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Kinsler represents more than a name in a trade

After joining Tigers in Fielder deal, second baseman poised for success at Comerica

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Time will tell how Ian Kinsler is remembered as a Tiger. But whatever happens, he's more than just a contract.

When he changed teams, he was essentially the other name in the Prince Fielder trade, a deal known more around Detroit for the guy shipped out of Detroit than the guy brought in. It wasn't his fault; nothing he could've done would have taken the spotlight off Fielder after a rough postseason.

That phase is over. With the Tigers poised to take the field for spring games this week, Kinsler's time in a Detroit uniform is about to begin. And Kinsler, more than anyone else, could become the igniter of the new-look Tigers offense -- not for his power, but for his ability to produce in a different way to reach the same end.

"They're here to win and I'm here to win," Kinsler said Sunday morning, "so it's a pretty easy transition, to be honest."

The Tigers have done their part to help make it run smoothly, including an offseason visit by new manager Brad Ausmus.

When Ausmus was at the Winter Meetings, he talked about trying to get together with as many players as he could to introduce himself and his message. He had dinner, for instance, with Anibal Sanchez while the meetings were taking place in Orlando. On his way back home to San Diego, he stopped over in Dallas for dinner with Kinsler and lunch with Austin Jackson.

At the time, Ausmus had only known Kinsler as an opponent from his own playing days.

"He seemed excited about [the move]," Ausmus said. "Just in our discussions, he made it very clear that in waiving his no-trade [clause], Detroit was one of the places that he wanted to play because of the Tigers' reputation as a winning organization. And now his energy here, it seems like he's all business."

For a player whose only contact with his new club at that point had been by phone and text, the outreach made an impact.

"I was excited about that dinner, to be honest," Kinsler said. "It was just nice to have a conversation, have some questions asked both ways and open up the conversation."

With a relatively young infield, Ausmus believes Kinsler's business-like approach could be a big help. Kinsler has already been working with Jose Iglesias to develop chemistry, including a rhythm on double plays.

"Average runners, groundball to shortstop, we're going to be able to do it. It's really learning each other about where we like [throws]," Kinsler said. "We can handle really anything, but where do you really want it? What's your best position to catch the ball? So we're working on it. We've had a couple days, but we still have a month ahead of us and a lot of time to work it out."

The Bill James Handbook uses range analysis and other factors to build a metric called Defensive Runs Saved to try to measure a fielder's value. Kinsler's 30 defensive runs saved over the last three years ranks him fifth among Major League second basemen.

The offensive transition is more internal.

A year ago at this point, people in the Tigers' clubhouse were quietly touting Prince Fielder as Detroit's next American League MVP candidate. With a .313 batting average, .940 OPS and 30 home runs in his first season in the American League, he seemingly had a head start on the league and more upside to come as he learned pitchers. Those forecasts faded.

Kinsler won't be that guy, which makes the straight-up comparison to Fielder like apples to oranges. He had two 30-homer seasons as a Ranger, but that won't happen with 81 games at Comerica Park. Moreover, the Tigers don't need that to happen.

With a bigger ballpark than he enjoyed for eight years in Texas awaiting him in Detroit, Kinsler came in lighter, fully prepared to take advantage of it. In the process, he might have furthered the Tigers' offensive diversity.

"I want to get back to [being] more of a line-drive-type hitter, a guy that's on base a lot more and gives the guys behind me a lot more opportunities to drive in runs. That's the goal, regardless of where I'm hitting and who's behind me," Kinsler said last week. "[Comerica Park is] spacious. You get a ball past an outfielder in that ballpark, you should be looking for three regardless of what line it's on."

Kinsler's career high in triples is five. His real value in his best seasons has come when he's rolling into second base.

Kinsler didn't top an .835 OPS in either of those 30-homer seasons. His career-best .892 OPS, by contrast, came in an 18-homer campaign in 2008. He hit 41 doubles in just 121 games that season and batted .319. He hit 42 doubles in 2012, but in far more games, and with a meager .256 batting average.

In both seasons, a majority of his doubles came at home. Unlike 2012, nearly half of his doubles in 2008 went to the center-field gaps. That's the style he could recapture, taking advantage of the vast territory between the center fielder and the corners at Comerica Park.

Kinsler hit 110 line drives in 2008, 81 of them for base hits, 29 of which were doubles. Despite his average drop in 2012, he came close to those numbers: 107 line drives, 78 hits, 25 doubles.

The same research says he hit many more liners last year, setting a career high with 133. With 87 hits, however, his batting average on line drives dropped to a career-low .654.

The extra territory at home suggests that should rise without much trouble. From there, it's about quality of contact, approach and adjustments.

Ausmus hasn't announced his starting lineup yet, but the fact that Kinsler will bat leadoff for the team's unofficial Spring Training opener Tuesday against Florida Southern suggests that Kinsler has a shot at the role, making Jackson available for the middle of the order. If that lineup were to hold, Kinsler would be trying to reach base in front of this trio: Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez.

All in all, Kinsler has the opportunity to make a presence in Detroit long after Fielder's two years as a Tiger fade.

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.
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