While Tigers fans were reeling from the news of Victor Martinez‘s season-ending knee injury, owner Mike Ilitch (likely to the dismay of Dave Dombrowski) was having back-channel conversations with agent Scott Boras.
As we’d soon find out, those conversations centered on the last remaining free-agent slugger that could soothe the wounds of losing Martinez and inject more oomph in the lineup.
Shortly after the Martinez news, Dombrowski and Jim Leyland brushed aside any interest in Fielder who was being rumored to end up with the Rangers, Mariners or Nationals, among others.
After the Tigers announced last Wednesday morning that Martinez was lost for the upcoming season after tearing the ACL in his left knee during offseason workouts, manager Jim Leyland said on my radio show that losing Martinez was like a “punch in the gut.” Worse yet, when asked if the Tigers would consider signing Fielder to replace Martinez’s bat, he replied: “We can’t shop at that store.”
The next day, team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski concurred with Leyland, saying “the fit is not there at this point.” Dombrowski was resolved to the idea of filling Martinez’s spot with a Johnny Damon-type free agent.
But on Jan. 25, after who knows how many behind-the-scenes calls between Ilitch and Boras, the Tigers announced they’d signed Fielder through 2020:
“Prince Fielder is one of the premier offensive players in the game of baseball and we are extremely excited to add an all-star caliber player like him to our lineup,” Tigers President, Chief Executive Officer and General Manager David Dombrowski said. “The addition of Prince is a testament to the organization’s continued commitment to fielding a championship club.”
Fans seemed to shout in unison: “Wow!”
The Tigers once again had two legitimate hitters in the middle of the lineup and left-handed bat to complement Miguel Cabrera and Detroit proved to be a destination of choice for baseball stars.
Of course, a contract of this size and duration stirred the skeptics, who pointed to the deal’s back end, so to speak, and how a player like Fielder might age quickly:
This contract has a chance to go bad deeper into Fielder’s tenure. Fielder is 27 and carries way too much weight. He also carries a 50-home-run bat. The Tigers were investing in Fielder and his probable span of explosive, middle-of-the-order power, and forget about the other stuff. For now, anyway.
The front office understands what Ilitch also recognizes and is willing to accept. There could be a whopping parting check handed Fielder as he slides into his 30s. Again, that’s part of an owner’s calculation. If you’re rich enough to own the Tigers, you’re well-heeled enough to buy out a bad contract should it evolve into such deep into Fielder’s tenure.
Well, it’s hard to find a complaint about Fielder’s debut season in Detroit: a .313 average, 30 home runs, 108 RBI, .412 on-base percentage, .528 slugging and a .940 OPS. What’s more, he appeared in 162 games in 2012.
Here’s where he ranked in the American League:
- Batting average: Tied for sixth
- On-base percentage: Second
- Runs batted in: Fifth
- Slugging: Seventh
In addition to being voted as the A.L. starting first baseman in the All-Star Game, Fielder slugged 28 homers in the all-but-unwatchable Homer Run Derby.
Fielder’s postseason production left much to be desired: he hit just .173 with a single homer in the Tigers’ 13 playoff and World Series games. He certainly wasn’t alone in this department but was the most notable offensive no-show in October.
But the Tigers never would have advanced to the postseason, nor would Cabrera have won the Triple Crown, had Fielder not stunned Detroit baseball fans when he agreed to call Comerica Park his home for the next nine seasons.
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