Prince Fielder primed for a big year

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Prince Fielder's 2013 season ended with a thud. Actually, more like a belly flop.

Fielder's baserunning blunder in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series defined his postseason, in a sense. With the Detroit Tigers leading 2-1 and threatening for more in the sixth inning, Fielder got caught between third base and home, and when he tried to lunge back to third to avoid the tag, fell down and was tagged out for a double play that killed the momentum. The Boston Red Sox came back, of course, and went on to celebrate a World Series title.

Fielder was 4-for-22 in the ALCS and he finished the playoffs without a home run or an RBI. It was a surprising and disappointing finish to his season.

Sounds like a great time for a fresh start, doesn't it?

The Texas Rangers are banking on it. I mean that literally. The Rangers' ownership group was willing to expand the budget (and the front office was willing to part with All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler) to bring Fielder and his contract -- he's got seven more years at $24 million per year remaining -- to Arlington. The Rangers did get the Tigers to pay $30 million of it in the latter stages of the deal, meaning Texas will foot the bill for just shy of $20 million per year. Still, that's a significant amount -- even with Kinsler's contract off the books -- for a player coming off what was one of the worst years of his career.

Of course, how many big leaguers would take Fielder's 2013 "down" year? The 29-year-old slugger hit .279. He pounded out 25 home runs and added 106 RBIs. He was, once again, one of the most patient hitters in the league, yet his .362 on-base percentage was the lowest since his first full season in the majors. He had career lows in slugging percentage and home runs.

"I sucked," Fielder said when asked about last season at his introductory news conference with the Rangers in November. "I didn't have to be reminded of it."

So was last season the beginning of a slow decline for a player who turns 30 in May? Or was it just a brief dip in what has been a consistent track record of success?

The Rangers are gambling on the latter. And there are plenty of reasons why it sure looks like a smart bet. Among them:

• Fresh start. Texas hasn't found a consistent, run-producing first baseman since it shipped Mark Teixeira to Atlanta and acquired some of the pieces that proved key in the franchise's back-to-back World Series appearances. It's easy now to say that Chris Davis could have been that guy, but Davis was given multiple chances to seize the job and didn't. He needed a change of scenery and a new beginning. And he certainly took advantage of it last year with the Orioles.

Fielder could do the same. Last season was tough on him. He won't go into details about it, but it's clear when he attempts to talk about 2013 that he's ready to leave it behind. That started even before he was introduced as a Ranger, choosing No. 84 to put on his jersey, a number he's never worn.

There is something to the idea of starting anew, and Fielder will get ample opportunity. He's in a new division, will have to get to know a bunch of new teammates and must deal with the Texas heat. He likened it to starting at a new school, and admitted he was looking forward to it (it helps that he's changed teams before -- he played seven years with the Brewers prior to signing with the Tigers in 2012).

• Home Run Porch. Many of the Rangers' scouts believe Fielder is amply suited to pound balls out of right field at Globe Life Park (the new name of the Rangers' ballpark). The right-field foul pole sits just 325 feet from home plate, an area that Fielder's left-handed swing could send bags of balls into. Powerful left-handed hitters have had a good track record in Arlington; Fielder certainly fits the prototype of a slugger who could increase his home run total with 81 games in Texas.

• Protection. For the first time in a while, Fielder will get some protection rather than having to be the one protecting everyone else. He hit behind Ryan Braun in Milwaukee when Braun won the National League MVP in 2011 and batted behind Miguel Cabrera for both of Cabrera's American League MVP awards, in 2012 and 2013.

But manager Ron Washington has said repeatedly that he plans on leaving Adrian Beltre in the cleanup spot with Fielder hitting third. Beltre was the Rangers' top offensive producer in 2013 and has had three consistent and solid seasons in the heart of the Texas lineup.

Beltre predicted that Fielder would win the AL MVP in 2014, believing the slugger is ready for a big bounce-back season. It will help to have Beltre waiting on deck as pitchers decide how to approach Fielder.

Fielder said he's excited to have Beltre bat behind him.

"He's a great hitter," Fielder said of Beltre a few weeks ago. "He has power. He can hit for average and drive in runs. So any time you get to hit in front of a guy like that, it's not going to hurt."

Shin-Soo Choo. Fielder will benefit from having someone consistently on base in front of him. Few players in the majors get on base more often than Choo. The Rangers' new leadoff hitter should give Fielder plenty of opportunities to drive in runs. And if you add No. 2 hitter Elvis Andrus to the equation -- with his ability to not only get on base himself, but also to move Choo over -- Fielder should arrive at home plate with some chances to deliver in the clutch.

• Manager. Don't underestimate Washington's importance to Fielder's season, either. The skipper has an ability to get through to superstars and make sure they're in their comfort zone. He does that in a variety of ways. Sometimes it's keeping the lineup consistent, and riding through the ups and downs of a slugger's season. Sometime it's talking to them and motivating them when needed.

But there's a reason so many players rave about Washington and the clubhouse atmosphere, giving them an even better chance to succeed.

We know that Fielder is a tremendous upgrade to the Rangers' lineup, even if he puts up the same numbers in 2014 that he did in 2013. But there are plenty of reasons to believe that he'll thrive with his new team. He looks primed for a huge 2014.