Fielder’s attitude, contract cost him

by | Nov 22, 2013 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

“It is what it is.”

That was a favorite Prince Fielder expression. He’d shrug and say, “It is what it is.” After a slump. After a strikeout. After a botched play. “It is what it is.” He’d also say, “Nah” or “Nothing you can do about it” or “that’s baseball” or any number of why-get-upset-about-it? taglines.

The problem is, when you’re getting paid $214million for nine years, people like to see you get upset about it. The fact that Fielder didn’t seem interested in being the center of attention, in being a fulcrum of the team, or letting things like a horrid slump at the worst time of the year get to him rubbed fans the wrong way.

More important, it rubbed his bosses the wrong way. Which is part of the reason he is no longer on the team.

It is what it is.

Let’s face it. When the Tigers signed Fielder as a free agent two years ago, they were looking at their past (the Cecil Fielder connection) and their present (a serious injury that sidelined Victor Martinez).

This week they were looking at their future. And what they saw in that future was a guy getting older, slower, larger, not wanting to be a DH and seemingly not interested in leading or acting like a superstar.

Even though he was getting paid like one.

Money matters

So they boldly did what you rarely get to do in today’s game. They traded a contract that weighs more than a bank vault. They got the Rangers to absorb all but $30 million of the $168 million still owed Prince. And if you don’t think the Tigers were serious about trading Fielder, who was last seen after the season-ending loss to Boston, telling reporters, “It’s not really tough for me, man…. For me, it’s over, bro’,” then think about that: they handed over $30 million.

You don’t just offer cash like that unless you’ve done some major calculations. The Tigers likely figured they’d be overpaying Fielder by that much if he stayed the length of his deal. They bit the bullet now rather than later.

Were they right? Well, for now, in the off-season, when all you have are memories (and the October memories of Fielder are not good), it feels like a solid move.

But know this. No matter how laid-back Fielder might be, he still scares pitchers. His hulking shadow behind Miguel Cabrera was, by Cabrera’s admission to the media, the reason Miggy was seeing better pitches.

With Martinez hitting cleanup, the Tigers are now back to where they were two years ago, before the need for Fielder arose. Back then they had an aging and injured second baseman, Carlos Guillen. Now they have a healthy, above-average second baseman, Ian Kinsler.

Kinsler is quick, good on defense and has a strong bat, but he’s not coming off his best season, either. He and Fielder bear the burdens of previous years’ expectations.

But next year could see Fielder posting big numbers. He’ll be in Texas, where the ballpark is friendlier to his home-run power. And presumably the personal problems that plagued him this year (he was reportedly going through marital difficulties) will be resolved. If so, he may be focused on proving the doubters wrong.

And you may look at his numbers next summer and say, “Why did we ever get rid of this guy?”

Future considerations

“We’re going to miss his bat, for sure,” president/GM Dave Dombrowski said when we spoke Thursday. And Dombrowski agreed that should something happen to Martinez, Cabrera’s job just got a whole lot tougher.

But these are the moves you make. Credit Dombrowski for initiating this, exploring it and getting it done – all faster than a day-night doubleheader. Although baseball is not a salary-cap sport, Dombrowski clearly knows there is a limit to how many jackpots Mike Ilitch can hand out. Saving money for a Max Scherzer signing or a Cabrera extension is important. And having Cabrera and Fielder on the same team as they both get older and both want to continue to play the field is not a smart long-term move.

Would Fielder still be here if he were gung-ho, all-in, a vocal leader à la Kirk Gibson in the ’80s? I’d say probably. Talent is not the issue.

But chemistry is. And Fielder will never be Kirk Gibson. In fairness to him, the Tigers knew that getting him. They know it letting him go. They sacrificed the specter of a bat behind Cabrera for the possibility of runners on in front of him.

Fielder played every day. He was serious about his job. He just didn’t seem thrilled with it – or with long fly balls that could be home runs someplace other than Comerica Park.

He’ll be someplace else now. And the only long-range evaluation of this deal is if the Tigers go further without him than they did with him. Sometimes you are more with less. Sometimes you are less when you don’t have more. In the end, you can’t dispute Fielder’s quote. It is what it is.

What it will be, we’ll see come April.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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