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Staring Up at Prince and the Tigers

As everyone knows by now, the Detroit Tigers made a huge splash yesterday by inking Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million contract. The deal ranks as one of the largest in baseball history, putting Prince in the same company as Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols in terms of total contract value.

The impact of this move on the Tigers has been well covered. Detroit ran away with the division in 2011, finishing 15 games ahead of second-place Cleveland and 32 games ahead of the 2010 Division Champs. While they were set to enter the season as the likely favorite in the AL Central, the devastating injury to Victor Martinez had seemingly opened the door for their division rivals.

Then yesterday happened. Prince signs the fourth-biggest free agent contract in history, and suddenly the Detroit Tigers have the best 3-4 punch in baseball to complement a pitching staff that features the best pitcher in the American League. What does this mean for the Tigers - and the AL Central - in 2012? Here's a couple takes, after the jump:

"Adding Fielder pushes [the Tigers] from a solid team that would be in the mix to win a bad division up to being able to plan on playing in October and potentially challenging for a World Series title. After Martinez went down, there was probably no team in baseball that needed Fielder more than Detroit. If they were an 85-87 win team yesterday, they're probably closer to an 89-91 win team today."

-Dave Cameron, Fangraphs

"Signing Fielder makes the Tigers the most likely playoff team in all of baseball for 2012. The other four teams in the American League Central could merge and the Tigers might win the division anyway. Fielder and Miguel Cabrera are both first base/designated hitter types. They can split those two jobs this year and the Tigers will roll."

-Michael Rosenberg, Detroit Free Press

Strong words. But tough to argue against. After winning 95 games in 2011 (albeit with a Pythagorean win-loss record of 89-73), the Tigers appear to be a solid bet to reach 90 wins again this season, assuming their key players stay healthy and reach realistic expectations. By comparison, no other AL Central team even finished at .500 last season, and the best Pythagorean win-loss record among the remaining four teams was just a 78-84 mark from the Royals.

For the Twins, reaching that 90 win plateau would require a somewhat historic turnaround. The team would need to win 27 more games in 2012 than they won in 2011. That's not impossible - last year, the Arizona Diamondbacks posted a 29-game improvement that sprung them from the NL West cellar to the playoffs in just one year. But that kind of turnaround is certainly more of an exception than a rule. The Diamondbacks' jump last season was baseball's third-largest one-year improvement since 1990.

The Twins have made several smart moves this off-season which will certainly help fill some of the major holes the team endured in 2011. And healthy, productive seasons from key players like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, and Matt Capps will go a long way towards bringing our franchise back to respectability in 2012. But after the Prince Fielder signing, the gap between the Tigers and the rest of the AL Central looks larger than ever.

So should Twins fans have any optimism for the upcoming session? Of course. Baseball is a funny game, and the things we think we know in January often turn out to be wrong by October. This is not a perfect Tigers team. They're slow, weak defensively, and outside of Justin Verlander their rotation is filled with question marks that won't be served well by the team's defensive shortcomings. Some poor pitching compounded by poor fielding could leave even this lineup struggling to score enough runs each and every night. More importantly, Twins fans know just how quickly key injuries can derail a promising season. (Edit: Don't know how I missed this, but Brady Eyestone posted a FanPost yesterday detailing the Tigers' remaining shortcomings - check it out.)

Certainly there is more to the Prince Fielder signing than its impact on the 2012 race. The Tigers have clearly mortgaged the future to make a stab at a championship in the next two or three years, and the ramifications of this signing will be felt throughout the AL Central for the next decade. And major questions linger about what the club's defense will look like in 2013 when they'll be forced to find room for three players that are best suited for the role of designated hitter.

But on paper, this move clearly makes an AL Central crown in 2012 an even longer shot for a Twins team coming off one of its most disappointing seasons in franchise history.