Friday, January 27, 2012

Epicenter: Detroit

After Al Pujols spread his Cardinal wings and flew West for summers for the next decade, conventional wisdom seemed to dictate that Prince Fielder, the other FA 1B prize this off-season, would find no shortage of suitors as the Marlins and the Cardinals (among others) were connected to Pujols at one time or another. With Fielder four years younger (at least) than Pujols, it seemed that he would find a home in short order, even if his deal wouldn’t match that of Pujols in terms of years or dollars. However, as days turned into weeks and weeks threatened to turn into months, the Marlins found other uses for their dollars and the Cubs passed on acquiring the Prince. The Rangers hemmed and hawed and the Blue Jays always remained on the periphery as most anticipated Fielder ending up in our nation’s capital, if for no other reason than the fact that Scott Boras (Fielder’s agent) had recently made a number of deals with the Nationals and that Boras would somehow convince the Nats that nine or ten years for Fielder would not burden the franchise the way that the contract of another Boras agent – Jayson Werth – seems destined to.

In Cleveland, the pursuit of Fielder was compelling from the standpoint of the idea that the Indians certainly looked to be interested in adding a 1B, but the market for 1B had stagnated with Prince still on the market. Obviously this is all background information to the events that took place over the last two weeks as news broke from Motown that Victor Martinez had been lost for the season as the window seemed to be opening a bit for the Indians, even if the idea that the Tigers might swoop in and ink a Carlos Pena on a 1-year deal to make up for the loss of Victor started to marinate. While some floated the idea out there that Fielder could perhaps be a short-term fix for the Tigers, that idea was put to rest by Detroit’s GM Dave Dombrowski, who said that Fielder was “not a good fit” for the Tigers.

Of course, we all know what happened next as Prince landed in Detroit (the result of an ongoing relationship between Boras and an organization…just not the Nationals) in a seismic move (must…avoid…weight…joke) that sent shockwaves through the AL Central, with the effect certainly being felt in Cleveland.

Though we’ll certainly get to the effect that the deal has for the Indians, in terms of the 9-year, $214M deal that sent Fielder back to the city where his estranged father made himself famous (although the “best” Tigers’ team that Cecil played for won 85 games, despite the elder Fielder’s slugging prowess in Detroit), the move has been nearly universally panned from a long-term perspective by the cognoscenti around the game from Cliff Corcoran’s piece at SI that the Tigers were “unwise” to ink Prince to Craig Calcaterra’s “All Kinds of Crazy” article that asks many of the pertinent questions when it comes to this deal. Now, it is worth mentioning that most of the harrumphs about this deal from a national perspective focus on the length of the deal, the…um, shape of Prince’s body and the Tigers’ logjam when Victor returns in 2013. Corcoran’s piece goes in-depth into all of this as he concludes that, “all of which makes a nine-year investment in Prince Fielder problematic at any dollar amount”.

Truthfully, I don’t think anyone’s debating that this is going to be an odd amalgamation of players whose best position will all probably eventually be DH in Prince, Miggy, and Vic once Vic returns in 2013. But since the focus of the Indians’ near-term future came into sharper focus with the Ubaldo deal, let’s keep this about 2012 when…um, this isn’t all that problematic for the Motor City Kitties as Fielder and Miggy will sit in the middle of their lineup with Prince making up for the loss of Victor and then some (at least offensively) for the 2012 season. While those not writing the checks to Fielder can talk all day about how the Tigers will rue this deal (eventually) and how Detroit was the destination that perhaps made the least sense (particularly on a long term deal like this), let’s not overlook the fact that Fielder is an elite player and, concerns about his body type considered, he’s missed a TOTAL of 12 games since the beginning of the 2006 season.

What can’t be dismissed in the deal (other than the length) is the effect that it will have on the Tigers’ defensive alignment, particularly with the news that Miggy will be the full-time 3B which should present some “interesting” moments, especially if you consider that the Tigers are committed to Jhonny’s Peraltian stylings at SS, now adding Prince’s lack of range at 1B to and infield for a team that has 3 starting pitchers (Porcello, Penny, Fister) in the top 14 among AL starters in terms of GB rates. While some will attempt to categorize exactly how bad the Tigers’ defense could be with defensive metrics that I don’t trust, please don’t take this to mean that the presumed defensive struggles of the 2012 are going to push them to the AL Central cellar as the reality is that they’re going to hit their way out of many of the problems (and you can include Delmon Young’s continued butchery in LF in there) that their defense may present. That said, it’s not something that can be overlooked in the whole situation as Indians’ fans are far too familiar with how defensive deficiencies at a particular position can frustrate fans and change the tenor and outcome of any number of games.

Of course, they could come to their senses, move one of Fielder or Miggy to DH and limit those defensive concerns in 2012, but that doesn’t change the fact that it remains to be seen how they manage Prince, Miggy, and Victor (particularly with Avila in the fold) in a lineup for 2013 and beyond. But let’s not gaze too far into the future as the Indians stand at the precipice of the 2012 season and the question becomes what the Fielder signing for Detroit means for the Tribe…this year.

Well, there has already been the requisite wailing and gnashing of teeth as most cle.commers have handed the Tigers the 2012 AL Central crown and while I don’t think that the wailing and gnashing is necessarily an irrational response – particularly that when Victor was lost for the 2012 season, the window seemed to creep open a little more – it is certainly premature to throw up one’s hands and concede the division based on this signing. Of course, the Fielder signing for Detroit as a wildly aggressive reaction to a hole in their lineup stands out in stark contrast to the Indians, who have been “targeting” a 1B or OF all off-season, with Aaron Cunningham and a batch of NRI’s (though I do like the signings of Spilborghs and Wheeler) to show for what they’ve added from outside the organization, offensively-speaking. To this point, the Indians stood pat as perhaps they were waiting for Prince to sign to shake out the 1B market, assuming that he was heading to Arlington or the nation’s capital, with some other 1B becoming available as a result or waiting for a Pena, Kotchman, or Lee to come to them after Fielder find a home.

Of course, the events leading up to the Fielder signing are about the worst-case scenario (particularly as Fielder was added to the team that was already assumed to be the AL Central front-runner) for the Tribe and one can’t help but see the unfortunate timing of the Carmona/Hernandez Heredia situation in terms of money that could actually be available to spend. By that I mean that with FC/RHH on the restricted list and with no guarantee that he’s even going to make it back to the US this season (and how long it will take him to get back into game shape should not be discounted in terms of a timeframe), the Indians could ostensibly have about $7M that they had set aside for FC/RHH that could be spent elsewhere. In a cruel turn of events, Carlos Pena signed a one-year deal for $7.25M with the Rays JUST before the FC/RHH situation happened. Now, maybe Pena wasn’t coming to Cleveland regardless of what the Indians offered (and certainly Prince was never coming here), but the Indians are now not only back to square one in terms of still looking to add a 1B, but now they’re forced to do it without Pena on the market and with their chief rival unquestionably improving their 2012 chances by guaranteeing $214M to Fielder.

Now, in the talk of how this affects the Indians, let’s not discount how big of a risk the Tigers are taking here on Fielder as the dollars associated in this deal are HUGE, as passed along by Maury Brown in the middle of a piece at B-Pro:
To place the Fielder deal in perspective, the nine-year, $214 million contract ranks him behind only A-Rod (twice, 2001-10 at $252 million and 2008-17 at $275 million) and Pujols (10-year,$240 million base salary) in terms of total dollars. For first baseman, Fielder crushes the eight-year, $180 million deal that Mark Teixeira reached in 2009. The average annual value (AAV) on Fielder’s deal ($23.8 million) ranks him behind only the two Rodriguez deals, Cliff Lee’s $24 million AAV (as part of his five-year, $120 million deal that runs 2011-15), and Ryan Howard’s $25 million AAV as part of his five-year, $125 million contract that runs 2012-16.

Having Victor Martinez go down with what is likely a season-ending ACL tear surely played into the deal, as well. According to Jayson Stark, the Tigers will see a significant amount of Martinez’s salary covered by insurance. “Significant” could be as much or little as 50 percent.

For a guy that was unsigned in January, without the “usual suspects” at the negotiating table, Prince did just fine for himself thanks to the largesse of Mr. Ilitch because…you know, “Mike knows his investments. His businesses are successful”.
Or so said Prince’s agent two years ago, talking sweet about his Sugar Daddy, in a piece I’ll link again in case you didn’t read it the first time

Certainly, Ilitch’s role in this signing cannot be discounted as his “ability” to lose money or at least the stomach for it is something that is unique in MLB (much less sports) as he’s certainly looking to find his way to a WS trophy before he…well, before he dies. Let’s not forget that the Tigers lost $29M in 2010 alone and since Ilitch is worth about $2B (that’s a “B”) on the strength of selling crappy “pizza” at his Little Caesars’ stores and selling the American dream one slot machine pull at a time at the Motor City casino, his desire to bring the WS trophy to Motown is a major factor here. As Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes points out “Ilitch has only two playoff appearances and no World Series titles to show for his 20 years as the owner of the Tigers” and while Badenhausen also notes that the “Tigers don’t have the revenues to support this kind of payroll and still make money”, Ilitch has signed off (and maybe even forced Dombrowski’s hand) on this Fielder signing.

The obvious comparison that most Indians’ fans will go to next (now that ownership has been mentioned) is to continue to blame the Dolans for this signing (and Tom Moore had a great piece on this very topic) and for the Indians’ “insistence” in fiscal responsibility. Without even getting into that (because I’ve weighed in on it enough over the years), let’s not forget that even though Badenhausen writes that the “Tigers don’t have the revenues to support this kind of payroll and still make money”, the Tigers have outdrawn the Indians by 3,690,801 paying customers over the last four seasons (DET – 10,873,112, CLE – 7,182,311 since 2008) and while some of that can certainly be traced to the…um, unhappiness in Cleveland as the Indians tore everything down from July of 2008 to the end of 2009, that is not a small amount…and even with those revenues, the Tigers have lost (and figure to continue to lose) money.

Obviously, most baseball fans don’t care about owners that are millionaires or billionaires losing money for their entertainment, but perhaps more important than the Tigers averaging about 900K more than the Indians at the turnstiles over the last four years is the fact that Detroit has 4.3M people in their Metro market (12th largest in the US) while Cleveland has 2.07M people in their Metro market (28th largest…and there are still about 2.4M people in the CSA around Detroit as there are in the CSA around Cleveland) so we’re not really talking apples to apples here as much as people would like to assume that Detroit and Cleveland are similar in terms of recent economic trouble. While many would like to lump Detroit and Cleveland in the same “small-to-mid-market” pile (and remember how TV money and the number of TV sets in a media market is going to continue to change this game), it really isn’t a legitimate comparison, particularly when the Tigers are now operating under the deal that they signed with Fox Sports that pays them $40M a year. That may not be Angels/Rangers TV money, but that certainly plays a role here..

Regardless of what the personal finances of these owners are and how the market size affects payrolls and revenues, let’s go back to the question that becomes relevant in this space, specifically “what do the Indians do now?”
Is Casey Kotchman, warts and all, in the offing on a 1-year deal?

Or if an trade is the manner in which the Indians make an addition (and there’s still no guarantee that they even will) and even a trade where additional payroll is added, is the money that is/was owed “Carmona” possibly in play here as it doesn’t look like he’s coming stateside anytime soon?

Do they get more aggressive in terms of a trade as serial poster MTF suggested in making a move for a similarly impactful bat like Kevin Youkilis (under control for 2012 for $12M with a $13M option for 2013), even if it costs them a player like Asdrubal Cabrera to net that impact bat?

Unfortunately (as usual), there are more questions than answers at this point and while some are quick to equate the Fielder signing to another AL Central crown in Motown, we all know that games aren’t played on paper (or in January) and that the WS trophy bestowed upon the Red Sox this time last year never actually made it’s way to Yawkey Way. It would be foolish to assume that the Tigers will just run away with the division the way that the 1995 Tribe team did, as I can’t remember a more top-heavy team (pun intended) in recent memory and the last time the Indians had a couple of “stars” on the team heading into the season was 2008, when CC was supposed to front the rotation and Sizemore, Hafner, and Vic were supposed to make the offensive engine purr. Lest you forget, CC posted a 7.88 ERA in the month of April that year and Vic and Hafner played a combined 18 games together with Ben Francisco batting 3rd for the team in early June, a spot in the lineup that he would actually occupy for a solid two months.

That said, the sledding for the 2012 AL Central crown just got more treacherous for the Indians and while things happen in a baseball season that change the course of a team or teams, the Tigers certainly made the needle on the Richter scale move with the Fielder signing. Unfortunately for Tribe fans, “things” also happen in the off-season that alter the direction of a franchise and between the two top teams in the AL Central heading into the season, Detroit’s move has caused cracks and fissures in the idea that the Indians will be able to keep pace with the Tigers, much less overtake them.


Halifax said...

That's an ugly infield.

You never know how things will gel up in Motown. It surely wouldn't be fun to pitch to Miggy & Fielder back to back, but that's the way it is, deal with it. Write down the two lineups and compare by position, the Tigers are not that much better than the Indians outside of those two BIG boppers. Their star power, along with the best pitcher on the planet, is the difference. But the rotations aren't all that different, either.

The Tribe needs a big year out of their two front line arms. Hopefully, Ubaldo can lose a few pitches and bounce back.

Asdrubal for Youk? That's very tempting, considering Cabrera's flair at short, he hardly has the range of Omar despite the flash. I'm not sure Donald wouldn't give the same offensive punch. I really doubt ACab has the same year as last season. Considering his soft body and the fact he's pushing the Tribe to arb maybe you consider it. I'm pretty sure Donald can play SS as well as Jhonny in DET. Regardless, they'd add more in YOUK than they'd lose in Cabrera.

Halifax said...

Looking at this line, how concerned should we be about Fielder?

.330 AVE / 12 HR / 103 RBI

Add about 20 HR to the above line that is Victor's, how much better can Fielder be than Victor, who repeatedly got HUGE clutch hits for the Tigers? Especially, when considering what the clubhouse could be like and the defensive downgrade in the infield?

Adam said...

Great read as usual Paul. Agree with many of your points but in all honesty I think this move is checkmate for Detroit (at least when it comes to the central division). I posted a few weeks back that I thought the Tigers were a good 5 to 7 games better than anyone in the division on paper and this was before the Fielder move. I think this move solidifies the Tigers as an elite team now and puts them head and shoulders above any other teams in the Central including the Indians.

Now I will concede that "the games are not played on paper" which I'm sure we will hear ad nauseam throughout the offseason. And there are obviously surprises and injuries that can alter the course of one’s season. However, I just don’t see it on this one. Detroit undoubtedly may have 3 of the top 10 players in the league now in Verlander, Prince, and Miggy and don’t discount their supporting cast either with players such as Boesch, Peralta (he hit .300 last year), Young and others. The addition of Prince is only going to help their already potent lineup even more, by giving the second-tier players more pitches to see and hit. Combine the earth-shattering signing of Prince, with the Indians “sitting on their hands” in the offseason (and maybe falling backward with the whole Fausto thing) and I think we are in for a long year, barring Detroit being riddled by injury or major clubhouse turmoil which I just don’t see. I would love to be wrong, but I see the Indains (and the rest of the division) as bringing the “proverbial knife to the Tiger’s gunfight” and needed every break and injury in the world to be competitive this year.

MTF said...

I'd certainly like a bit more offense and even another starter to start the year, but the Tigers and the rest of the Central still have to beat us to win. Let's see how the first half plays out before putting our money on Detroit.

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