By Mike Harrington
NEWS BASEBALL COLUMNIST
The initial thought I had when I heard the Tigers had traded Prince Fielder to Texas was how Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski got a 275-pound weight off his shoulders. Not Fielder himself, but the $168 million left on Fielder’s bloated contract. Ask Boston GM Ben Cherington how important that can be after what he pulled with the Dodgers last year led to what happened in October.
So the Rangers add a big bat to the middle of their lineup while the Tigers get the versatility of a top-of-the-order guy in Ian Kinsler and badly needed payroll relief. After going to the World Series in 2010 and 2011, the Rangers are certainly still thinking they’re a Fall Classic candidate.
Fielder, however, has hardly impressed the last two postseasons. And now the Rangers have taken on what’s become a sudden scourge in baseball: A bloated contract for a first baseman.
Call out to Anaheim to see how that $200 million has gone for Albert Pujols. See how Ryan Howard’s injuries have rendered him useless and turned the $125 million deal he signed in 2010 into a franchise-killer for the Phillies. The Yankees still owe Mark Teixeira nearly $70 million and his production has dropped since the 2009 World Series season, topped by an injury-ravaged 2013.
To me the jury is out on Adrian Gonzalez, a disappointment in Boston who has helped the Dodgers. But next on the clock is the Reds, who gave Joey Votto a 10-year, $225 million deal that starts in 2014 and stretches until he’s 40. Yeeesh.
More and more, first basemen are big and lumbering. They tend not to stay in shape – something Fielder promises to improve upon with the Rangers. They get injured too, as in Howard and Teixeira.
Fielder averaged 28 homers and 107 RBIs for the Tigers the last two years. And it should be pointed out he has missed one game the last five years, going against the injury theory. But history shows that will change now as he’s about to turn 30. Observers were alarmed by the big drop in his OPS this year, from .940 in 2012 to a career-low .819 in 2013.
And of course, there was the postseason. Fielder went 1 for 14 with no extra-base hits in the 2012 World Series against San Francisco and was just 9 for 40, with one lone double and no RBIs, this year against Oakland and Boston, punctuated by his famous flop into third base that saw him get called out in Game Six at Fenway.
You wonder now if the Tigers will try to save Miguel Cabrera some wear and tear by moving him across the diamond. It also allows them more salary space to sign Cy Young winner Max Scherzer to an extension. Maybe they’ll actually try to find a real closer this winter, too. Joe Nathan would be on the top of my list for them.
Fielder will be playing in a warmer climate, which he said he’ll enjoy more. And everyday Tiger watchers say his mood was noticeably lower this year as he endured a divorce that ended up going public in the local media. Those factors make him a big candidate for a bounceback in Texas, and he’ll be particularly motivated to atone for his October failures.
The Tigers actually paid $30 million of Fielder’s deal to facilitate the move to Texas. They were looking to remake some parts they felt needed work. Even with Jim Leyland gone and a rookie manager like Brad Ausmus in, they’re built with the World Series in mind. This was a major first step, a sort of addition by subtraction.
Freese joins Angels
Postseason failure sure gets teams acting fast nowadays. David Freese was a suburban St. Louis kid who was MVP of the 2011 NLCS and World Series and hit the most famous home run in Cardinals Series history in Game Six against Texas. And now he’s gone to the Angels for Peter Bourjos.
Freese has been dealing with back and leg problems and the Cardinals really needed to upgrade their outfield defense. Bourjos really helps in the speed/defense areas of center field. Freese didn’t make his MLB debut until he was 27, and he’ll be 31 next April.
Freese’s alarming production drop made it even easier for the Cardinals to forget about 2011. He slipped from 20 home runs in 2012 to just nine and his OPS went from .839 to .721. He was just 7 for 40 in the NLCS and World Series this year, including a 3-for-19 showing with no RBIs against Boston.
You feel bad for small and mid-major markets like Pittsburgh trying to build and/or maintain solid teams the way the free agent market is going to blow up for fringe players.
With so much television money around and most teams’ gate receipts flourishing, you get a situation where the Royals can throw a mediocrity like Jason Vargas a four-year, $32 million deal. The guy has a 51-58 record and 4.30 career ERA in 174 games.
Something tells me the likes of Phil Hughes, Bronson Arroyo, Ricky Nolasco – and their agents – are pretty happy right now.
Big honor for Graham
Former Bisons manager and Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Brian Graham has been named the winner of the sixth annual Sheldon “Chief” Bender Award, presented by Minor League Baseball to an individual with distinguished service who has been instrumental in player development. It will be presented at the Winter Meetings next month in Orlando.
Bender spent 39 years in player development for the Cincinnati Reds, producing many of the players for the team’s golden era of the 1970s and its World Series champions of 1990. He died in 2008 at age 88.
Graham has spent 32 years in professional baseball, including the last six with the Orioles. He managed the Bisons from 1995 to ’97, winning the franchise’s first championship in the modern era as the ’97 club took the final American Association crown.
“I’m very honored to win the ‘Chief’ Bender Award,” Graham said. “When you work in player development, you never expect to win awards. Our reward is seeing the players develop, make it to the big leagues and then succeed as major leaguers.
“I’m also very fortunate to be part of a great organization right now. We have a general manager (Dan Duquette) and major league manager (Buck Showalter) who take tremendous pride in player development, and we have a lot of really good staff members who do a great job. It’s truly an honor to have my name associated with ‘Chief’ Bender and such a prestigious award.”
Veteran Bisons public relations maven Brad Bisbing has released his annual statistical analysis of the team’s 2013 season and his voluminous compilations included these interesting nuggets:
• Reliever Buddy Carlyle struck out 76 batters in just 56 innings and posted a 12.2 strikeouts/nine innings pitched ratio that was third-best in the modern era (since 1985). The only ones better were Indians-era relievers Paul Shuey (15.4 in 1996) and Alan Embree (12.4 in 1995).
• Utility man Mike McCoy dropped 13 sacrifice bunts, the second-most in a single season behind the 15 of Zach Sorensen in 2002. McCoy, who shuttled between Las Vegas and Toronto from 2010 to 2012 but played exclusively in Buffalo last season for 108 games, won’t be back in 2014. He has signed with Boston, likely to join Pawtucket.
• Eugenio Velez (21-26, 80.8 percent) and McCoy (29-36, 80.7 percent) have the seventh- and eighth-best stolen base percentage for players with 20 more steals in their Buffalo careers.
• Dave Bush threw 90 innings without a single wild pitch, just the fifth Bison ever to do that. The record for a single season is 121∑ innings in 2001 by 12-game winner Mike Bacsik, and for a Buffalo career is an incredible 218.1 innings by Jason Phillips (2001-03).
Around the horn
• The tributes were everywhere Thursday night upon the death of Players Association Executive Director Michael Weiner, who succumbed to brain cancer at the far-too-young age of 51. We should all hope to be that revered by so many people on both sides of our fences.
Weiner received a standing ovation from the Baseball Writers Association of America when he spoke at their annual All-Star Game luncheon in July in New York. I was not at that function but I’ve spoken to several people who were and they said the admiration for Weiner, by then confined to a wheelchair, was unforgettable.
• How did the Atlanta Braves keep quiet the fact they were planning a new suburban stadium and ditching Turner Field after the 2016 season? What a clandestine operation. I saw not a single chatter about that anywhere, in the Atlanta or national media, until the team dropped its bombshell on its web site and Twitter last week. And you don’t just decide you’re building a $1 billion complex overnight. Amazing.
• Do I have to talk about A-Rod and Magical Mystery Media Tour? I do not. Let the New York tabloids go on ad nauseam. I’m sick of it all.