MLB Detroit Tigers

Prince Fielder Won’t Help The Detroit Tigers As Much As You Think

When Victor Martinez tore his ACL, few expected the Tigers to make a significant move. Martinez might have been out for the season, but he was signed through 2014. So there was no reason for anybody to expect them to sign a player for more than one year, right?

It seems super agent Scott Boras had other ideas, as the Tigers are about to sign Prince Fielder to a 9 year, $214 million deal. In case you were wondering, that would rank 4th all time, right behind Pujols’ new contract with the Angels.

With the lack of competition in the AL Central, this all but guarantees the Tigers will win the division. The next 162 games they play will simply be a formality, one which should have the Tigers resting their regulars by August. Detroit has lacked a strong left handed presence in their lineup, but with Fielder on the team that is no longer an issue.

In the past, Fielder has complained about not wanting to DH, so he’ll likely be playing first over Miguel Cabrera. This year Cabrera can DH, giving the Tigers the most devastating 3/4 combo since the days of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. With this kind of support, some have argued that Justin Verlander might just win 30 games. However, before you plan the parade for the Tigers, there are a few things to consider.

In the long term, we have to wonder what the Tigers are going to do with Victor Martinez. While he’s a quality hitter, there is no chance that he’ll play over Cabrera or Fielder. So his only other option to play is as catcher, and unless Alex Avila is injured there isn’t a chance Martinez will play over him. So the only option to get everyone in the lineup will be to move Cabrera to third base, a position he hasn’t played since 2007. It’s unlikely that the Tigers will take this route, but it is one possibility. Cabrera typically posted low UZR scores during his time as a 3B (-3 to -4), but with nearly 5 years away from the position it’s guaranteed that he’d be a significant liability there. On top of that, it would put Cabrera at a greater risk to injury as third base is more physically demanding than first base. Cabrera’s health is one of the top priorities for the Tigers, so it’s unlikely that they will take this approach.

So if Cabrera playing at the hot corner isn’t an option, what will the Tigers do?

Some have suggested they trade Cabrera, but that’s a foolish decision. Cabrera is one of the top hitters in the game, and they simply can’t afford to move him if they’re planning on competing. They’ll likely have to settle for selling low on Victor Martinez, who will be owed 25 million between 2013-2014. Considering he’ll have missed all of 2012, either they’ll have to pay a significant amount of money to get any kind of return, or they’ll be forced to take a prospect with little to no upside.

The downside to this acquisition is that Fielder can only add so much value to the Tigers. Cabrera will likely slide over to the DH spot, minimizing his value as his bat is not nearly as valuable as it would be at first base. David Ortiz was worth 6.3 WAR as a DH in a season that was very similar to the one Miguel Cabrera had in 2011. That’s a full win less than Cabrera earned this season playing as a first baseman. Meanwhile, Victor Martinez was worth 2.9 WAR for the Tigers last season as a DH. The 2011 Martinez/Cabrera duo was worth 10.2 WAR. If we use Fielder’s 2011 WAR and add it to Cabrera’s had he been a DH, we see that the Tigers are likely to get 12 WAR from their 1B/DH combo in 2012. Cabrera drops down to approximately 6.5, because he would lose time during interleague and getting hit with the DH penalty.

So the Tigers are likely to only be 2 wins better than they were last year with Prince Fielder added on. Now, the team is better in the short term with Fielder as his bat more than makes up for the loss of Victor Martinez. But for the long term, because Cabrera is moved to the DH slot, the gain is not as much as we initially thought.

Essentially, the Tigers spent 23M this year on Prince Fielder to add approximately 2 wins to the team over last years 1B/DH duo. The going rate for a win in free agency is approximately 4.5M, so the Tigers spent nearly $14M more than they should have in order to upgrade their team. It gets worse for the Tigers, who had a payroll of $111 million last season and will now be at $127 million before some of their arbitration cases are settled heading into 2012. They do have some money coming off the books over the next few years, but this signing will force the Tigers to use more players who aren’t even arbitration eligible in order to maintain a reasonable payroll while competing in the Central.

Detroit will be spending over $40 million a season on their DH and first baseman for the foreseeable future. Both Fielder and Cabrera are entering their prime, so at least the decline phases won’t come for some time. But when they do come, the Tigers will be regretting this deal significantly. Fielder will be 28 this season, so signing him into his mid to late 30′s is going to hurt the Tigers ability to compete down the line. I expect that Fielder should produce well this season, but this contract immediately becomes one of, if not the worst contract in the game.

Edit: According to Danny Knobler, there’s a chance the Tigers will in fact use Cabrera at third. While he suggests Cabrera might be a better defender than before, I’d like to point out that the Boston Red Sox did the same thing last season with Kevin Youkilis. Youk hadn’t played a significant number of innings at third base in a long time, and then was not only a poor defender at the hot corner, but he continued to get injured as the physical demands of playing third are significantly tougher than they are at first base. It’s one way the Tigers can play Martinez, Fielder, Cabrera & Avila, but it’s compromising the defence and putting Cabrera’s health at risk.

Either way, this will be an interesting scenario to follow for the next several years in Detroit.