Signing Prince Fielder was a fantasy for Detroit Tigers fans. But with a $214 million contract, owner Mike Ilitch just brought rainbows and unicorns to Comerica Park.
It was the kind of suggestion that had Detroit Tigers bloggers (and presumably more reasonable commenters) slapping their heads and grinding their teeth.
"The Tigers should sign Prince Fielder and move Miguel Cabrera to third base!"
This was never going to happen. The Tigers were not going to shell out another $20 million per year salary to a third player on their roster, as much as some fans wanted them to. General manager Dave Dombrowski wouldn't even take such an idea to owner Mike Ilitch.
Yet Fielder was still out there as an unsigned free agent, waiting for a team to meet Scott Boras' contract terms. Once Victor Martinez tore the ACL in his left knee, the clamor only became louder. Since Fielder wasn't finding the eight-to-ten-year deal he wanted, several baseball reporters and analysts speculated that perhaps he'd be willing to take a one-year contract and try the market again after the 2012 season.
Some baseball bloggers completely dismissed such notions:
"Or for those Tigers fans living in fantasy land, maybe Dombrowski can check with Scott Boras and see if Prince Fielder really is willing to take a one-year deal and try the free agent market again next year."
Welcome to fantasy land, Detroit Tigers fans.
That giant beast in front of Comerica Park might as well be replaced with a unicorn. The archway at the main entrance could be changed into a rainbow.
Should we change the date of Christmas in Detroit to January 24, while we're at it?
For years to come, the day the Tigers shocked the baseball world by signing Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million contract will be when the sports scene in this city truly changed. It was the kind of happening that makes you think about where you were and what you were doing when you heard the big, really big news.
No more inferiority complex. The Tigers - and Detroit - are truly playing with the big boys now.
So much for a boring offseason in Tiger Town. In the span of one week, there's been more drama than any fanbase or media corps should be reasonably expected to handle.
After Martinez blew out his knee, the Tigers simply weren't as good of a team as they were last season. Yes, they could - and probably would - still win the AL Central. But the expectations are higher than that now. If Detroit couldn't beat the Texas Rangers in the ALCS with Martinez in the lineup, how could they do so without him? How well could they compete against the other American League powers like the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays and Angels?
Martinez's injury also served to highlight a disappointing offseason. While the Tigers did improve the bullpen by signing Octavio Dotel and trading Ryan Perry, and also insured against Alex Avila breaking down by the end of the season by bringing back Gerald Laird, the seemingly major holes at second and third base weren't upgraded. The starting rotation wasn't bolstered. And shouldn't left field probably have been addressed, as well?
Unfortunately, the free agent and trade markets didn't exactly work out as the Tigers had hoped.
The ideal fit for a second baseman really wasn't available, with the Braves deciding to keep Martin Prado. Aramis Ramirez was really the only third baseman worth pursuing, and his skills appear to be on the decline. Oakland A's GM Billy Beane wanted too much in exchange for pitcher Gio Gonzalez, as did Cubs GM Theo Epstein with Matt Garza.
Then there was Roy Oswalt, a veteran starting pitcher who only wanted to sign a one-year contract. Ideal for the Tigers, right? Except he reportedly didn't want to play in Detroit, which some fans are sure to see as a slap in the face.
All things considered, going into spring training with the current roster was looking more like the right decision for the Tigers. Why force a move for a player the team might not even need when several in-house (i.e., cheaper) options could be utilized? See if Duane Below, Adam Wilk, Andrew Oliver or even Jacob Turner could win that fifth starter job. What if the Ramon Santiago-Ryan Raburn platoon at second base and the Brandon Inge-Don Kelly pairing at third were suitable? Shouldn't the Tigers have taken those questions to midseason and then make whatever additions were necessary?
Obviously, losing Martinez changed everything. One of the Tigers' best hitters was done for the season. Miguel Cabrera's protection in the lineup was gone. Some tried to minimize the loss, rationalizing that Martinez wasn't as likely to produce as well as he did last year. Or that other players might be able to help fill the void. Furthermore, people who aren't doctors speculated as to whether Martinez could return by September, disregarding that such a recovery would be near-miraculous.
Unless the Tigers did something, it was easy to see them sliding a notch below the aforementioned power teams in the AL.
Who could the Tigers bring in to replace Martinez, at least as a one-year stopgap? Carlos Pena, a left-handed power bat who could get on base, seemed to be the people's choice. Plus, a return to Detroit would've been a nice story. But he returned to Tampa Bay. Vladimir Guerrero was another possibility, though he's aging fast. Casey Kotchman seemed like a good fit, but were his numbers with the Rays last year a fluke?
The best choice may have turned out to be a reunion with Johnny Damon. Though his first tour with the Tigers was a bit disappointing, especially in terms of power, the lineup had different needs. But even though Damon could get on base at the top of the order, he wouldn't solve the problem of protecting Cabrera in the lineup.
That clearly just wasn't acceptable to Ilitch. The Tigers owner didn't want to make the checkdown throw and play it safe. He wanted to launch it deep. And in doing so, the Tigers scored big-time. It may be the most surprising transaction ever made in the history of Detroit sports. Can you think of another one, besides perhaps the trade to get Cabrera?
Maybe it's not the ideal fit. Fielder playing first base and Cabrera moving over to third could make for some ugly infield play over the next few seasons. What about when Martinez comes back next year? What do the Tigers do then? And that's not even talking about the money, which amounts to the fourth-largest contract in baseball history.
But Ilitch obviously doesn't care about all that. Caution be damned. He must have been tired of hearing that the Tigers won't or can't spend like the Yankees and Red Sox. It's the move Tigers fans have been not-so-secretly wishing for.
If you're gonna go, go big. Like, really big.