Photo by Steve Paluch
Prince Fielder came out of more or less nowhere, to the extent that any man his size can ever come out of nowhere, to sign a nine-year, $214 million deal with the Tigers. I haven't seen yet how the dollars break down year-by-year, and the Jose Reyes and Albert Pujols deals have proved that we can't assume the classic slight rise through the course of the contract these days. Teams and players appear willing to be creative in structuring their deals.
What this means as an initial matter is that if you're a fan of looking at total deal value in present day dollars, examining team payroll situations, adding up the WARs, or other analysis of that type, you're S.O.L. at the moment and you should probably hold your horses on deciding just how good or bad the deal is.
This doesn't mean there aren't interesting questions to examine, though. Like, for instance, what this means for Miguel Cabrera. Sadly for the speculatarati, that's been decided: Cabrera is moving to third base. (Hilariously, he calls that his "natural position." FRAA, which has, over the past four years, rated him as something like a -5 to -10 run defender at first base, might disagree, but hey, we all have our blind spots.)
Fortunately for Cabrera and the Tigers, their rotation appears to be entirely right-handed and only Rick Porcello of the likely five starters (Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Porcello, and Jacob Turner) appears to rely heavily on the ground-ball out for his success. In the absence of Victor Martinez, which presumably leaves the DH spot to Ryan Raburn, a perfectly nice player who the Tigers shouldn't feel guilty about benching sometimes, Detroit might benefit from a defensive platoon that sees Cabrera starting at DH on days when Porcello pitches, leaving third for defensive wunderkind Brandon Inge.
Defensive performance isn't the only consideration in moving players around to new positions. Will Carroll has claimed to see a dramatic increase in injuries for position-switchers. One might wonder about certain kinds of switches, or certain kinds of positions -- first and third are sort of similar, for instance, in the types of activities that one engages in, at least compared to putting Cabrera in left field, which I've seen floated on Twitter. For a man of Cabrera's size, the idea of him lumbering after a ball into the alley or the corner on wet grass after years of relatively sedentary defensive play might give Tigers fans fits, and probably with some justice.
So why third base this year, with the aforementioned Victor Martinez injury clearing out DH for the whole year, letting Jim Leyland use either Fielder or Cabrera (or both!) at DH as much as he likes? I'd assume it's because Detroit needs to find out what it has now. If it has a third baseman who can do a Chipper Jones impression (i.e. poor at third, but not so poor that you feel like you have to move him off the position in order to win baseball games), then next year, they can run out a lineup that has Alex Avila at catcher, Martinez at DH, Fielder at first, and Cabrera at third. (And presumably go 115-47.) If instead they have a guy who got moved off the position in July of 2012, either because he hurt himself or he's truly horrendous, then at least they know that and they can trade Cabrera (ouch), Martinez (quite possibly at the bottom of his value), or Avila (a young, cheap catcher who can mash -- leaving Martinez to head back to the position he might not be able to handle anymore, especially post-knee surgery) to make the pieces fit. If they aim for defensive optimization this year, then they leave themselves with an information gap.
Of course, this isn't just a two-year problem. Victor Martinez is under contract through 2014. Miguel Cabrera will be 31 at that point, and Martinez, if you were holding out any hope at all that he might come back and play in the field, will be 35. Joke all you want about Oakland's Chris Carter-Daric Barton-Brandon Allen-Kila Ka'aihue logjam, but any of those guys can be sent to AAA, Barton's a plus defender when his shoulder is right, and Allen has at least theoretical athleticism that could see him in the outfield. No, this, folks, this right here in Detroit is a logjam. But I dare you to find a group of logs that can hit like these here logs.