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Detroit Tigers player preview: How long can Ian Kinsler stave off decline?

Kinsler had a very productive season for the Tigers in 2014, but middle infielders don't age well.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Trying to pick out the best trade of Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski's tenure is a bit like picking out your favorite Beatles song. There are a lot of different possible answers, and none of them are truly wrong unless you're arguing with someone on the internet.

While it has taken years to appreciate some of Dombrowski's other Houdini acts -- who knew that the Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco deals would have looked like that? -- the trade for second baseman Ian Kinsler provided an immediate glimpse at Dombrowski's genius. Kinsler played in 161 games, led the league with 726 plate appearances, and provided a team-high 5.1 WAR. Fielder, considered the safer bet to remain healthy, was worth -0.3 WAR in 42 games before finally admitting that he had been battling an injury for the past year. He had surgery to decompress a pinched nerve in his neck and missed the rest of the 2014 season.

Advantage, Tigers.

While Kinsler's season was far more productive than Fielder's, his numbers paled in comparison to previous years. His .307 on-base percentage and .727 OPS were career-worsts thanks to a paltry 4.0 percent walk rate, less than half his career norm. He was more aggressive than ever, swinging at 47.8 percent of all the pitches he saw. This included a 31 percent swinging rate at pitches outside the strike zone, the highest of his career.

Part of the reason for Kinsler's aggressiveness could have been the high volume of first-pitch strikes he saw. After a career of seeing 58.7 percent of pitches in a 0-0 count in the strike zone, Kinsler faced a whopping 64.1 percent first-pitch strike percentage last year. One might postulate this as the Miguel Cabrera Phenomenon, but Kinsler was part of some potent lineups in Texas as well. Whether the hulking slugger in the on-deck circle is Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, or a still-effective Josh Hamilton, Kinsler is still the lesser of evils.

Contract status

Kinsler is in the third season of a five-year, $75 million extension he signed in April 2012 when he was playing for the Rangers. The front-loaded deal will pay him $16 million this year, $14 million in 2016, and $11 million in 2017. He has a $12 million team option for the 2018 season, with a $4.5 million buyout. Kinsler isn't a likely trade candidate after the Tigers shipped prospect Devon Travis to Toronto during the offseason, but the $45.5 million he has remaining on his deal limits any potential destinations should the Tigers suddenly find themselves sellers in the near future.

Stats and projections
2014 726 17 100 92 15 .275 .307 .410 .319
Steamer 654 16 82 67 13 .265 .320 .411 .324
ZiPS 675 15 88 76 15 .272 .326 .415 .327

Both Steamer and ZiPS project a slight bump in offensive production from Kinsler this season, mainly due to a positive regression from his walk rate. Tigers manager Brad Ausmus seems poised to use Kinsler as the team's No. 2 hitter in 2015, with Anthony Gose and Rajai Davis platooning in the leadoff spot. Kinsler was able to score 100 runs on a .307 on-base percentage last season, and I would imagine that he could improve on that total if he ups his OBP by 20 points in 2015.

Defensively, Kinsler is still one of the best second basemen in baseball, though expectations should be tempered as he moves closer to his mid-30s. Middle infielders are notorious for aging poorly, a phenomenon we are currently observing with Cincinnati Reds' second baseman Brandon Phillips, who is a year older than Kinsler. That said, Kinsler's struggles in the second half of 2014 seem related to his plate approach rather than age-related decline, so another year of above average performance should be in the offing for 2015.