It seems like any conversation about the Detroit Tigers of late has been doom-and-gloom, full of condemnations of everyone associated with the franchise and of assumptions that the team simply isn’t good enough. We have become the Yankees – and that is a bad thing. If you remember 2003, you should be glad that the team has been put in a position to win it all each and every year and not rant about how the team stinks because in each of those opportunities it has come up just a bit short.
For many, what we saw in the playoffs this year was enough to convince them that the current Tigers roster is just not good enough to win close games against good teams when those games count. Fans want what seems to me at least to be a roster overhaul. Chief among those Tigers people want out and want replaced (though not the only one, if you get a guy going) is first baseman Prince Fielder.
It’s no secret that Prince Fielder underperformed this season – and definitely not a secret that he underperformed in the playoffs. He’s a talented hitter and he’s being paid a lot of money – money that probably no team (including Detroit) would be willing to offer him today were he currently a free agent. So… you could say it’s a no-brainer that if Prince Fielder was not currently a Tiger, he wouldn’t be signed by Detroit and probably wouldn’t even be pursued by Detroit. Does that mean that the Tigers should do whatever it takes to unload him? This is, after all, what so many fans seem to want at the moment.
I’ll break down the answer to that question into it’s component parts:
1. Does Prince Fielder stink?
This is – sadly – the most important piece in understanding all of this. Prince Fielder does not, in fact, stink. Judging by WAR, Fielder was fairly “mediocre” – which is to say that he was in the “everyday player” range rather than the “star” range. Fielder was worth 2.2 WAR last year, 4.8 in his first year as a Tiger. His .819 OPS last season was 11th among qualified first basemen – pretty middle of the road. His defense and his baserunning have always been pretty awful, but that is already factored into his WAR totals. Based on Fangraphs conversion of WAR into dollar value, Fielder has been worth an average of $16.5 million in his first two Tiger years. If you think an .819 OPS is easy to replace, you’re probably thinking back to the juice era – while that .819 OPS is only a bit above average for a first baseman it’s much better than you’re likely to get at any other position.
2. Is Prince Fielder going to stink worse next year?
Prince Fielder’s 2013 was worse than his 2012 which was (arguably) worse than his 2011. You could think of that as a “trend” – I probably wouldn’t go that far, though. Fielder is not an old guy – he won’t turn 30 until next May. He doesn’t appear to be in any different physical condition than earlier in his career, though he’s always a guy that needs to train a lot during the offseason. He went through a lot of crap this past season that probably put him off his game – and like it or not that’s how people work. Problems in your personal life will affect your productivity on the job, like it or not. I hear a lot that “I’d get fired if I did that” and it really isn’t true. For most people, your boss has only the vaguest idea of exactly how productive you were last month and if they do, for most people your boss will cut you a substantial amount of slack if they know you’re getting divorced. Your boss is human as are you. If you are in a special circumstance, and your boss would fire you at the drop of a hat for being above average but not elite at your particular job this month – your job is terrible and your boss is a despicable human being (or you’re in the NFL and your boss needs to free up cap space). The upside is that Prince – despite being way down in every relevant peripheral stat in 2013 (in other words, it was NOT just luck) – is an excellent rebound candidate. The Steamer projections are already up there on Fangraphs for 2014 – and they’re predicting 3.8 WAR for the guy rather than 2.2.
3. Does Prince have trade value?
The answer to this is frankly no. And – and this is key, people – this isn’t because Prince Fielder currently stinks. It isn’t because no team in their right mind would want to put Prince Fielder in their lineup, since – I don’t know – his legs and his glove are so bad that his contributions at the plate can’t compensate. Part of the problem is that the annual value of Fielder’s deal is a little too high, but MOST of the problem is that Prince Fielder’s deal is too long. I would guess that teams would be willing to go 4 years and $80 million for Fielder, were his contract to be ruled somehow invalid overnight. The expectation is that Prince Fielder will provide value somewhere close to what he’s currently paid over the next couple of seasons – but not when he’s 35. Fielder has 7 years and $168 million left on his contract right now, which is $88 million more than any other team could accept – his deal was a quintessential “win now” signing. The Tigers, more than anyone else, were willing to sacrifice solvency down the road to win more games today. If the Tigers are willing to eat $88 million of his contract, I think they’ll find some takers for Fielder – but even then I don’t think they’d find too many. The Texas Rangers might be one team who would, but frankly I’m having trouble coming up with a second. In the end you have to wonder how exactly the Tigers could be made better off by dumping Prince Fielder, but neither getting top prospects in exchange nor freeing up any significant amount of money for other signings.
4. How easy would it be to replace his production?
Not very easy at all. Just about anybody who’s going to suggest dumping or dealing Prince is going to suggest moving Miguel Cabrera back to first. That means that we’re actually talking about finding a third baseman to replace Prince Fielder with. The only third baseman that put up a better OPS last year than Fielder is projected to next year was Miguel Cabrera. So… if we talk about this sort of a shift, we’re making a conscious decision to downgrade the Tigers offense in order to improve infield D (and maybe make some marginal improvements on the basepaths). That’s just a wordy way of saying that we’re trying to replace Fielder’s WAR without replacing Fielder’s OPS. If you believe that Steamer projection, the only third baseman (other than Miguel Cabrera) who provided more than 3.8 WAR last season were Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, Evan Longoria and Adrian Beltre. None of these guys are available. Chase Headley (who was good for 3.6 WAR) could be, at the right price. The right price would probably be Max Scherzer, in a three-way deal that sent prospects to San Diego. Of course, Headley is also going to get $10 million or so in 2014 and be a free agent following the season.
What I’m saying is that Headley should be worth approximately the same number of wins as Fielder at half the dollar value. Great. But, getting rid of Fielder would require eating so much of his salary that you wouldn’t save any money at all – all you’d manage to do is to replace Max Scherzer with Drew Smyly – which you have to admit is a significant blow to the rotation.
There would, of course, be other ways to fill the hole at third – including sticking former third baseman Nick Castellanos in there. Unfortunately, putting in your own prospect or dealing for another prospect (hopefully not at the cost of a Scherzer) would make matching even Fielder’s 2.2 wins above replacement from 2012 a very iffy proposition. The team is built to win now and that has to continue to be the focus, you do not want to take the team from 92 wins to 89 in 2014 in exchange for an increase from 74 to 77 in 2018. As far as free agent third basemen to immediately install as Fielder’s de facto “replacement” there are basically no guys available right now who would be good bets to provide 2.2 WAR. There are guys who might be able to do that, if they stayed healthy and avoided falling off the aging cliff (like Kevin Youkilis and Michael Young) but nobody you’d feel particularly comfortable with.
All in all, what I’m trying to say is that the Tigers problems are not going to be remedied by booting out Prince Fielder – whether or not he was complicit in the Tigers failure to win the 2013 World Series. Concerns over the ability of the Tigers to be able to afford to compete in 2018 are not going to be addressed by paying Prince Fielder to play for somebody else in 2018. If you’re a Tigers fan who wants – above all else – for the Tigers to win the 2014 World Series what you need to be thinking about is how to get Prince Fielder back on track for 2014 and what managers and coaches can do to make that happen, because frankly I like his chances of 40 homers and a .900 OPS a lot better than a like Nick Castellanos’ chances of 20 homers and an .800 OPS. What we saw this postseason is not that the Detroit Tigers cannot win with Prince Fielder at first base. What we saw this postseason is that the Detroit Tigers cannot win when Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder don’t hit.