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.

Around the Web

  • gilgerard

    Just goes to show not everyone believes in Junk Science.

  • Fishbone

    Are you kidding me?

    “I expect that Fielder should produce well this season, but this contract immediately becomes one of, if not the worst contract in the game.”

    Tigers just signed one of the best hitters in the game for a year less and about 40M less than Pujols. No, Fielder isn’t quite Pujols, but he’s 4 years younger. So, worst contract in the game? That’s a bold and ridiculous statement considering the following “actual” bad contracts.

    Vernon Wells: 3 years 63M
    Arod: 6 Years 163M
    Barry Zito: 7 years 126M
    Oh, and, Jayson Werth: 6 years 116M

    You know… just to name a few.

    • Mark Hock

      Considering that Zito and Wells have so few years left, I’d rather have those two than Fielder at this point. I’d rather have Werth too, given that you have another $100 Million to spend on anything else.

      A-Rod’s probably the only one on that list who I wouldn’t want because of his current age, how many years he has left, and how expensive those years are.

      You have to remember that while Fielder will provide value in the early stages, the latter half of the contract is just too long to make it a good deal. 9 years is insane for a baseball player (especially one with such a bad body type like Fielder), but to go $200 million is just too much.

      Fielder is a fantastic player, but there’s a point for every player where the $$’s in the contract outweighs the value provided by the player. This is one of those times.

  • Fishbone

    A. Body type? Check out who’s been the most durable players over the past 5 season. Not only is Fielder on there but so is Cabrera.

    B. At no point is Fielder a “value”. He is the market, and unfortunately a Boras client.

    C. Let’s agree that no contract should be in the 20M+ range. That said, if you’re going to pay that for a player, I’ll take Prince 10 times out of 10 over Zito, Wells and Arod. What good is paying over 20 million for any player regardless of years if they don’t produce like $20M players should? Sure you have 100M more to spend elsewhere… to make up the difference in production of signing Wells at 21M/yr over Prince at 23/yr.

    • Mark Hock

      A) I’m not disputing that Fielder’s been durable. It’s something in his favour and I’ve argued it in other places. But it’s well known and has been researched that bigger players (and at 5″11 and 275, Fielder is a monster) and one dimensional sluggers tend to hit their decline earlier than other players.

      B) Value is what a player provides to their team via their production. When you say a guy like Wells is overpaid, it’s because their production, or value, doesn’t exceed what you’re paying them. Even at $150 million he wouldn’t be a “value” or bargain, but his production would exceed the cost.

      C) I don’t agree to that comment. I think at 150/7 Fielder would have been quite valuable. I think the extra 60M and 2 years is what makes it a bad deal. It’s too much money and too much time invested into one player.

      When I said I’d rather have Zito or Wells, it’s not because I think they’re better players. It’s specifically because they have shorter commitments at less $$’s, and are less likely to cripple a team financially in the long run as of 2012. The fact of the matter is, if I have an extra $150 million as I would with Zito or Wells, I’m not obligated to spend it all in one place.

      And no, I wouldn’t have to spend $100M to exceed the value provided by Fielder. I could sign Edwin Jackson, Roy Oswalt, and another player and it wouldn’t even cost me $50 million. And that’s just if I did it in this offseason.

      Having an elite player like Prince is incredibly valuable, because like you said it’s in one roster spot whereas the Jackson/Oswalt example takes up multiple spots. But you can’t spend an obscene amount of money like the Tigers did on Fielder and expect it to be considered a good move in the long run. In the short run, absolutely. And if they win a World Series, they won’t care. But in the long term, it’s going to hurt their ability to compete.

  • Pingback: When Pre-Season Predictions Go Wrong Part Two: Detroit Tigers - Detroit Tigers : Detroit Tigers