This crazy off-season just got that much crazier. In a move that absolutely no one could have anticipated, the Tigers today shelled out 214 million dollars over nine seasons in signing former-Brewer Prince Fielder despite hundreds of millions of dollars already invested in a first baseman and designated hitter over the next several seasons. And while the Tigers will certainly be a force to be reckoned with in the near future, while the team that knocked the Yankees from the playoffs just a few months ago just got better, my first reaction to this trade was “thank you Brian Cashman.” Thank you for not being this General Manager and for making sure over the past few seasons that the Yankees aren’t this team. There are bold deals and there are bad deals. The Yankees have certainly had their share of both. But it’s one thing to shell out massive sums of money to players you need. It’s another to shell out massive sums of money at far above market value to a 300-pound albatross waiting to happen and to screw up the future composition of your roster in the process.
Prince Fielder is, no doubt, a great baseball player. At 27, soon to be 28-years-old, Fielder has already hit 230 career home runs to go along with a .930 OPS. A well rounded offensive performer, Fielder walks a lot, doesn’t strike out too often, hits for a decent average, and is capable of power performances few can match. He’s on the right side of 30 (for now) and makes the Tigers lineup that much better. In the immediate future, he fills a need. With Victor Martinez out the Tigers were a bat short of their ALCS-caliber 2011 club and Fielder absolutely makes up the difference. Tigers fans are understandably excited.
In the long run, though, this deal makes little sense.
To start, the Tigers went to great lengths to add this bat to their lineup. Miguel Cabrera, a better hitter and defender than Fielder and the Tiger current first baseman, is said to be headed to third base when Martinez returns. With tens of millions invested in the former catcher and Alex Avila entrenched behind the plate, what option does Detroit have? In order to get all four players – their four best offensive players – into the lineup, Cabrera has to play third. And that’s not good. He moved off third in his early-20s for a reason. To expect a poor defensive first baseman, now in his late-20s, to move back to the position and play anything more than atrocious defense would be asking too much. The Tigers just spent 200+ million on Fielder despite having no natural position for him to play. It’s madness.
There’s also the issue of a more fundamental organizational strategy. The Tigers are not the Yankees. They are not playing the AL East. They don’t need Prince Fielder to win that division this year. They probably don’t need Prince Fielder to win that division next year. The Twins and White Sox are a mess. The Indians and Royals are still a ways away from being 90+ win ball clubs. The Tigers are in great shape – at least in the short term. But with so much money invested in Cabrera and Justin Verlander and Martinez already, the Tigers should have been focused on acquiring low cost, young talent to supplement that core and keep that roster competitive in the long term. To compete with the Royals and Indians of tomorrow and potentially a resurgent Twins club. Instead, they accentuated a weakness. They made their team more top heavy, more dependent on power hitters approaching the age of 30, a worse defensive ball club, and one with far less payroll flexibility.
And then there is the issue of the enormous dollar figure. In the history of professional sports, two players have ever signed contracts in excess of what Fielder was just awarded. You can probably guess who those two players are, but I’ll tell you – Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols. Rodriguez signed both contracts coming off MVP caliber seasons as a shortstop and then third baseman, at both points probably the best player in baseball. Albert Pujols’ contract is a bit more difficult to defend, but of course Pujols is arguably still the best player in baseball, there were three teams bidding up the price (Florida, St. Louis, and Los Angeles) and the Angels needed Pujols both for his star power and his offense-changing presence. The Tigers didn’t need Fielder. They had a Fielder and another lesser Fielder. What they passed up to sign this one player is astronomical.
Prince Fielder signed for 214 million dollars. Yu Darvish and Jose Reyes COMBINED signed for 213 million dollars. For the same financial commitment, the Tigers could have had a shortstop who has virtually equaled or surpassed Fielder’s value in all but one season of their respective careers and a pitcher universally seen by scouts as a first or second starter.
Fielder is not old. He’s not a great fit but he the Tigers will make it work. If one was to assume he’d be worth near his salary over the next five or six seasons, a decent player in his final seasons at 35, 36, and 37, one might understand why the Tigers gave Prince what they did. But given Fielder’s profile as a near-30, massively overweight, power hitting first baseman it would be foolish to count on that sustained production. There are simply too many examples of similar players who had great early careers and who subsequently fell apart around the age of 30. Look at Prince’s father. Cecil Fielder didn’t become nearly the kind of player his son has until his return from Japan at 26. But by the time of his trade to the Yankees at 32, the end was near. By 1997 he was a shell of his former self. Look at Mo Vaughn. In recent years, Travis Hafner, Ryan Howard, and David Ortiz to varying extents. The prime of a big, overweight, primarily power hitting first baseman is short and for a player like Fielder, probably the fifth best first baseman in the league as we stand, a prime level performance is going to be necessary to come close to fulfilling his end of this deal.
All this is not to say that the Tigers didn’t get better, in the short run. This is not to say the Yankees should not be somewhat worried about facing this team or that Tigers fans should not be happy to have such a great player on board. Yet the senselessness of spending so much money on a player who is such a poor fit and for whom the market was shrinking fast has to make other AL fans happy as well. It also has to make us Yankees fans sit back and appreciate what this front office has become. Sometimes our patience is worn thin but as this move demonstrates, even the best run big-budget operations in Major League Baseball can panic and make very poor decisions. Thankfully it wasn’t us on the wrong end of this win for Scott Boras and Prince Fielder. Thankfully we waited on the market, we got we needed, and we sat back down to patiently await spring training. The Tigers were not so lucky.