though, this is a great deal for the Tigers freeing up money that will help them lock up their stars, add pieces and stay in contention for years to come.