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July 8, 2010

Ahead in the Count

Trading The Prince

by Matt Swartz

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At this point, it is clear that 2010 is not going to be the Brewers’ year. They finally reached the postseason in 2008 after a drought of 26 years, but they exited in the first round and did not return in 2009. The small-market franchise has done a good job of fielding a competitive team without being able to outspend their competition, though Mark Attanasio has proven to be more willing to open his wallet than most other owners receiving revenue-sharing money, but 2010 has seen the Brewers already slide about 10 games out of first place in the National League Central and in the NL wild card race. The young team that the Brewers spent years building through excellent drafts is getting older and the minor-league system is no longer well-stocked, leaving them in a position where they are not quite good enough to compete right now, and not likely to be especially competitive in a few years. This is why I think that the Brewers should make the difficult decision to part ways with Prince Fielder.

It is not going to be a popular move. Brewers fans love their powerful first baseman, and with good reason. Despite having a bit of an off-year, Fielder is still a force in the middle of the lineup who can launch his share of home runs. However, the Brewers are not competitive in 2010 and Fielder is only under team control through 2011. At that point, teams will bid for Fielder’s services via free agency, and it is unlikely that he will return to Milwaukee. 

Even if the Brewers do find a way to bring Fielder back, he will not be a bargain and they will have used up enough of their payroll after signing him that they would not be able to afford many other impact players. It costs about $5 million per win to sign a player, and a team of replacement-level players would produce about 40 wins. Thus, to field a team capable of winning 90 games with only a small amount of young cost-controlled talent, those who do not have the six years of major-league service time to make them eligible for free agency, would cost about $200 million. There is only one team in the league that can be competitive without that large supply of cost-controlled talent. Thus, for every non-Yankees team in the league, they need to reach a point where they have enough valuable players with less than six years of service time to be able to afford to fill in the gaps in the roster with free agents in order to field a competitive team. In the Brewers’ case, they simply do not have enough talent on the roster to cross that threshold. Even a few years from now, the mediocre farm system is unlikely to produce enough talent for a team in Milwaukee’s market to buoy itself into contention with a few good free-agent signings.

Prince Fielder is going to provide a lot of value in 2011, as he will probably earn only a couple million dollars more than his current $10.5 million salary in what will be his last year of arbitration eligibility. He will probably add about 4 ½ wins, which will be worth approximately $25 million on the open market. Fielder is still going to provide a lot of wins during the last couple months of 2010, but those wins are not going to provide as much value to a Brewers team playing out the string than they would to a contending team. 

As I explained in last year’s article on Roy Halladay and the Blue Jays, wins count the same in the standings at all points in the season, but the win value for a competitive team is very high in the middle of a pennant race. For example, consider how much the Twins and Tigers would have valued Fielder on October 6, 2009 during their one-game playoff to determine the American League Central champion. The extra wins would be worth far more than 1/163 of Fielder’s total season WARP because the game had so much leverage.

Last year, I adjusted some of the numbers Nate Silver used to approximate the fraction of a player’s value that came from increased odds of making the playoffs and the fraction that came simply from adding to the team’s win total. Competitive teams pay about $5 million per win. Thus, following the same methodology as last year, my current estimate is that $1.6 million is just the value of the win itself in drawing fans, while the rest comes from adding about 5-6 percent to the team’s chances of making the playoffs for each win added as teams receive a financial windfall from playing in the postseason. Of course, not every team is going to make the playoffs but the majority of free agent money is spent by teams who are planning on making a run at the postseason. The teams that are not making a run at the playoffs are likely to be outbid, because they have a lower value for the player.

However, with 99 games played (a good estimate of the number of games played in a season by the July 31 trade deadline), an extra win can increase a team’s chances of making the playoffs by about 10 percent, which means that even a 4 ½-win player is still worth $14 million even though his full year value is $22.5 million. However, the Brewers would already have paid about $6.4 million of his $10.5 million salary by July 31. Thus, Fielder would still have about 63 percent of his revenue value from the beginning of the season and actually about 83 percent of his overall net value. To the Brewers, however, Fielder is not worth anywhere near this much. For them simply playing out the string in August and September, Fielder is only worth a few million dollars worth of wins added.

In 2011, Fielder may be worth a lot to the Brewers if they can build around him to become competitive, but that seems doubtful. Thus, he would definitely be worth a lot to the teams that would be willing to trade for him now. The result is that Fielder is worth so much less to the Brewers than a contending team for the duration of his contract. Therefore, the Brewers can probably extract some of that excess value from contenders in a trade in the form of prospects that can help them later.

There are plenty of other teams that could use Fielder’s powerful bat at first base or designated hitter for the last couple months. The Yankees have been struggling with the DH spot, and could enhance their run-scoring ability by trading for Fielder. The Angels are a few games behind the Rangers in the American League West, and are playing backup catcher Mike Napoli playing first while Kendry Morales is out for the season with a broken leg. The Halos could move Fielder to the DH spot next year after Hideki Matsui’s contract expires at the end of the season. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has made statements lately implying that they can add salary, and they could certainly upgrade their DH spot by acquiring Fielder. Todd Helton has been struggling mightily for the Rockies and is now on the disabled list. Fielder is the type of player who could push the Rockies over the top in a pennant race. You have to think the resurgent White Sox are considering ways to upgrade over Mark Kotsay at DH. There are enough teams that could use Fielder that several bidders would likely drive up the prospect price someone would be willing to pay the Brewers.

It is hard to imagine Brewers fans rallying behind the premise. Fielder has been a big part of the franchise's ascension to relevancy, and trading him would be a pretty clear admission that they are likely to be irrelevant for the next couple of years. However, the Brewers are not a good team right now, and there isn't much help on the horizon. Thus, the smart thing for them and others in such a situation to do is admit that losing five more games a year for a couple of seasons is worth winning five more games a year in a couple of seasons after that. If the Brewers wait until this season is over or until the 2011 trade deadline, they likely won't get half of the return they would get for trading Fielder now as the acquiring team would have his services for 1 1/3 seasons. Trading Fielder is likely to keep the casual fans away from the ballpark in September, but it would give the Brewers a better chance of having them show up in droves for a playoff run in a few years.

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

Related Content:  Prince Fielder,  The Who,  Brewers

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