DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers responded to a jarring injury with an audacious move.
Free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder and the Tigers agreed Tuesday to a nine-year, $214 million contract that fills the American League Central Division champions’ need for a power hitter, said a source familiar with the situation.
Detroit 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 source told The Associated Press the deal was subject to a physical. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because the contract was not yet complete.
The Tigers won their division by 15 games before losing in the AL Championship Series to Texas. Adding the 27-year-old Fielder gives the Tigers two of the game’s premier sluggers, pairing him with Miguel Cabrera.
With Fielder 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. “But I don’t think anybody thought it would be this big.”
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 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).
Several teams had shown interest in Fielder, who had spent his entire career with the Brewers. He visited Texas, and the Washington Nationals also got involved.
The beefy slugger hit .299 with 38 home runs and 120 RBI last season. He is a three-time All-Star and was the MVP of last year’s event in Phoenix.
Fielder has averaged 40 homers and 113 RBI over the past five years. He’s also been among the most durable players, appearing in at least 157 games in each of the past six seasons.
Fielder hits left-handed, while Cabrera is a righty. Manager Jim Leyland will get to decide where to put them in the batting order.
“I don’t think there’s a better right-left combo in any lineup in baseball,” Boesch said. “I’m sure skip’s wheels are already turning on how to set them up.”
The deal is the fourth $200 million contract in baseball history, following Alex Rodriguez’s $275 million, 10-year contract with the New York Yankees, A-Rod’s $252 million, 10-year deal with Texas, and Albert Pujols’ $240 million, 10-year contract last month with the Los Angeles Angels.
Among current players, Fielder’s $23.78 million average salary is behind A-Rod ($27.5 million), Ryan Howard ($25 million), and Cliff Lee and Pujols ($24 million each).
Dombrowski indicated last week he’d probably seek a short-term solution to Martinez’s injury, but he left himself some wriggle room, saying it depended who the replacement was.
Acquiring Fielder opens all sorts of possibilities. For now, Detroit has an opening at DH with Martinez out. But Martinez is in the second year of a $50 million, four-year contract.
One option could be to move Cabrera from first base to third. He played third base regularly for the Florida Marlins before the Tigers acquired him.
The Tigers reached the World Series in 2006, but they appeared to be in cost-cutting mode when they traded popular center fielder Curtis Granderson to the New York Yankees after the 2009 season.
It turned out they were simply re-allocating resources. They quickly signed ace Justin Verlander to a five-year deal in early 2010, then added Martinez and standout reliever Joaquin Benoit last offseason.