Blockbuster trade has ripple effect on Tigers' roster

Blockbuster trade has ripple effect on Tigers' roster

Blockbuster trade has ripple effect on Tigers' roster

DETROIT -- Sometime after the disappointment of their American League Championship Series defeat finally faded, the Tigers began talking about next season and what kind of role top prospect Nick Castellanos could play in it. In that discussion, the topic of a return to third base came up, just in case the need came up.

"We have talked about the possibility of this happening and how we would handle it," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "We didn't necessarily anticipate it happening so quickly."

Nobody figured the Tigers would be discussing a future without Prince Fielder on a late-night turned early-morning conference call with bleary-eyed reporters in mid-November. Now that they're here, the bigger discussions are to come, and they'll go longer than the Tigers-Rangers trade discussions lasted.

"We're going to have to have some serious conversations ourselves," Dombrowski said.

With Fielder no longer a mainstay at cleanup and first base, and Kinsler now installed at second base, the Tigers will reshape their infield and their batting order, both of which could result in a domino effect of moves. With Fielder's contract no longer on the books through 2020, save for the reported $30 million in salary relief heading to Texas starting in a few years, Detroit will now look at upcoming contract discussions with Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera with a new flexibility.

With a simple 1-for-1 trade, the Tigers have a vastly different club. The coming discussions will determine what kind of shape it will now take.

The first move to come will be at first base. The logical shift would seem to be a return for Cabrera across the infield to his old position. After all, he only moved to third base to make room for Fielder two years ago.

Cabrera loves playing third, his original position when he broke into the big leagues in 2003. He took a great amount of pride in being able to return there, and his defensive metrics didn't really reflect the amount of work he put in to play the hot corner -- from offseason training to in-season infield work.

When the Tigers were negotiating to sign Fielder in January 2012, they approached Cabrera about moving to third beforehand. The Fielder trade discussions came together so quickly that nobody talked to Cabrera about a possible move back.

"We really haven't talked to him about going back to first base," Dombrowski said. "I know he likes playing third base."

Long term, Dombrowski said, Cabrera projects as a first baseman, as he moves further into his 30s and loses more range. That doesn't mean they're ready to do it right away. Remember, when the Tigers moved Cabrera to first base in 2008, they waited until a month into the regular season, when it was apparent they were a better team with him at first and Brandon Inge at third.

If Cabrera stays at third to begin next season, the Tigers have the option of moving Victor Martinez from designated hitter to first base, where he shows surprising range and athleticism in occasional starts during the season. His no-look flip from behind the bag to his pitcher covering first was arguably Detroit's best defensive highlight not involving shortstop Jose Iglesias.

If, instead, Cabrera moves to first, the Tigers have to decide whether Castellanos is the answer at third. While that question has been discussed, it hasn't necessarily been solved yet.

"That's a question for discussion between a lot of people at this point," Dombrowski said. "I don't really know that answer. He hadn't played there in over a year. He did continue to take ground balls at third base on a consistent basis for us."

Castellanos spent his first season and a half as a pro playing at third, before team officials, anticipating a potential late-season callup in 2012, moved him to the outfield midseason. He spent virtually the entire 2013 season in left field at Triple-A Toledo, putting in extra work defensively to adjust.

At season's end, Castellanos said he thought of himself as an outfielder, not a third baseman trying to play the outfield. Every indication, though, is that he would gladly accept a return to third.

"I would anticipate he could move quickly, depending on what we decided to do," Dombrowski said.

One guy who will not be moving positions is Kinsler, despite the many moves the Rangers had discussed with him in recent years. At age 31, he is the Tigers' everyday second baseman.

"We think he's a real steady second baseman," Dombrowski said. "We think he handles the position really well. We think he can play over there for a few years, and we'll analyze that and see how he continues to grow."

With Kinsler at second, Dombrowski all but eliminated the possibility of Omar Infante returning to Detroit. Though Infante has been a third baseman in his career, notably in Atlanta a few years ago, the Tigers see him as a second baseman.

"That was most likely the case before," Dombrowski said, "because we were looking to go younger with Hernan Perez."

Whether the Tigers could see another of their free agents, Jhonny Peralta, at third base is another question. Dombrowski did not scuttle the idea of re-signing their former shortstop turned makeshift left fielder.

"I don't know. I'm not really sure about that," Dombrowski said.

If Detroit makes an addition, whether at third base, first base or left field, it would more likely be a left-handed hitter. Fielder's loss means the top half of the batting order leans heavily right-handed, with some combination of Kinsler, Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter batting in front of Cabrera and the switch-hitting Victor Martinez.

"We need to kind of digest it," Dombrowski said of the batting order. "We have Victor. We have Alex Avila. We have Andy Dirks. It's a possibility [to add a left-handed hitter], and it's something that we'll look at as we evaluate our whole situation."

New manager Brad Ausmus said he hasn't yet decided on a batting order. When he talked about Kinsler as another option at the top of the order, he meant one of the top two spots, not just leadoff. That would leave either Jackson or Hunter as a potential bat in the fifth or sixth spot after Cabrera and Martinez.

Ausmus seemed inclined to keep Cabrera batting third and Martinez moving up to cleanup.

"I probably tend toward keeping guys in their comfortable spot," Ausmus said. "That doesn't mean it couldn't change on an occasional game basis. But if they're in a position where they're more comfortable and more effective, we'd probably stick with that. Nothing is written in stone at this point."

Fielder's trade, Ausmus said, "changes the dynamic at the heart of the order a little bit, but it doesn't mean we're any [less] dangerous."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.