When the Texas Rangers arrive at Comerica Park for a four-game series against the Detroit Tigers, casual baseball fans won't give much thought to Victor Martinez's excellence, Yu Darvish's strikeout prowess or even Miguel Cabrera's special bat.
Instead, this Memorial Day weekend series is about last November, specifically the trade that reshaped both franchises: Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler.
Only a short-sighted fan would judge a long-term move based on short-term results, but the early returns of baseball's first winter blockbuster are evident. Thus far, the Tigers have reaped the benefits of Kinsler's ability and transformed a very good collection of offensive players into a versatile lineup capable of winning in different ways.
For a team with championship aspirations, Fielder for Kinsler has been a boon for the Tigers.
On the other hand, the Rangers are still waiting for the consistent, durable and rare power hitter to emerge from the shadow that has been cast over Fielder since the start of the season. That shadow—also known as bad luck—has been the theme of the season for the perennial AL West contender.
Before diving into the numbers and exploring why Detroit's transformation was for the better, it's instructive to mention that Fielder likely won't play during the four-game set.
In fact, he didn't even accompany his team on the trip due to a herniated disk in his neck. When asked about the subject of missing a series against the team that traded him, Fielder was blunt about his priorities, per Ashley Dunkak of CBS Detroit.
Through the first quarter of the 2014 season, Kinsler has been the superior player to Fielder. While context is usually needed when comparing a middle infielder to a corner infielder, Kinsler owns better statistics across the board this season.
With a potential AL All-Star leading the attack, the Tigers have been fortunate enough to move Austin Jackson down in the order, elevate Martinez to the No. 4 hole and insert fellow offseason acquisition Rajai Davis alongside Kinsler at the top of the order.
Those changes—more than just subtracting the big, power bat of Fielder—have led to an offensive explosion in Detroit. After scoring 10 runs in a loss to the Cleveland Indians on Wednesday, the Tigers enter play on May 22 averaging 4.88 runs per game. That number is well above the American League average of 4.35, per ESPN.
The #Tigers have 4 of the top-11 batting average hitters in the AL (1 Victor Martinez, 4 Miguel Cabrera, 5 Ian Kinsler, & 11 Torii Hunter).— MLB Play Index (@BRefPlayIndex) May 19, 2014
In the recent past, Detroit was an effective, yet predictable offensive team. If hitters like Cabrera, Fielder and Martinez mashed, runs would follow. If that trio struggled or missed time—as was the case in the 2012 World Series and 2013 ALCS—the rest of the order wasn't consistent or dynamic enough to generate enough offense to support an excellent rotation.
Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski saw the reshaping of the lineup as an offseason priority, per Bob Nightengale of USA Today:
I don't want to get carried away. But we tried to remake the team a little bit. Really, our goal for awhile has been trying to get a little more athletic, and this winter we were really trying to focus on athleticism.
Through the first 42 games of this campaign, the focus has paid off. Entering play on May 21, Detroit ranked near the top of the AL in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, stolen bases, doubles and OPS.
|On-Base Plus Slugging||.759||3|
Down in Texas, things haven't gone as smoothly. After adding both Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo, the Rangers looked poised to reverse an offensive dip that had been occurring for years.
Since scoring 855 runs on the path to a second consecutive AL pennant in 2011, Texas dropped to 808 and 730 runs scored, respectively, over the next two seasons. Heading into play against Detroit, the new-look Rangers are on pace for just 637 runs and the lowest total the franchise has seen since the 1988 season.
It's mid-May and Darwin Barney is now one homer shy of matching Prince Fielder's season total @cantpredictball— jasoncollette (@jasoncollette) May 17, 2014
No lineup led by Choo, Fielder and Adrian Beltre should conjure memories of a team led in OPS by Pete Incaviglia, but that's the state of the Rangers right now.
To be fair, the Rangers reside at two games under .500 (22-24) and own the second-worst run differential in the AL (minus-36) because of a pitching staff that has been decimated by injuries, not a stagnant offense.
Yet, fairness aside, Fielder's big bat was supposed to fix what ailed the Rangers on a daily basis. Now, for the first time in years, the iron man at first base can't take the field. With Fielder's streak of 547 consecutive games, the Rangers must hope for a healthy and productive slugger to return soon.
When healthy, which offense is better?
If he does, perhaps the slugger that averaged 35 home runs and 90 walks per season from 2006-13 can re-emerge, take advantage of a hitter's park in Texas and help lead the Rangers to enough high-scoring nights to offset a pitching staff without the services of Martin Perez, Matt Harrison or Derek Holland.
Time will paint a clearer picture of how much Kinsler and Fielder changed their new clubs, but one thing is certain right now: While both teams assumed risk by trading highly paid, established stars, one is reaping benefits from embracing the unknown, per Nightengale's column:
When you trade known guys for the unknown, it opens you up for criticism. You have to do some things sometimes that may be unpopular, but you don't worry about the criticism because you know it's the right thing to do.