The promise of Prince Fielder

I largely agree with Bpbrady and Dave Cameron’s assessment of the deal that made Prince Fielder a member of the team where his (estranged) father was a star. In short, the Tigers had better win a World Series by 2015. Fielder probably is close to his athletic peak right now, but, like Albert Pujols’ new contract with the Angels, compensation doesn’t really ramp up until later.
ESPN Insider’s Dan Szymborski ran a ZiPS projection for Fielder over the next nine years. Here’s what he got:


Those early-contract numbers might look a tad pessimistic, given that Fielder’s coming off a season in which he hit .299/.415/.566 and racked up 5.5 wins above replacement, and he’s just 27 years old, smack in the middle of the age range in which the average major leaguer peaks. But for all of his power potential, Fielder is a lousy defender who’ll play either first base (poorly) or DH. That means he needs to hit a metric ton to yield as much value as a player manning a premium defensive position, like Matt Kemp or even Dustin Pedroia.

The national media reaction to this deal has been pretty tepid: it just seems to be too rich for their liking, and Fielder won’t earn the money over the full length of the nine-year contract. My buddy in Detroit called me a couple hours after the announcement to discuss, and he said that the reaction over there largely remained in the surprised shock stages. The general consensus that’s filtering through there and nationally, though, is that the Tigers over-leveraged their future in an attempt to win now, making this a bad deal for the Tigers. In other words, this 275 lb (and growing), $214 million (and escalating) albatross will be such a drag on the team that it will clearly outweigh any short-term benefits.

This, of course, is hardly the case. The theory underlying the criticism of the Fielder deal is that teams should be trying to build perennial contenders, and that this contract will prevent Detroit from becoming a perennial contender once Fielder’s decline sets in. The second clause in the preceding sentence may be true and probably will be, but the first contains a cliché assumption that is bogus. Maybe it isn’t totally bogus. If some success is good, more success is better, and once having found success, it’s nice to sustain that success. The problem is that very few teams have been able to maintain top-level success. (Moreover, there was no indication that the 2011 Tigers were calibrated such that they were on the cusp of a decade of dominance or anything like that.) Detroit hasn’t won the World Series since 1984, and the years since then have been pretty thin. If presented with the option of winning the division in each of the next three seasons, winning one championship during that period, and then sinking back into mediocrity for the next six years, I can’t imagine a single Tiger fan saying no. Our willingness to forego future stability for an increased chance of present gains has put our economy in the stink pot, but when it comes to baseball, and a team that hasn’t won it all in 28 years, the strategy makes perfect sense.

Some of the specific criticisms ring hollow too. Dave Cameron, to whom Bpbrady linked, argues that, if Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski was willing to spend this much money, he should’ve gone after pitcher C.J. Wilson and some other hitter (perhaps Johnny Damon, as Keri suggests) instead. All of this ignores the timing of the impetus for this move: Victor Martinez’s torn ACL. Wilson was off the free-agent market by then, so there was no way Dombrowski could get him. The need was a power hitter, and neither a pitcher like Wilson nor a cheap bat meets that need. As for the statistical projections of Fielder’s future, they consider him only in isolation. (Keri even acknowledges a problem with that: “ZiPS sees Fielder as an average player by year seven of the deal, and near replacement level by the end. But ZiPS has no more experience in projecting a 5-foot-11, 275-pound player than any of us do, either.”) One of the benefits of having Martinez and Miguel Cabrera in the lineup together is that each made the other a better hitter. They did this, in part, because it’s much more difficult for pitchers to ignore (i.e., walk) two batters than one batter (e.g., Pujols). The projections of Fielder don’t seem to account for the fact that he’ll be paired with someone who may be the best hitter in the game today. (In more good news for the offense, Brennan Boesch also will be back this year.)

I still feel uncomfortable about this deal. So much of the Tigers’ success last year came as a result of players performing uncharacteristically well. Delmon Young, Doug Fister, and (the clutch hitting of) Brandon Inge all come to mind. At one point this fall, I was feeling better about the team than I was in 2006, when they went to the World Series and lost because their hitting evaporated, because the emphasis was on pitching, and there was less reliance on offense. But, in Dombrowski we trust. Whether this move returns the balance to the offensive side or not, I’m looking forward to the next few seasons with great anticipation.


8 thoughts on “The promise of Prince Fielder

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