Well, after roughly four months of waiting, a few massive signings, and a lot of frustration, it appears that Prince Fielder has found himself a home. On January 24th, 2012, the Detroit Tigers reportedly signed Fielder to a deal worth 214 million dollars over 9 years. Because of the significance of the move, this post will be a lengthy combination of BBR, extension watch, and other types of setup, because there are so many things to consider. To start off, let's go back in time to before Fielder signed and pretend that the market is wide open with everyone having enough money to sign him. Let's look at the market value Fielder probably should have received from a contract.
Section One: What is Fielder Worth?
The first step in answering this question is looking at what Fielder has done recently. After all, he is putting up some crazy offensive numbers, but he plays the least valuable position very poorly and doesn't run the bases. He puts up the offensive numbers of an elite player, but is his overall value that of someone you want to be paying 24 million dollars per year? Normally I would use 2 year splits, but Fielder's got a bit of a fluke season sitting there in 2010, so we'll use three year splits to get a more accurate representation:
2009-2011: .287 BA/ .409 OBP/ .547 SLG/ 155 OPS+/ 4.7 WAR/year(-0.6 dWAR/year)
2009: 15.3% BB/ 19.2% K/ .303 ISO/ .315 BABIP/ 23.1% HR/FB
2010: 16.0% BB/ 19.3% K/ .209 ISO/ .291 BABIP/ 18.3% HR/FB
2011: 15.5% BB/ 15.3% K/ .267 ISO/ .306 BABIP/ 21.8% HR/FB
Alright, so we're seeing relatively consistent performance in the rates here, save for a drastic dip in ISO in 2010 that really explains the drastic dip in performance that Fielder's end results saw in 2010. Obviously, Prince is an offensive force who is going to put up monster performance at the plate. However, his defense and base running are atrocious. Here are his splits for UZR, base running, and dWAR over the past three years:
2009: 1.7 UZR/ -4.5 BsR/ -0.3 dWAR
2010: -7.4 UZR/ -6.5 BsR/ -0.8 dWAR
2011: -5.1 UZR/ -5.4 BsR/ -0.7 dWAR
It really isn't like you have to doubt the numbers here, either. It's pretty much consensus among scouts and members of the baseball community that Fielder is a terrible base running and can't field his position. That is what takes him from being the 6 WAR player his offense suggests he could be and makes him the fringe 5 WAR player that he consistently is.
What makes Fielder difference is where he is on the age curve and the fact that he is a big fat man. Obviously it hasn't hurt his offense, but Fielder's weight and shape have really hurt him as a base runner and as a fielder (pun slightly intended). Let's consider some other guys that are a lot like Fielder:
Mo Vaughn: Consistent 4-5.5 WAR player from 25 to 30. Post 30, he never was higher than 1.5 WAR
Cecil Fielder: Average 4.2 WAR from 26-28. Average 0.4 WAR from 29 on.
David Ortiz: Average 4.8 WAR from 27 to 31. Average 2.0 WAR from 32-25 (saved by a bounceback 2011 season).
The forecast here is not good. Now, in my personal opinion, Fielder is much more athletic and healthy than those three players were and keeps himself in non-terrible shape. However, he is obviously much bigger and out of shape than the average Major League player, and that needs to be accounted for. Fielder may keep up his performance for a few years, but things look extremely bleak beyond that. Given that, let's project Fielder over the 9 years he got (fair to assume that is what Boras was most looking for):
2012: 5.0 WAR
2013: 5.0 WAR
2014: 4.2 WAR
2015: 3.2 WAR
2016: 2.2 WAR
2017: 1.5 WAR
2018: 1.5 WAR
2019: 1.0 WAR
2020: 1.0 WAR
Quite honestly, the argument could be made that I am being very gracious to Fielder here. Given the other three examples, I am giving Prince the benefit of the doubt and an average of 1.7 WAR from the time he is 31 until the end of a 9-year contract. This projection gives him a total WAR of 24.6 over the contract, which is pretty fair given that he will be 28 next year and is likely to hit a wall based on what others have done. However, we need to now look at some projections for what free agents are going to be worth. Based on some numbers I ran on a contract project, I came up with the following model:
2012: 4.2 d/WAR
2013: 5.0 d/WAR
2014: 5.2 d/WAR
2015: 5.5 d/ WAR
2016: 5.5 d/ WAR
2017: 5.5 d/ WAR
2018: 5.5 d/ WAR
2019: 5.5 d/ WAR
2020: 5.5 d/ WAR
Based on the unexpected happenings past 2015, it is hard to go up past the 5.5 d/WAR mark due to the massive inflation that would need to occur for that to happen. This model then gives us an average of 5.27 d/WAR over the next 9 years for free agents. This means that Fielder's 24.6 WAR performance would suggest that he should earn 129 million dollars. For those keeping track at home, that is 85 million dollars less than he was actually signed for.
Section Two: How Does This Fit for Detroit?
Well now that it's been estimated that the Tigers paid about 85 million dollars more than he should have been paid, the Tigers better have a really good reason for giving him so much money. The Tigers are coming off an ALCS appearance and have drawn pretty well over the last few years, so selling tickets (one of the primary motivations for the Pujols deal). In fact, Fielder won't even be among the top two most popular players on the team (oh hello Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander). So if Fielder isn't going to produce the extra ticket boost to fun his contract, then why did the Tigers do this move?
For the 2012 season, there is a nifty little move the Tigers can pull off to "save" a little bit of money. After Victor Martinez went down with an ACL injury, the Tigers earned the ability to use the insurance clause on his contract, which basically means they can put some of the money they would have put towards V-Mart to Fielder's contract. However, that clause certainly doesn't protect against an 85 million dollar difference in what should have been and what actually was. Either way, the Tigers now have Fielder on their payroll and will need to use him.
There is one problem here. There are now three players on the Tigers' roster that really should be destined for the DH spot. Delmon Young, Miguel Cabrera, and Prince Fielder are all relatively awful defenders, and at least two of them are going to have to play the field. The Tigers have 3 options then:
1) Fielder DH's, Cabrera stays at first, and Young plays Left.
2) Cabrera DH's, Fielder stays at first, and Young plays left.
3) Young DH's, Fielder plays first, and Cabrera moves to third.
None of these options are good, but Tigers fans should be most wary of option number three. Delmon Young's defense in the outfield is absolutely awful, but it comes out value-wise to be roughly similar to what Fielder and Cabrera to at first. The real travesty here would be the horrendous freak show that would be Miguel Cabrera at third base. Seriously, you would want to avert your eyes if that happened. We are talking someone who could legitimately be a -2.0 dWAR player over a full season at the hot corner. Even though his offensive value would skyrocket, it would be almost a guarantee that the ball got by him unless it was hit right at him.
Section Three: Conclusion and Suggested Action
Enjoy the deal for the next three years. Fielder will mash no matter where he is put in the lineup or on the field. However, after Fielder turns 30, Tigers fans should be ready to grab the torches and pitchforks, because this deal could get really ugly (remember, I was being fairly conservative with my estimates). The deal comes off as a panic move to me. The Tigers needed to replace about 3 wins from Martinez' absence, and I did not believe their stance as favorites in the AL Central was impacted at all by the loss of V-Mart. A 1 to 3 year deal would have made perfect sense, but the Tigers seem to have gotten trapped by Boras into giving out a contract much larger than it should have been. All I can say is that I hope Cabrera doesn't end up at third and I really don't hope Fielder ages like his father did.
Overall grade of a C- from me.