DETROIT -- The Tigers went into the offseason needing to solve second base for 2014, but needing to solve payroll concerns for well beyond that. On Wednesday night, they addressed both issues in one incredibly big yet beautifully simple move.
It's a one-for-one deal. But by trading Prince Fielder to the Rangers for Ian Kinsler, the Tigers pulled off a blockbuster that changes the course of both teams for years to come.
They needed just over 24 hours to make it happen. Considering how quickly the Tigers' free-agent contract with Fielder came together, maybe it's fitting.
"It happened really fast, there's no question," said Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski on a conference call.
It was an idea, Dombrowski said, that was first "kicked around" at MLB's General Managers Meetings last week but not seriously discussed until Tuesday afternoon.
News of the trade was quick enough that even Tigers players were caught off guard.
Wow!!! Big news... We traded Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler.- Justin Verlander (@JustinVerlander) November 21, 2013
The Tigers will send cash considerations to Texas, reportedly $30 million in payments starting in 2016, to help bridge the gap in money remaining on the two contracts. Fielder has seven years left at $24 million each on the contract he signed in January 2012, barely a week after Victor Martinez's catastrophic knee injury left Detroit in desperate need of a big hitter and left owner Mike Ilitch aggressively looking to fill Martinez's void.
Fielder's arrival 20 months ago played out like a homecoming, returning to the city where fans fondly remembered him as a youngster hitting home runs in batting practice while his father, Cecil Fielder, was a larger-than-life presence in the Tigers' order.
The homecoming lasted two years. In the end, Fielder -- on vacation in the Bahamas -- waived his no-trade rights for a fresh start, and Ilitch gave his approval Wednesday night, little more than 24 hours after Dombrowski approached Rangers GM Jon Daniels about the swap.
"You could tell both sides were interested and motivated," Daniels said. "We got the money where both sides could live with it and we made the deal."
Kinsler has $57 million left over the final four guaranteed seasons of his contract. The Tigers can pick up his $12 million option for 2018 or buy it out for $5 million.
"We were trying to create some financial flexibility but keep our club in a very competitive nature," Dombrowski said.
On paper, the Tigers had a dream lineup in 2013 with Fielder at first base, Miguel Cabrera at third and Martinez as the designated hitter. But while the offense put up mighty numbers over the course of the season, the game-to-game output wasn't consistent. That inconsistency came back to bite them in the postseason, when a series of low-scoring duels put pressure on Detroit's vaunted rotation and not-so-solid bullpen to hold slim leads.
Fielder, fairly or otherwise, became the flashpoint for that. For most players, his .279 average, 25 home runs and 106 RBIs would've been a good season. After a .313 average, 30-homer debut season in Detroit, however, a 121-point drop in OPS stood out.
"He was an all-star player for us," Dombrowski said. "He played hard and wanted to play all the time under any circumstance. It's a time where we'll be thankful for what he did for us for two years. He drove in 100 runs for us two years in a row and that's not easy to do."
Fielder's postseason struggles compounded to the point that he was booed at home at Comerica Park during the ALCS. When the Tigers were eliminated in Game 6, Fielder made remarks that downplayed the emotional impact, which seemed to frustrate Detroit fans further.
Dombrowski said that feedback was not a motivation in trade talks.
"Not really," Dombrowski said.
The bigger numbers pressing the Tigers were financial. With Fielder's contract, Verlander's recently signed deal, Max Scherzer and Martinez a year away from free agency and two-time American League MVP Cabrera among a handful of prominent Tigers up for free agency in two years, Detroit's long-term payroll looked like an unsolvable puzzle.
Trading Fielder, even with the offensive gap it creates, became the solution, which is why talks came together quickly. Detroit could save as much as $8 million in each of the next two seasons, and more after that, depending on how the money going back to Texas is spread out.
Asked if the new-look payroll makes an extension for Scherzer more likely, Dombrowski said, "I'd say it makes it perhaps more possible. As we've talked about in the past, we're in a situation where we have a lot of stars on our club. They're well-paid stars and you can only be in a position where you have so many of those type of players.
"Does it make it probable? I can't say that. But it makes it more possible going forward. … Max is a player we'd like to keep in our organization and a player I know would like to stay here."
The Rangers were an option for Fielder as a free agent two years ago, and carried the bonus of no state income tax. Now, the prospect of Fielder regaining his power bat in a much more power-friendly park looms for AL opponents.
The Tigers, meanwhile, will be re-adjusting the rest of their roster in turn. The lineup will lose a huge power presence in the cleanup spot, but gain an accomplished leadoff hitter in Kinsler.
Kinsler has batted leadoff for 662 of his 1,066 career games, all of them in a Rangers uniform, with a .346 on-base percentage and .813 OPS out of the leadoff spot. He'll likely do the same in Detroit after Austin Jackson's postseason struggles knocked him out of the spot for the last couple of games of the AL Championship Series.
"I think it gives us another option at the top of the order. I'm talking about the top two spots," new Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "Whether it's Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter, Ian Kinsler, I don't think that needs to be decided at this point."
Kinsler, a three-time AL All-Star, has been a mainstay at second base in Texas, and at age 31, should remain so. With the Rangers enjoying an embarrassment of riches in young infielders, highlighted by middle infield prospect Jurickson Profar, Kinsler was expendable. And with the Rangers desperately looking for offense, Fielder was an attractive bat.
"This is obviously a very exciting trade for us, adding Prince Fielder to our organization, but also a tough trade," Daniels said. "Ian Kinsler has been in our organization since we drafted him in 2003. He was a catalyst for us on our World Series team, a heart and soul guy, Detroit is getting a tremendous player and person."
And in the end, the Fielder homecoming that began with a news conference in Detroit ended with a text message from Dombrowski to the Bahamas. With Fielder out of the country and his voicemail full, it was an easier way to communicate.
"I thanked him for the time here and wished him nothing but the best," Dombrowski said, "and he texted back and thanked me."