Saturday, January 28, 2012

Prince Fielder Reaction

At first glance, Victor Martinez tearing his ACL and missing the entire 2012 season looked like it would deal a substantial blow to the Detroit Tigers.  In case you've been living under a rock the last two years, offense is at a premium these days, and switch-hitters who bat .330/.380/.470 with 40 doubles and 103 RBI don't exactly grow on trees.  Losing V-Mart's bat for the whole year figured to open up a major hole in the heart of the Tiger lineup and rob Detroit of some balance, leaving Miguel Cabrera, 25 year-old backstop Alex Avila, and the up-and-down Jhonny Peralta to carry the run-scoring load in Motown.  And who would replace their everyday DH, arguably the best in baseball last year alongside David Ortiz, as well as their number five hitter who protected Miggy Cabrera?  The free agent market, after all, resembles a fantasy baseball waiver wire with aging stars such as Johnny Damon, Magglio Ordonez and J.D. Drew still searching for a paycheck. Detroit's own Delmon Young, he of the career .321 on-base percentage, is only 26 but appeared to be the best candidate to fill the DH void given his defensive incompetence in leftfield.  Therefore Martinez's absence, combined with likely regression from reigning American League MVP Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, and Jose Valverde, seemed likely to set the defending AL Central champs (still favored to repeat in a division that had no other team finish over .500 last year) back a few wins and potentially spoil their World Series chances after they came up short against Texas in the 2011 ALCS.

Enter Prince Fielder, son of Cecil Fielder, who belted 245 home runs (twice leading the majors) for the Tigers from 1990 through 1996, when Detroit dealt him at the deadline to the Yankees for Ruben Sierra and a minor leaguer.  All winter, Chicago, Texas, and Washington seemed like the favorites to land the biggest fish remaining in the free agent pool because of positional need and sizable payroll, so Detroit really came out of nowhere and shocked the baseball world when they inked Fielder last week.  So now Prince is coming full circle by returning to the city where he grew up watching his father crush baseballs out of Tiger Stadium.  Although their relationship deteriorated over the years, the elder Fielder is claiming that "time heals all wounds" and that they are presently on good terms.  While comparing the beefy father-son duo, I discovered that Prince's career counting numbers look eerily similar to the ones his father posted in Motown (I already looked at some of his numbers back in November).  Check it out

Cecil 1990-1996:   982 G  4,252 PA  3,674 AB  558 R  947 H  245 HR  519 BB  1,831 TB
Prince 2005-2011: 998 G  4,210 PA  3,527 AB  571 R  996 H  230 HR  566 BB  1,904 TB

Pretty close, eh?  Like father, like son. The similarities don't end there, though.
-Both made three All-Star teams
-Both won two Silver Sluggers
-Both earned MVP votes four times and finished in the top 10 of MVP voting three times; Cecil was runner-up twice, while Prince was third twice
-Both scored at least 100 runs twice
-Both knocked in at least 100 runs four times
-Neither one batted .300, although Prince hit .299 last year
-Both were durable despite their size; Cecil averaged 148 games per year and played all 162 in 1991. Prince has never played fewer than 157 and has missed just one game during the last three seasons
-And of course, they were both huge, lumbering first baseman who couldn't field or run worth a lick

In the short run, this acquisition has to be considered a slam dunk for Detroit, who have to be considered legit World Series contenders along with the Yankees, Angels, and Rangers.  They're replacing Martinez's stick and then some by adding a career .282/.390/.540 hitter with perennial 40-130 potential.  Pairing him with Miguel Cabrera gives the Tigers the most lethal hitting duo since David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez were terrorizing American League pitchers five years ago.  And best of all, Fielder's only 27, so the Tigers have him locked up for what should be about five or six highly productive seasons.  By the same token his contract is up at 36, so they won't be paying him over $20 million a year into his early 40s like Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez.  Because of better nutrition, training and conditioning it's much easier for players to remain productive/healthy into their mid-30s, so it's possible that Detroit will still be getting plenty of bang for their buck at the tail end of the contract.

I will say that moving Cabrera over to third base (where he might be more of a butcher with the leather than Mark Reynolds) this year seems a bit premature; there's room for either one to play first next season while the other fills the Designated Hitter slot.  Cabrera hasn't manned the hot corner everyday since 2007, when he was five years younger and considerably slimmer.  If I were Jim Leyland I'd keep Miggy at first and let Fielder DH.  Both are terrible with the glove, but because of Fielder's body type he seems like a more natural fit for a role that only requires him to hit and jog the bases.  Playing Cabrera and Fielder in the field leaves the Tigers with the worst pair of corner infielders in the game (defensively) and increases the odds that one of them will get hurt.  Both hit more than enough to make up for their deficiencies on D, but as the pre-Nomar Garciaparra-trade 2004 Red Sox showed, it is possible to have too much offense when it comes at the expense of quality fielding.

By giving Fielder nine years and $214 million (with no opt-out clause), Detroit's front office is grossly overpaying Milwaukee's Prince for his services (consider that Matt Kemp, perhaps the best all-around player in baseball and worth twice as many bWAR as Fielder last year, netted eight years and 160 million dollars).  With less than a month until pitchers and catchers report for spring training, time for negotiotiations was running out.  It was looking more and more likely that superagent Scott Boras and his star client would have to "settle" for a shorter term deal in the six-year, $150 million ballpark.  In addition, there wasn't much competition for him because many of the big market teams have already inked star first baseman (Mark Teixeria, Ryan Howard, Adrian Gonzalez) for the foreseeable future.  So Detroit essentially outbid itself, but if Fielder helps bring the city a championship then I doubt the front office will hear too many complaints.  After all, you can't put a price tag on winning, and after winning the AL Central by fifteen games last year the Tigers have to be considered the overwhelming favorites to win the division crown again.

Still, in the long term this contract doesn't look like a good investment.  All of Fielder's value is tied into his hitting, so unless he puts up monster numbers every year it's unlikely that he'll be worth the money.  And given his "unusual" physical dimensions it's quite probable that he will decline hard and fast during his early-to-mid thirties.  The DH will help extend his career and keep him fresh, but traditionally big sluggers don't age as gracefully as their more athletic peers.  But Fielder is a special case, and there really isn't anyone to compare him to past or present (if he's like his father, he'll be done by his mid-thirties.  On one hand I could see him lasting into his late thirties, a la Jim Thome and Frank Thomas, but on the other I wouldn't be surprised if he falls off a cliff in his early thirties as many power hitters do.

Only time will tell.

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