By: Kurt Snyder
I hate to mention his name again, but I must. Prince Fielder. It kind of makes me cringe to bring him up, but he helps to illustrate the importance of one of the two most critical pillars of successful baseball: defense.
The acquisition of Prince Fielder was probably Mike Ilitch’s weakest moment as owner of the Tigers. As much credit as Ilitch earns for financial support and a good baseball sense, this was not one of his strongest days.
It was an exorbitant amount of money spent to acquire Fielder; one of the most limited players in the game. Prince was not a good first baseman for the Tigers. In fact, defense has never been his strong suit. When he is talked about, it’s all about his bat and never about his glove, and certainly not about quickness or agility.
So when the Tigers acquired him, as exciting as he was offensively, things became a mess defensively. With Prince showing no desire to DH, first base is where he had to be, meaning the Tigers, almost embarrassingly if you think about it, told Miggy he had to move to third base.
Cabrera, after initially beginning his career with the Tigers at third base, had successfully made the transition to first where he had become quite comfortable. And he had become very good. So for the Tigers to first sign Fielder to a disgusting contract, it was followed up by turning the infield upside down.
Moving Cabrera back to third was not something any fan wanted to see given the experience we remember when he first became a Tiger; he struggled so much at third when he arrived. So the combination of adding Prince and downgrading the defense at first, the move in turn degraded the defense at third base as well. Weak defense at the corners is not something any team wants, even though the Tigers still managed to make it to the Series with the Miggy / Prince combo.
In Miggy’s defense, he did show his athleticism at third; but there were balls he just couldn’t get to, often futilely diving for shots in the hole or down the line.
Jim Leyland had to be cringing every time he saw Miggy diving in dirt. The Tigers were gambling with the future of their most-prized possession; and I am convinced that his time at third advanced some of his health problems the last few seasons.
When a team wins a World Championship, it’s common procedure for the media to comb through key moves and acquisitions that led to that title. And if the Tigers manage to win a title with this core, the Fielder trade for Ian Kinsler will certainly be one of the biggest reasons, because it has been so far-reaching.
Just think how Prince’s exit, Kinsler’s addition at second base and Miggy’s return to first, affected the Tiger defense. Before either of them even picked up a bat after the trade, the team had already improved immensely.
It was addition by subtraction from a financial standpoint, while Kinsler has become the anchor of the infield, playing a Gold Glove worthy second base. And most importantly, Miggy has found his rightful spot back at first base, where he seems to improve every season.
As the Tigers have since upgraded shortstop with the addition of a very talented Jose Iglesias, they are now better defensively than they have been in a very long time. But the key will always be Miggy.
We continually talk about how critical it is that Cabrera stay healthy for the Tigers to have any shot at winning a title. And it’s true, without him in that lineup, there is a gaping hole, which normally means the end of the line for the Tigers. There is really no replacing the best hitter in baseball.
But it’s not just his bat that is missed when he is injured. It’s his glove at first, his great arm and also his defensive instincts. He is a great talent, a complete baseball player, an intelligent presence on the diamond; one we need to have on the field, both at the plate and standing next to the bag at first.
When the day comes that Miggy becomes a full-time DH, the Tigers will need to think defense as well as offense at first, because both will need to be efficiently replaced.