The Market Impact Of The Fielder-Kinsler Trade

In case you missed it — or, perhaps, thought the headlines were fantasy baseball musings rather than a real thing — the Tigers and Rangers consummated a rather substantial trade last night. The clubs swapped the big contracts owed Prince Fielder and Ian Kinsler, with $30MM also heading to Texas. In sum, then, the Rangers have added $76MM in salary, and each team has plugged a hole that it might otherwise have addressed in free agency.

While the ultimate impact on the fortunes of the two ballclubs involved will not be known for some time, the broader effects on the free agent and trade market will be sizeable and immediate. Here are some initial thoughts on what that might look like:

Reduction In Demand
 
First and foremost, both of these big-spending clubs have now filled major vacancies without a single new dollar being committed to the market. And it is entirely possible that neither of those clubs has opened a new hole through the deal, which is probably a big reason why it got done: top prospect Jurickson Profar will step in at second for Texas, while Detroit has internal options to account for its corner infield jobs (including, potentially, its own highly regarded prospect in Nick Castellanos.) If that is indeed the case, the deal is probably bad news for free agents generally, because it takes two premium, high-paying potential jobs off the market. 
 
The impact is even more pronounced because neither Kinsler nor, especially, Fielder were sure things to be dealt this off-season. And tens of millions of dollars figured to be spent on the spots that each will now occupy. The point shouldn't be overstated — after all, Kinsler could well have ended up taking over at first for Texas, and there are still plenty of openings to be filled — but it will have some impact, especially when it comes time for agents to play serious bidders off of one another to drive high prices or prop up low ones. After already seeing international free agents take away possible new homes, guys like Omar Infante and Mike Napoli probably have lost a potential landing spot, and with it some leverage.
 
Except For Corner Outfielders?
 
On the other hand, one particular group of free agents could stand to benefit: top corner outfielders. Both the Tigers and Rangers entered the off-season with a need at the corner outfield, as MLBTR's Steve Adams and Charlie Wilmoth respectively explained. Now, those clubs have found a way to address one need without coming out of their collective pocket. In theory, that should mean more money is free on the market to be spent on outfielding needs.
 
Enhancing the impact is the fact that multiple mid-tier options — Marlon Byrd, David DeJesus and David Murphy — have already come off the board at fairly substantial prices, setting a high floor. And those signings may not have drastically reduced demand: the Phillies could well still be in on top outfielders, and the Indians were, as Charlie noted, far from certain to spend at the corner outfield coming into the off-season (meaning that Murphy does not really take an obvious, pre-existing landing spot away from free agents). Four of the top twenty open-market players (per MLBTR's Tim Dierkes) are expected to defend the flanks of the outfield, and that already-well-regarded group could see a boost.
 
A potential corner outfield boom probably requires the Fielder-Kinsler dancemates actually to be buyers in that market. Having made a deal out of left field, are these two clubs now more or less likely — as a practical matter — to spend on left field? While there are arguments in both directions, I think both Texas and Detroit will keep the wallets open for the corners.
 
You might pencil in the Tigers to apply their cash windfall to a Max Scherzer extension instead. But with a roster begging for another shot or three at a World Series victory, the organization seems relatively unconcerned with limiting short-term payroll. (Indeed, this deal will not help Detroit much in that regard.) Instead, the payroll flexibility needed by GM Dave Dombrowski and co. is in the long run: Fielder promised to be a major drag and an impediment to keeping players like Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera in Motown. But the Tigers should have little problem keeping free future cash for Scherzer while still aggressively pursuing Torii Hunter's mirror image in left field — a strong veteran who figures to land a short- or mid-length deal.
 
Of course, nothing is decided, and Dombrowski could chase a third baseman or keep Cabrera there while deploying Castellanos in the outfield. But the thin market at the hot corner and Miggy's recent injuries, age, and defensive limitations keep the smart money on a new addition in left.
 
Meanwhile, the Rangers added salary, which would seem to be a significant drag on outfield spending. But the net payroll impact of $76MM is less than the team would have likely committed to a premium free agent, and the cost was a player that had become expendable. More importantly, because the length of Fielder's deal is the biggest factor in the cost difference, the added dollars mostly impact the payroll further down the line. The Rangers were one of those clubs whose future obligations were fairly front-loaded, making the salary flip relatively easy to stomach in the long run. And in the short run, Texas should remain just about as flexible as it was already.
 
With first base filled, the corner outfield and catcher are the two clear areas where GM Jon Daniels can most easily add value over the in-house options. Indeed, Daniels noted that the club still intends to add another bat. With the aforementioned Murphy now in Cleveland, the Rangers may at this point be even more likely to spend in the outfield than they were before the deal, when a shift of Kinsler to left was at least a hypothetical possibility.
 
Shifting Trade Winds
 
This unexpected blockbuster could also impact several other rumored swaps. With Fielder's remaining seven years off the books, extending (or re-signing) Scherzer now looks a lot more feasible from Detroit's perspective. Indeed, Dombrowski acknowledged that keeping the newly-minted Cy Young winner is now "more possible going forward." As MLBTR's Zach Links noted, that makes speculation that Scherzer might be dealt seem less plausible. 
 
Further, a major premise of the rumors linking the Rangers to star trade chips like David Price and Giancarlo Stanton was the possibility of packaging Profar, a centerpiece that few other organizations could match. But with his name now scratched into the middle infield dirt at Arlington, Texas may no longer have the trump card — or, perhaps more importantly, the desire and ability to deal from depth — that made it a seeming market-driver for premium trade acquisition targets. (Of course, even if Profar's new starting gig has some impact on Tampa's ability to drive up the trade value of Price, the lack of a competing front-line starter in Scherzer would more than compensate.)
 
Finally, with Kinsler finding a new home in a pretty unexpected place, teams that might have targeted him as a keystone option will have to look elsewhere. Of course, as Dave Cameron of Fangraphs notes, Howie Kendrick and Brandon Phillips still seem available by trade. So there is only the slightest silver lining here for Infante, who as Zach reported will not return to Detroit. If the Yankees bring back Robinson Cano, as expected, the market may be devoid of big-spending, win-now competitors for his services.
 
Ultimately, there is little question that yesterday's trade will have major ripple effects on how the puzzle pieces end up falling in place. While it is impossible to forecast with any confidence exactly what the impact will be, this deal makes for a fascinating shift of the market at the outset of the off-season.

 
Franchise Alteration
 
Finally, while I will not offer any take on the merits of the deal for the two teams involved, I would like to offer some further perspective on its impact to their balance sheets. In some ways, the clubs have swapped positions in terms of future financial obligations. With $30MM reportedly set to head south over 2016-20 (presumably, in equal installments), the deal results in the following changes to the clubs' respective guaranteed contract obligations from 2015 onward (information courtesty of Cot's Baseball Contracts):
 
DET v TEX
 
To visualize the shifts, look at these charts of the future commitments:
 
DET
 
TEX


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