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September 16, 2011

The BP Broadside

You Don't Need a Prince, Just a Few Paupers

by Steven Goldman

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I’m looking for Prince Fielder on our WARP leader list and I can’t find him. Oh yes, there he is, down at number 29. Hey, no shame in being the 29th-most valuable player in the majors—there are roughly 890 players who aren’t having seasons as good as you are. Fielder is also the fifth-ranked first baseman behind Joey Votto, Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, and Miguel Cabrera. This is an exalted place to be, but does it make you irreplaceable?

On Wednesday, Fielder acknowledged that his stay with the Brewers is probably almost at its end: “Being real about it, it is probably the last year.” In their hearts, Brewers fans already knew this to be the case, but no doubt some have been holding out hope that a competitive offer and a tug on the old heartstrings would keep Fielder in Wisconsin. That seems unlikely to happen, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The Brewers have an $84 million payroll this year, ranking 16th in the majors. Assuming that Fielder is going to receive a payday somewhere in the range of the $20 million presently paid to Ryan Howard, Miguel Cabrera, and Mark Teixeira (who leads first basemen with $23 million), he is going to consume a chunk of the team’s payroll as disproportionately large as his own body. It is the rare first baseman who is actually worth that kind of distortion, and Fielder is not one of them.

When looking at a first baseman, it is so easy to forget that his value is in the totality of his contributions in hitting, baserunning, and fielding, not just in his bat. We also tend to forget that while a first baseman may look terrific in a vacuum, the offensive bar at the position is so high that while the distance between a given first baseman and the league may be large, the gap between a given first baseman and the class of first basemen may be small.

This was a problem I often encountered writing about Tino Martinez for Yankees fans in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Martinez was a good glove at first base, if hardly Keith Hernandez, but despite averaging .279/.348/.488 during his first stint with the Yankees, he was only a middle-of-the-pack first baseman rather than the slugger he was perceived to be (the one exception was 1997). The overall class had, at different times, John Olerud, Mark McGwire, Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, Mo Vaughn, Carlos Delgado, Jason Giambi, Todd Helton… Martinez’s 25 home runs and 65 walks weren’t all that impressive.

Fielder’s bat is that impressive, but he has the opposite problem as Martinez—his fielding and baserunning contributions are in the red. Fielder has been worth a net -10.1 baserunning runs during his career, and -22.8 runs on the fielding job. That is why he’s never quite reached 5.0 wins above replacement in our methodology.  

When you only have to patch for a bat and can make up for some of the differences with improved fielding or baserunning, you don’t have as far to go in order to break even. Now, a four-win player is not one you would want to dismiss easily, but you wouldn’t want to dismiss $20 million from your wallet easily either. Assuming that a transplanted third baseman can make a better first baseman than an actual first baseman who is proportioned like Prince Fielder, it is likely that the Brewers could come close to approximating Fielder’s value by a platoon involving Mat Gamel or Taylor Green and a right-handed bat to be named later. As long as Doug Melvin doesn’t trade for James Loney or something equally loony and self-defeating, the Brewers should be okay with a cobbled together solution, particularly if they apply some of the savings—Fielder is making $15 million now—to other areas where they are deficient, particularly third base, shortstop, and middle relief, as well as the potential for a Nyjer Morgan regression/self-immolating Twitter explosion.

In John Lennon’s “Revolution 9,” he says, “Every one of them knew that as time went by they’d get a little bit older and a little bit slower.” We’ve only discussed Fielder’s annual salary, not how many years it will take land him. Fielder is already slow and is only going to get slower, meaning that while teams have the option of playing him at first base now, within a few seasons he might be strictly, incontrovertibly designated hitter material—in short, a poor fit for a National League team.

None of this is to say that the Angels, who need a left-handed power bat more than any team in the history of the world, would be wrong to sign Fielder in the offseason. Their incentives are different, and they have the DH option to fall back on should gravity begin to weigh on Fielder, or vice-versa. They also have heretofore had greater payroll flexibility—the qualifier “heretofore” thrown in because they haven’t acted as if this were still true in recent months. Still, they are spending far more than the Brewers are.

With the Brewers, though, the trick is staying competitive while remaining flinty with the budget, and that means giving Fielder the go-by and maximizing their other positions, particularly during the time they have the rest of the core—Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, Zack Greinke, Ryan Braun, Yovanni Gallardo—intact. As successful as this season has been, they’ve earned an almost-certain playoff berth despite a nightmarish season from Casey McGehee. Last year vs. lefties: .316/.358/.489; this year: .176/.237/.193. Either he’s had the ultimate in small-sample bad luck against southpaws, or the laws of nature have been suspended in his case—it’s difficult to recall any right-handed batter being quite so poor against left-handers. His .208 BABIP against them does support the idea that despite what Einstein said, God is playing dice with the universe, at least where McGehee is concerned.

A McGehee rebound should be in order (for as much as that may be worth) but the same isn’t true of Yuniesky Betancourt, who is coming up on his team option, or any of the several hundred bench players the team has employed this year. Replacing ballclub-of-the-living dead types such as Craig Counsell and Mark Kotsay with breathing players would add a minimum of a win to the team’s record—make that four wins that have to be replaced when Fielder is gone instead of five. Sometimes you don’t need a star. Sometimes you just need to do the obvious.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

Related Content:  Prince Fielder,  The Who

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