Prince Fielder was an All-Star in both 2012 and 2013. At 55 home runs over those two seasons at .491 SLG, he’s easily been the best power hitter for the Detroit Tigers since he joined the team … outside of Miguel Cabrera. With 214 RBIs, a 139 wRC+ and being worth 50.8 offensive runs above average for Jim Leyland and co., the slugger has the been Robin to Miggy’s Batman, with the two forming one of the most feared 1-2 combinations in all of baseball.
In short, he’s pretty much been exactly what the Tigers wanted when they unexpectedly wrested him from their competitors in free agency. So what’s the problem?
Well, it turns out that ‘meets expectations’ is not necessarily an adequate performance, especially not when the price tag of said expectations came at the cost of $214 million over nine years. Not that it was Fielder’s fault for signing the contract, of course, but having made him the highest-paid player on the team and setting themselves up for a considerably more expensive extension with Cabrera down the line, you get the feeling that the Tigers might have a little buyer’s remorse.
See, on top of overpaying to get a top hitting first baseman (or a very expensive DH to-be, depending on who you ask), GM Dave Dombrowski also thought he was buying championships.
Yes, that word is used in plural form here, because even though it’s ultimately a team goal, the introduction of Fielder to this lineup was supposed to push it over the top. With the offense they would generate and given the starting pitching that they’ve managed to put together, the Tigers were supposed to go all the way to the World Series year after year.
So even if they overpaid significantly, the upside would be worth it. The glory, status and revenue generated from the rings collected in the early years of the Fielder deal would pay for the later ones — win now, worry later.
Now with two ‘championship or bust’ years having ended in the latter, I think it’d be fair to say that the team might be starting to worry despite winning the AL Central twice and making it to the World Series once. For the first time in a while, the Tigers machine is showing signs of uncertainty, with screws threatening to come loose that could derail the whole venture.
For one, Leyland is gone, retired because the latest postseason disappointment just about snuffed out what fire he had left for the game. Victor Martinez, the somewhat forgotten part of the Tigers’ middle of the order, will be a free agent after 2014. Max Scherzer had himself a Cy Young-worthy breakout, potentially putting him out of Detroit’s price range in a long-term contract. Why? Because they will have to re-sign Miggy — probably before his 2015 contract year.
Oh, and that’s not to mention that their Achilles’ heel, the bullpen, was widely exposed and needs a serious overhaul too.
To put it simply, while the Tigers have some core elements locked down, their window to seriously contend for a World Series might not be open for as long as it might seem. So the fact that Fielder has struggled when it counts most hurts just that much more. Though he has the ability to be a game-changer, he’s been anything but in the postseason in the last two years, putting up a brutal .463 OPS over 52 at-bats in the team’s World Series run in 2012 and following that with a poor .561 in 2013.
That might have been more forgivable if his contract wasn’t what it is, but whether that’s fair or not, his disappointments are worth more than the others on the team because he’s worth more than the anyone else on the team right now.
And if the Tigers don’t end up winning it all as soon as 2014, that valuation might just turn out to be a very expensive bust even with six years left on the contract. Sure, they were always prepared to it when they signed the slugger for above market value; and even though hindsight is 20/20 … the baseball gods have a harsh way to reminding franchises of their mistakes, no?