Prince Fielder signs with Detroit: Are the Tigers now the team to beat in the AL?

Jeff Gross/GETTY IMAGES - With Prince Fielder’s big bat in the lineup, the loss of Victor Martinez becomes merely an aftertought.

All signs pointed to All-Star first baseman Prince Fielder — the biggest name free agent left on the market after Albert Pujols signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim — landing with the Washington Nationals or Texas Rangers. But Fielder’s lengthy free agent saga produced a surprising ending on Tuesday, when the 27-year-old signed a massive long-term contract with the Detroit Tigers. As the AP reported:

With Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera in the middle of the lineup, the Detroit Tigers look ready for a season of slugging at Comerica Park.

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Free agent first baseman Prince Fielder and the Detroit Tigers agreed Tuesday on a nine-year, $214 million contract that fills the AL Central champions' need for a power hitter, a person familiar with the deal said. (Jan. 24)

Free agent first baseman Prince Fielder and the Detroit Tigers agreed Tuesday on a nine-year, $214 million contract that fills the AL Central champions' need for a power hitter, a person familiar with the deal said. (Jan. 24)

Fielder and the Tigers agreed Tuesday to a nine-year, $214 million contract, a person familiar with the deal said. The AL Central champions boldly stepped up in the Fielder sweepstakes after the recent knee injury to star Victor Martinez. A week ago, the Tigers announced the productive designated hitter could miss the entire season after tearing his left ACL during offseason conditioning.

CBS first reported the agreement with Fielder.

The person told The Associated Press the deal was subject to a physical. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the contract was not yet complete.

Several teams had shown interest this winter in Fielder, the free agent first baseman who had spent his entire career with the Milwaukee Brewers. He visited Texas, and the Washington Nationals also got involved in the discussions.

The Tigers won their division by 15 games before losing in the AL championship series to Texas. With Fielder now in the fold, general manager Dave Dombrowski and owner Mike Ilitch have a team that figures to enter the 2012 season as a favorite to repeat in the division — with an eye on winning the franchise’s first World Series title since 1984.

“Everyone knew Mr. Ilitch and Mr. Dombrowski were going to make a move when Victor went down,” outfielder Brennan Boesch said in a phone interview with the AP. “But I don’t think anybody thought it would be this big.”

Fielder’s decision stunned many fans around baseball, including those in the nation’s capital, who had hoped signing the young slugger would signal the Washington Nationals’ rise from the depths of the National League. As Adam Kilgore reported:

The Tigers swooped in and claimed Fielder with a contract, according to widespread reports, worth $214 million over nine years, pending a physical. When the winter began, Detroit had no room for Fielder, with Miguel Cabrera at first base and Victor Martinez at designated hitter. But then Martinez tore his anterior cruciate ligament, and the Tigers offered a massive sum for baseball’s premier remaining free agent.

Nationals ownership met with Fielder once and continued discussing him with Scott Boras, the representative for Fielder and a gaggle of prominent Nationals. Could they have lured Fielder with a sizable offer before Martinez’s injury made the Tigers a factor? The Nationals likely would not have met Boras’s price, anyway. They were wary of offering more than six or seven years, according to one person familiar with the Nationals’ thinking, and Boras believed from the start he could get Fielder a contract of $200 million.

The Nationals will be content to play 2012 with Adam LaRoche at first base, with Michael Morse, now slated to play left field, in the wings if LaRoche’s recovery from labrum surgery falters. The Nationals will pay LaRoche $8 million this year, the final guaranteed season of his two-year contract. Last week, the Nationals signed Morse, a breakout star in 2011, to a two-year, $10.5 million extension.

Fielder would have represented a significant upgrade, which is no offense to LaRoche or Morse. The rare player who became a free agent at 27, Fielder has hit 230 home runs in six-plus seasons, including a career-high 50 in 2007. He finished third in the MVP voting last season, hitting 38 homers with a .299 batting average, .415 on-base percentage and a .566 slugging percentage. For his age, he ranks among some of the best sluggers in major league history.

The Tigers took a serious offense hit last week when they lost Victor Martinez for the season to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Suddenly the team’s batting order appears more potent than ever. As the AP reported:

The move also keeps Fielder’s name in the Tigers’ family. His father, Cecil, became a big league star when he returned to the majors from Japan and hit 51 home runs with Detroit in 1990. Cecil played with the Tigers into the 1996 season, and young Prince made a name for himself by hitting prodigious home runs in batting practice at Tiger Stadium.

A few years ago, when Prince returned to Detroit as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers, Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline recalled that power show.

“You can’t ever say that you look at a kid that age and say that you know he’s going to hit 40 or 50 home runs someday, but Prince was unbelievable,” Kaline said then. “Here’s a 12-year-old kid commonly hitting homers at a big league ballpark.”

In an interview with MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM, Cecil Fielder said he was “shocked” by the news that Prince was heading to Detroit.

“He’s been there in Detroit most of his young life so I think he’ll be comfortable in that place,” Cecil Fielder said. “I know Mr. Ilitch is probably excited because he’s been wanting that kid since he was a little kid, so he finally got his wish.”

With Cabrera and Fielder, Detroit will begin this season with two players under age 30 with at least 200 career homers. According to STATS LLC, that’s happened only once before. At the start of the 1961 season, the Milwaukee Braves featured 29-year-old Eddie Mathews (338 homers) and 27-year-old Hank Aaron (219).

 
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