It seems like it was only yesterday when it was Jan. 17 of 2012, and news broke that Victor Martinez would likely be missing the entire season after suffering a knee injury during an offseason workout. Fans of Detroit Tigers baseball were thrown into a state of panic.
The Tigers were only three months removed from a disappointing loss in the ALCS to the Texas Rangers, and some wondered how the Tigers could ever get back to the playoffs without their DH who drove in 103 runs while batting .330 and providing ample protection for Miguel Cabrera.
Although there was a certain amount of speculation that the Tigers would make a futile attempt to fill this chasm by having a reunion with Johnny Damon or Carlos Pena, they decided to shock the baseball world by signing Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million contract. The move required Cabrera to return to third base, a position he had not played regularly since 2007.
By all accounts, the first year of the Fielder experiment went about as well as could be expected. Granted, the Tigers only won 88 games that season and barely crept into the playoffs before ultimately falling to the San Francisco Giants in the World Series, but Fielder did everything that the Tigers could have asked him to do in the regular season.
His home run numbers were slightly down from his years with the Milwaukee Brewers, but he established a new career-high in hits with 182, batted over .300 for the first time and drove in over 100 runs. Cabrera also played better defense than anyone expected him to at third, and he seemed to thrive batting ahead of Fielder as he won the first Triple Crown award in 45 years.
However, the wheels began to fall off during the second year. After a very solid month of April, Fielder began to slump mightily and finished 2013 with career-lows in slugging percentage (.457) and home runs (25). Moreover, Cabrera was playing through injuries throughout much of 2013, which were likely only exacerbated by the responsibilities that came with playing third base.
The final straw for Tigers fans appeared to come in October, when Fielder recorded his second consecutive subpar postseason.
Last November, the Tigers were given an opportunity to escape the albatross of Fielder’s contract and wisely took it. They agreed to ship Fielder and $30 million to the Rangers in exchange for Ian Kinsler, who was still regarded as a premier second baseman despite coming off of two consecutive down seasons. Nearly two months into the 2014 season, one does have to wonder where the Tigers would be without Kinsler.
As of Monday morning, Kinsler is batting .330/.360/.477 with four home runs, 17 doubles and 22 RBIs. He also leads the Tigers with 65 hits. He has been the catalyst of the Tigers’ offense, and even though he bats second sometimes, he might just be the best leadoff hitter the Tigers have had since Lou Whitaker.
Kinsler, along with fellow new Tiger Rajai Davis, also give the Tigers another element they have not had in many years: speed. Over the past few seasons, the Tigers saw how players such as Fielder and Jhonny Peralta clogged up the basepaths and were finally given a wake-up call.
If the Tigers did not have Fielder available to trade, it is very possible that Kinsler might not be a Tiger right now. The Rangers were drawn to Fielder’s left-handed power bat, which made sense as they lost Josh Hamilton after the 2012 season. Fielder is, of course, now likely to be out for the remainder of the season due to a neck injury, but it is still very likely that he will come back and be a formidable slugger for the Rangers in the future.
At any rate, Fielder did leave a sour taste in the mouths of many Tigers fans due to his poor postseason performances and the infamous comments he made after losing to the Boston Red Sox in the 2013 ALCS, but it is time to get over that. If the Tigers didn’t sign Fielder, Kinsler may have never been a Tiger. Furthermore, the Tigers now have speed, and Martinez is putting together one of his finest seasons ever at the age of 35.
Signing Fielder, and later trading him, is part of what made this team possible.