Fielder to the Tigers

Fake Jon Heyman reported this afternoon that Prince Fielder was headed to the Nationals for 8 years. I was excited, if only because I live in Arlington and could enjoy Fielder’s time with the Nats in person. Alas, that was not to come. Quickly, Yahoo’s Tim Brown and the real Jon Heyman reported otherwise: Fielder was headed to the Tigers, for 9 years, $214 million. That’s been confirmed. Wow. Looks like the Tigers couldn’t wait to get a Fielder back in Motown.

So, first, is Fielder worth this kind of deal? In his career with the Brewers so far (six full seasons), Fielder has hit .282/.390/.540 for a 143 OPS+/.391 wOBA. He’s collected 19.6 refWAR/23.4 fWAR in that time. WAR in both calculations docks him for his bad defense and, in Fangraphs’ metric, for his awful baserunning. Initially I thought we wouldn’t have to worry about the defense this year, because he’d be replacing Victor Martinez as the primary DH, but it appears he’ll be at first and Miguel Cabera at third. Good thing Justin Verlander doesn’t give up a lot of ground balls, right? (Apologies, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello. Fister may have a Pavano-esque season with that infield next year.)

Fielder will be turning 28 in May this year, so the Tigers will sign him for his age 28-36 seasons. His value will come as a hitter and he’s been a very good one so far, though he’s shown a little inconsistency in his power, alternating good and great years, but that’s likely tied to the variable of HR/FB rate.¬†Fielder’s plate discipline numbers have stayed pretty stable over time, but he posted a little better contact numbers last year and dropped his strikeout rate from 19.3% to 15.3%. For the next few years, one would imagine he can keep up his hitting. Additionally, he did hit 24 of his 38 home runs at Miller Park last year, but over his career, he’s hit 123 at home and 107 on the road–it’s not a significant split. Comerica was a neutral park for home runs last year and Fielder, by hit tracker online’s numbers, may have had 10 “just enough” homers, but he also had 11 “no doubters.” Fielder’s power probably shouldn’t be affected much in Comerica.

But, even if he does, when will he break down? Dave Cameron’s analysis at Fangraphs from this last October suggests that heavy-bodied hitters and players tend to crash in their early 30s, before other players. It begs the question of whether he’s more Jim Thome or Mo Vaughn. Or, more pertinent, whether he’s like his father. And even if he doesn’t break down, is he worth the investment? What happens when Victor is back in 2013? Aren’t Fielder, Cabrera, and Victor DHs in the near future? What happens when you are paying two players over $21 million a year just for their hitting?

This is a big part of the problem and the surprise. Good for Scott Boras to do this for his client, but paying Fielder $24 million (highest deal outside of Pujols and A-Rod’s two deals) is a gross overpayment, even for his best recent performances. At his best, Fielder, by WAR, has been a top-10 player in the NL. He hasn’t even breached the Top 5. So, if someone might not even be among the Top 10 best at the time of signing, is it smart to pay him like he’s Top 5? Say what you will about the Joe Mauer deal, but at least at the time, someone could suggest he was a player who could have won a few MVPs and was definitely among the very best in baseball, if not the top player in the AL. Same with Pujols and A-Rod when their deals were signed. I’m just not sure you can say that about Fielder, since he does not have the well-rounded game of any of those players.

The numbers only prove that point. Going by Baseball-Reference WAR, as noted, Fielder had 19.6 since becoming a full-time player in 2006. In that period, Pujols collected 47.5, Mauer had 35.4, and A-Rod, even with the last few decline years, had 29.0. Another younger player, Matt Kemp, who just signed a 8 year, $160 million extension, wasn’t even a full-time player in 2006, getting 52 games and 154 at-bats, yet he had 21.7 WAR in that time. New teammate Cabrera, on a 8 year, $152 million deal since 2008, had 32.0 WAR in that time. Portly pitcher C.C. Sabathia, on a 8 year, $182 million deal, had 34.8 WAR. How about another first baseman, Mark Teixeria, who is on a 8 year, $180 million deal signed before 2009–he’s got 28.1 WAR in that time. Adrian Gonzalez, on a 7-year, $154 million extension, had 29.3 WAR in that time. Even Justin Morneau, with his injury issues and terrible 2011, has 18.2 WAR in that time and a guy I pick on plenty, Ryan Howard, had 20.3. Over that time, he’s 12th in wOBA, but only 33rd in fWAR. None of that makes Fielder’s deal look too good. At least he’s not Vernon Wells, right?

So, for Twins fans, I’d say this is bad and good news. The bad news, obviously, is that it makes the Tigers a better team next year for sure–maybe adds 4 or 5 wins to their total. But I’m not sure that the Twins could realistically contend next year. They had a shot if everything went right and key players stayed healthy, but even before this, I’d have pick the Tigers and probably the Indians ahead of them. In the long run it’s probably to the Twins’ benefit. Soon enough, this Tigers team will probably be more like the Cubs teams of the last few years, with terrible long-term contracts (Soriano, Zambrano) weighing down the team. Since the Twins are or should be rebuilding in earnest, that will coincide at a time when they should be able to contend seriously and consistently again.

Perhaps that sounds like a cynical view, but I do mean it to be optimistic. The Twins should be rebuilding and part of that reasoning, for me at least, is that I believe Justin Morneau’s career is over with that nasty concussion problem. Mauer is the one big piece left with players like Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano and Denard Span having the potential to stick around with the team for a few years until they can contend. There is talent in the pipeline and the Twins have six of the top 100 picks in the draft this year. If they can do things right, then a rebirth will occur just as the potential powerhouse of the Central for the next few years is falling apart. Of course, the Tigers might not be a powerhouse either. I still believe the Indians have potential and the Royals possess a lot of young talent and this was a Tigers team that played above their pythagorean record last year. Regardless, Twins fans should take the signing with a grain of salt. The Tigers may have another great hitter, but at least we know our infield defense can’t be any worse than the Tigers’ defense.

With that, I’ll leave you with Prince’s first media appearance in Detroit, which begs the question, if Prince can strike out his dad, will the Tigers strike out on him too?

Prince Fielder’s McDonald’s Commercial (1992)

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