Detroit Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski just caught his offseason ace-in-the-hole.
Yesterday, for all purposes, he wasn’t even at the table to gamble with the rest of MLB’s GMs. Dombrowski’s signing of Prince Fielder to a reported nine-year contract in excess of $214 million (Tim Brown, Yahoo Sports) came out of nowhere and certainly helped fill a void Tigers fans may have been worried about most—how to replace Victor Martinez’s veteran bat in a young Tigers lineup.
A week ago, Tigers fans were left feeling that uncomfortable offseason pinch when things go bad for one of their stars. While the loss of Victor Martinez from the Tigers’ day-to-day lineup created much uncertainty and considerable disappointment, Dombrowski didn’t waste time, and instead started calculating a plan. Even with the injury to Martinez, the spotlight on Fielder was still steadily on the Nationals, Mariners and Rangers.
The Tigers, really, have never even been a part of the MLB pundits' conversations. Yet, Dombrowski did what several other MLB teams couldn’t do; he hid in the grass, waited for the right moment, and then deftly signed Fielder.
The Tigers certainly didn’t need a first-baseman, but in Fielder they get one and so much more. Much speculation will abound in Detroit over the next few weeks leading into training camp as to exactly whether or not Fielder was picked up, for the most part, to be Martinez’s replacement, or to provide service a first base.
While the Fielder signing may seem strange, Dombrowski has a knack for making prudent and deliberate moves, like the Fielder signing, because of his uncanny ability to forecast potential advantages beyond the immediacy of the actual signing. Dombrowski may have already calculated this move long ago, and with Martinez injury, it gave him all the motivation necessary to request a blank check from Tigers’ owner Mike Illitch.
The Fielder signing opens up a myriad of options for the Tigers, the most obvious an assignment as the team’s day-to-day designated hitter; but, it will also allow the other Tigers slugger, Miguel Cabrera, a breather at first base every now and then. The Martinez injury may have overshadowed several other shortcomings that the Tigers and Dombrowski would like addressed during the last few weeks of the offseason and before the team heads north for Opening Day in Detroit.
The Tigers have been desperate to fill other infield holes. That is perpetually the case at second base since former All-Star second baseman Placido Polanco headed to Philly, as well as at third, where longtime Tigers favorite Brandon Inge enters spring training after having spent time at Triple-A Toledo toward the end of the 2011 campaign.
The revolving door that is second base for the Detroit Tigers certainly seemed to be the place of focus for the Tigers’ faithful headed into the offseason, but Dombrowski was satisfied with allowing the door to continue to revolve at second base, looking for Ryan Rayburn to step it up earlier than he has in past seasons. He and Tigers manager Jim Leyland also remain steadfast that Ramon Santiago is not an everyday player.
Having sent Inge to Toledo last year, I don’t think that Tigers’ management will allow much of a leash during the 2012 campaign, having released Wilson Betemit in the offseason; Leyland is left with Inge at third, or his postseason spotter, Don Kelly. Neither of these options are a long-term fix for a Tigers’ team that has steadily watched offensive production decline at the hot corner for the better part of the last decade.
Enter Prince Fielder.
Fielder isn’t a third-bagger, but his company at first base, Cabrera, has plenty of MLB experience at third. Cabrera broke into the majors as a third baseman for the Florida Marlins, and while he hasn’t played there in several seasons, he was an option last fall as the Tigers’ were juggling their lineup for postseason play. For that very reason, he has to be an option there now.
Think of the bookends at the corners the Tigers’ defense would have.
Cabrera may not be Gold Glove-caliber at third, nor as agile as he was when he suited up for the Marlins, but he has excellent athletic ability and is one of the better defensive players at first in the American League. Moving Cabrera to third and allowing Fielder to play first has the potential to put the Tigers’ much further ahead should Inge falter out of the gate.
Should the Tigers choose to go with their behemoths at the corners, the Tigers are also loaded with outfielders, as well as reserves and prospects itching to make their way into a major league lineup. Leyland is famous for juggling his lineup, and the Fielder signing will give him even greater latitude with his young, developing prospects. A scenario like this would allow Leyland to get his potential All-Star outfielder Brennan Boesch more rest when needed, and exchange his defensive time with other available options.
For Tigers fans and the city of Detroit, a collective sigh of relief was exhaled from the Motor City this afternoon. And while no one will miss Martinez any less, Dombrowski’s signing of Fielder certainly softens the blow. Fans will now be left pontificating what scenario will play out. Will Fielder be the resident DH, or will he split the role with Cabrera and share responsibilities at first as well?
Will the Tigers’ nicely, very carefully, ask Cabrera to move to third base and allow Inge to ride off into the sunset?
While Dombrowski quenched the offseason thirst of worried Tigers’ fans, he also opened a Pandora’s Box of possibilities. The handful of possibilities will begin playing out on Dombrowski and Leyland’s list of options as defensive and offensive juggling occur throughout February and March. Where it ends might not be determined by Opening Day.
But one thing is certain: Prince Fielder is a Detroit Tiger, and it isn’t his first time wearing the Old English D.