In a move no one really saw coming, Prince Fielder has reportedly agreed to a nine-year, $214 million deal with the Detroit Tigers. This impacts the Central division in a big way; not just this season but for years to come. He now returns to the city where his father, Cecil Fielder, made a name for himself in the 1990's. We will discuss the signing implications in this article.
Everything that held true for Albert Pujols' contract -- great for the team in the short term, very risky in the long term -- holds true for Fielder and the Tigers as well. He'll add a little less value in the next year or two than Pujols will to the LA Angels, but I like Fielder's chance to hold value deeper into his contract because, at 28 this year, he's five years younger than Pujols. That said, Fielder's still a corner position player with no speed and no defensive value, a player profile that ages very poorly, and he is going to have to get his weight under control if he wants to be a productive player in the back half of this deal, even though there's no financial incentive for him to do so.
The Tigers recently lost our old friend Victor Martinez for the season with a torn ACL, and that injury cost them three to four wins of value, a range that assumes he would have been the regular DH and occasional catcher without missing any significant time during the season. But adding Fielder more than makes up for what they lost in Martinez's bat, giving them probably an 800 to 825 run offense that should be among the three best in the league when you consider their home ballpark. I think they would have won the weakened American League Central without Fielder, but with him, their odds have increased. He helps make up for the fact that the Tigers' farm system has just one impact hitting prospect, Nick Castellanos, a third baseman -- which is still an area of need for the big club -- who is three years away from the majors.
The Tigers' problem in the short term is where to play everyone. Miguel Cabrera is an indifferent first baseman, but is probably a better option there than Fielder. Delmon Young shouldn't be allowed to play the outfield, and even if he was, the Tigers might prefer to play Ryan Raburn and Brennan Boesch in the corners since Young walks about twice a month. They could put Raburn at second and Young in left, Cabrera at third and just punt defense entirely, hoping to bludgeon opponents into submission, although I wouldn't recommend it. Playing Fielder at first and Cabrera at third would be defensive self-immolation. The best solution might be to have Fielder and Cabrera share time at first base to keep both bats in the lineup as often as possible, since the risk of knee problems for, um, "husky" players is probably tied not just to age but to time standing at a position.
In the long term, of course, this contract won't end any better than Pujols'. It's hard to envision Fielder still producing five wins a year of value at age 36, although I can picture that more easily than I can see Pujols producing that much at 42. But the Tigers are coming off a division title they're likely to repeat in 2012, and there was no better option on the market to help keep them the favorites in this year or next and to increase (however slightly) their chances of advancing to the World Series. It's the type of moral-hazard-laced decision MLB general managers make all the time: If the Tigers' current front office is still in charge as Fielder's contract enters its final years, the team has probably won a championship or two by that point, justifying the deal; if they don't win, it'll be someone else's mess to clean up. And by Years 8 and 9, a mess it will almost certainly be. (Also worth noting that owner Mike Illitch is 82 years old and this move is a sign that he wants to win sooner rather than later.)
The good news, if there is any, for Indians fans is with the the addition of Derek Lowe and the remaining starting rotation of Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and "Fausto Carmona", we should expect the starting rotation to keep Fielder in the ballpark. All of the aforementioned pitchers specialize in forcing hitters to hit the ball on the ground At least we can hope in theory. Does this raise the stakes for the Tribe to trade for a 1B, such as Justin Smoak or Logan Morrison? We shall see. Stay tuned.
New Tigers 1B/DH Prince Fielder. Will add tremendous value in the early years, very bad value toward the end.