The Motor City Surprise
My wife asked me last week if Tuesday was a good day to drive to Michigan to meet up with one of her good friends. Such questions are impossible for a journalist to answer with certainty, especially baseball writers in the offseason.
Sure enough, after having our two-hour drive turn into a five-hour disaster due to an accident, news broke that Prince Fielder had reached an agreement to sign a nine-year, $214 million contract with the Tigers. The Tigers!
It was news that stunned the baseball world and surely sent some shockwaves of defeatism Cleveland’s way. Naturally, this warranted a reaction story, while I stood stunned in the parking lot of an IKEA in the middle of a small Michigan town.
My wife dropped me off at a local Starbucks, she and my son went and met up with her friends, and I worked my phone an pieced together a quick story. One day later, the news isn’t any easier for Indians fans. Prince freakin’ Fielder signed with Detroit. Of all the teams, it just had to be Detroit, didn’t it?
My Twitter feed was immediately flooded with the usual cries against Indians ownership and the team’s relatively quiet winter. I say “relatively” because there certainly hasn’t been a shortage of moves — they just haven’t been megadeals for power bats like fans so desperately want.
I try to be a voice of reason within the angry mob. My job isn’t to bash anyone, but to present facts and to report the news. Everything else is reserved for columnists. I’ll continue to point out that the Tribe HAS raised payroll significantly this year — by roughly $20 million. It’s mostly been spent on the team’s own players, though, so that doesn’t seem to count for many fans.
I’m not trying to defend the Indians’ approach to this winter — only to point out what the team has done. Would I personally prefer to see someone of Fielder’s ability added to Cleveland’s lineup? Who wouldn’t? But reality does not always align with wishful thinking, or with the exercise of patience.
The way I see things, this current Indians team could be a 70-win ballclub or a 90-win ballclub. There are just so many variables and questions heading into the season. If everyone stays healthy — a huge “if” as you all know — this is a young team loaded with talent that could make things interesting.
I’d still warn against crowning the Tigers the division champs already, though. Didn’t everyone think the Red Sox were going to cruise to another title after their recent megadeals? We all remember what happened there. Once the season starts, so many things can happen. You just never know.
The Indians were a very entertaining and competitive team last year when they had the bulk of their roster healthy and contributing. They were even holding on to first place in light of very slow starts for Carlos Santana and Shin-Soo Choo. Who’s to say the Tribe can’t make things interesting again in 2012? I’m not going to sit here and say that.
The Indians players I spoke with last night after the Fielder news broke all said what you’d expect them to say. And it’s what they should say, too. They’re still confident in the team that’s in place and — given the way the AL Central is right now — they have a right to believe they can make a run.
Are the Tigers the favorites to win the division? Definitely. Without a doubt. They’re coming off a 15-game clinching of the AL Central, have the reigning MVP and Cy Young winner on the mound, and now there’s Prince hitting behind Miguel Cabrera. Detroit enters 2012 as the sexy pick — no question.
Tigers billionaire owner Mike Ilitch owns Little Caesars Pizza as well as the Detroit Red Wings. He has a reputation of treating his two sports franchises as his personal play things and, at 82 years old, he’s willing to throw down big cash to try to bring a World Series title to Motown.
That’s the Tigers’ situation, and it isn’t fair to compare that to the Indians’ situation. Detroit as a city might be dealing with its share of issues, much like Cleveland, but what Ilitch has built between the Tigers and Red Wings is incredible. It is a different reality than the one the Indians are working within.
A few more thoughts…
About that Fielder contract: We all knew Prince was going to get a blockbuster deal, but uberagent Scott Boras still managed to shock the baseball world again. Detroit loses Victor Martinez to a knee injury last week and the Tigers are convinced to plug that hole with the biggest bat left on the market (with the fourth biggest contract in baseball history).
It’ll be interesting to see how the playing time is handled over the next two years, especially when V-Mart returns. I know… it’s a good problem to have. But if Miguel Cabrera indeed returns to third base as rumored, that’s a defensive boost for the rest of the division. That said, the bats of Cabrera and Fielder can make up for anything lost in the field.
When it comes to Fielder’s reported deal, am I the only one that is reminded of the contract given to Mo Vaughn? Granted, Vaughn was 30 when he received his six-year, $80 million deal from the Angels in 1999 (Prince is 27 right now), but there are definitely similarities between the two hefty first basemen.
At the time of Vaughn’s contract, his career line looked like .304/.394/.542/.936 with 230 homers and 752 RBIs in 1,046 games (8 seasons covering ages 23-30). At the time of Prince’s deal, his career line is .282/.390/.540/.929 with 230 homers and 656 RBIs in 998 games (7 seasons covering ages 21-27).
Vaughn’s three years prior to his contract (1996-98) looked like .326/.414/.579/.993 with 119 homers and 354 RBIs in 456 games (152 per year). Prince’s last three years: .287/.409/.547/.956 with 116 homers and 344 RBIs in 485 games (162 per year).
Both contracts ran through their age 36 season.
What did Vaughn — another big man who was durable early in his career — do over the course of his new deal? He hit .267/.356/.481/.838 with 98 homers and 312 RBIs over the next five years. He broke down and was out of baseball after the 2003 season.
A six-year deal was a big risk for him at the time. Prince — three years younger at the time of his contract — received three years more than Vaughn did. That’s a similar gamble (a huge gamble) on the part of the Tigers, and one they can only hope turns out better than the deal Vaughn signed with the Angels.
Counter punch: Yoenis Cespedes, anyone? To me, this would be the best move the Indians could make to show Indians fans they mean business. He’s young, controllable and could be a star in the Majors. He fits within what the Indians are trying to do and is, really, the only thing left on this winter’s market that would send a strong message to the fans. The Indians definitely have interest, but this could turn into a bidding war.
About that Carmona situation: Count me among those that does not think the Indians should just void the contract of pitcher Fausto Carmona, who was arrested last week on charges of using a false identity. If he’s really Roberto Hernandez Heredia, and is really 31 years old, he’s still only under contract for one year.
No matter his name, Carmona/Hernandez (I’ve been told by a Spanish expert that his last name would be Hernandez — not Heredia) was signed for a fair-market price when the Indians picked up his $7 million club option for 2012. And there’s no guarantee he’ll see a penny of that deal this year.
His legal and visa woes could drag on through Spring Training and into the regular season. Let’s say, hypothetically, that he’s not back in the United States and available to the Indians until May, June or July, he would only be given the pro-rated portion of his salary the rest of the way. If he’s on the restricted list, he does not receive pay.
Beyond that, Cleveland does not have the pitcher under contract beyond this year. So, hypothetically, if he remained on the restricted list all year, the team does get $7 million of salary relief. He could then be let go at the end of the season as a free agent. That being the case, what’s the point of cutting him now?
Let’s say Cleveland gets into May or June, is contending in the division, but suddenly loses a pitcher or two due to injury (hey, it happened last year). If Carmona does become available, that’s an experienced arm (one that has had success in the past) available to help out. That could be better than forcing one or two Minor Leagues up a level or two before they’re deemed ready.
Carmona/Hernandez is essentially under contract on a one-year deal. Shoot, he could be under contract on a three-month deal when it’s all said and done. His future in Cleveland is cloudy, but I don’t think the Indians need to make the kneejerk reaction of voiding his deal right now.
As for the pitcher’s deception, to me, that’s more of a legal matter than a baseball matter. And I’m not about to act like judge and jury because I can’t put myself in his shoes some 11 years ago (The Indians’ blog The DiaTribe had a good post on this). This is not a unique situation in baseball history and it’s something teams will continue to battle.
Coming up: I’ll be heading to the first stop on the Tribe on Tour event on Thursday night. On Friday, I’ll be covering the team’s Town Hall Meeting for season-ticket holders. Check Indians.com for stories on both events in the coming days.