Recently, my colleague here at MCB, Chris Hannum, wrote about the lack of payroll flexibility now facing the Detroit Tigers in the wake of the Prince Fielder signing. This morning at SBN’s Baseball Nation, Rob Neyer broke down exactly why he thought the Fielder signing was a bad move. The point of Neyer’s piece was the potentially disastrous defensive unit the Tigers will feature, but Neyer made no secret on how he’d fix both problems:
"My guess? The Tigers wind up trading (Victor) Martinez, and eating a big chunk of his contract. Which we’ll simply add to the many millions by which the franchise is over-paying to feature Prince Fielder for nine years."
This is where I have an issue with Neyer. Who says Fielder is over-paid? And by many millions?
Last season, one WAR was “valued” at roughly $4.4 million per fangraphs.
Martinez was good for 2.9 WAR and was paid $12 million by the Tigers. Fangraphs says he was “worth” $13.2 million. Fielder, on the other hand, racked up 5.5 WAR and was “worth” $24.6 million to the Brewers last year. The difference between VMart and Prince is 2.6 WAR, or $11.4 million in “value”. Based solely on a swap of these two players, it’s clear that the Tigers paid for the upgrade in the lineup, but it’s also clear that Fielder is fully capable of producing numbers that will effectively justify the contract.
There are a couple of other issues here, of course. This isn’t a Fielder-for-VMart swap, at least beyond this season. Not only do the Tigers add Fielder, but they do so while moving Miguel Cabrera to third base (presumably). As Doc Worn noted last night, Cabrera has been a poor defender at the hot corner in his career. Does that mean he’ll be terrible this year, not necessarily, but I think it’s safe to assume he will.
Clearly, the Tigers are willing to sacrifice the glove at third for a much better hitter at that spot. It this way, the acquisition of Fielder is not unlike the trade for Cabrera following the 2007 season. If you recall, Cabrera displaced Brandon Inge as the starting third baseman in 2008, but was shifted to first shortly thereafter due to poor defense. The difference is that this time, there’s no Carlos Guillen to switch spots with him.
Fielder is a first baseman and that’s it, so it’s third base or bust for Cabrera, at least for the 2012 season. If Cabrera shows he can’t handle the job, they can move him to the outfield next year when Martinez returns and Delmon Young hits free agency.
The Tigers will have Martinez under contract for two more seasons beyond 2012, and unlike Neyer, I don’t think they’ll want to move him. Martinez is a favorite of Jim Leyland’s and for good reason, so if there is a way to keep VMart and Cabrera in the same lineup with Fielder, I think the Tigers will try whatever they can to make that happen. Afterall, it only has to work for three years. Once Martinez’s contract expires, they’ll have the DH slot freed up for either Cabrera or Fielder or some combination of both.
Neyer’s contention that Fielder is vastly over-paid I’m sure is based upon the nine years in length as much as the average annual value of the deal. I think there has been far too much assumption that Fielder’s body will begin breaking down starting today and far too much assumption that he cannot continue his levels of production into his mid-30s.
Prince is still just 27 years old, by all rights just entering his prime years. His body weight is an issue that other players don’t necessarily face, so we can assume that he may not age as gracefully as some others. But this contract doesn’t take him through his age-41 season like that of Albert Pujols, this deal pays Fielder through his age-36 season, which is a big difference.
Neither Fielder nor Cabrera are good defenders, which hurts their overall WAR rating as defense is a major component. In three years, the Tigers will have an opening at DH and, in theory, Fielder could slot into that role as soon as 2015. Doing this would actually improve Fielder’s overall WAR by replacing his negative defensive value with a zero value which makes it much more likely that Fielder can actually earn his contract, especially given that the “value” attached to WAR will increase between then and now while Fielder’s pay is expected to stay at roughly $23.8 million per year, every year of the deal.
Again, unlike Pujols, who will make better than $30 million as a 40-year-old, Fielder will still be making $23.8 million at age-36. By that time, given the ever-escalating salaries in baseball, $23.8 million might not be the astronomical number that it is now.