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January 25, 2012

Transaction Analysis

The New Prince of Motown

by R.J. Anderson

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DETROIT TIGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed 1B-L Prince Fielder to a nine-year deal worth $214 million. [1/24]

The biggest signing of 2012 raises many questions.

Where will Fielder play?
The earliest indications are that Fielder will become the Tigers’ first baseman. If that holds true until opening day, then Fielder will become the first player (besides Miguel Cabrera) to start the season at first base since Carlos Guillen in 2008.

Where will Cabrera play?
Cabrera’s future position is not as obvious as Fielder’s future home (either first base or designated hitter). In theory, Cabrera could wind up at the least important defensive position that Fielder does not inhabit, but there is some thought that Cabrera could try his hand at third base. For those keeping score, Cabrera last attended the hot corner in 2008 and last played the majority of his games at third in 2007—his final season in Florida.

Is Fielder over Cabrera at first base the right call?
Neither Fielder nor Cabrera rate is a good defender according to Fielding Runs Above Average. Since 2009, Fielder has accumulated -12 fielding runs, while Cabrera is even worse at -21 runs. If those numbers are to be trusted and projected to continue, then Fielder over Cabrera at first base makes sense. However, shifting a horrible first baseman to an even more rigorous defensive position sounds like a bad idea (unless you enjoy gifs of baseball players making awful defensive plays—then it sounds like a brilliant idea).

What happens when Victor Martinez returns?
Remember, Martinez tore his ACL earlier in the offseason, just a year after signing a four-year deal with the Tigers worth $50 million. With $25 million out of the way following this season, the Tigers could attempt to move Martinez and the other half of the deal, or they could keep him around, in the unlikely scenario that Cabrera plays a palatable third base. In a sense, the Tigers may face a similar situation to the one the Angels are experiencing with Kendrys Morales. Of course, everyone can agree that there are worse predicaments to be in than having too many good hitters.

Does Fielder’s deal include an opt-out?
The answer is no, according to Ken Rosenthal. This is a bit of a surprise, since Scott Boras is Fielder’s representative, and he managed to finagle an opt-out for Rafael Soriano last winter. This could be a pro or a con for the Tigers. If Fielder could opt out, then doing so would indicate he played well enough that Boras feels he can procure an even better deal than whatever remained on his current contract. Alternatively, the Tigers may have saved money without the inclusion of an opt-out. Just look at the Yankees and C.C. Sabathia for proof of how that can be a bad thing for the team.

Why did Detroit guarantee Fielder so much money and so many years? Did they get duped by Boras into bidding against themselves?
To put it simply: that is the cost of business. Every general manager would like to acquire one of the best hitters in the game without paying him like so, but those dream situations rarely present themselves in reality, and that means someone will pay the players. As for the second part, attempting to solve what happened behind closed doors is the most fruitless and difficult process involved in analyzing any transaction. There are reports that other teams, including the dreaded “mystery team”, were pursuing Fielder’s services. Whether those teams made comparable offers is anyone’s guess, though one has to trust that the Tigers did walk away with the highest bid.

How crazy is the money involved?
This, from Prospectus business guru Maury Brown:

To place the Fielder deal in perspective, the nine-year, $214 million contract ranks him behind only A-Rod (twice, 2001-10 at $252 million and 2008-17 at $275 million) and Pujols (10-year,$240 million base salary) in terms of total dollars. For first baseman, Fielder crushes the eight-year, $180 million deal that Mark Teixeira reached in 2009.  The average annual value (AAV) on Fielder’s deal ($23.8 million) ranks him behind only the two Rodriguez deals, Cliff Lee’s $24 million AAV (as part of his five-year, $120 million deal that runs 2011-15), and Ryan Howard’s $25 million AAV as part of his five-year, $125 million contract that runs 2012-16.

Having Victor Martinez go down with what is likely a season-ending ACL tear surely played into the deal, as well. According to Jayson Stark, the Tigers will see a significant amount of Martinez’s salary covered by insurance. “Significant” could be as much or little as 50 percent.

The Tigers ranked 10th in the league by “Final Player Payroll” at the end of the 2011 season at $113,230,923.

Don’t the Tigers know that Fielder is fat and nearing the decline phase of his career?
Of course, Detroit knows about Fielder’s weight and his age (he’ll be 28 in May). Detroit is paying Fielder through his age-36 season, meaning decline is an inevitable part of the deal. Whether Fielder’s body type will lead to his skills atrophying earlier than expected is a gamble, but it’s one that could pay off.  Fielder would not be the first heavyset player to decline early, but there are plenty of normal-sized players who decline early as well. Relying on his body type and nothing more as proof that he will not age well is having too much confidence in prognosticating abilities based on qualitative attributes.

Yeah, but isn’t this a risky deal?
Absolutely. Almost every nine-year or $200-plus million deal is fraught with the potential to become a liability. This one is no different.

Is Fielder even a good fit for Comerica Park?
There are concerns whenever a player shifts from a hitter’s park to a pitcher’s park. Miller Park helped Fielder’s raw numbers, no doubt, but the new Coors Field it is not. Since 2009, Fielder’s line is .287/.409/.547, with an average season including 39 home runs. True, Fielder’s home numbers are more favorable than his road tallies, but his career road OPS is still 896. No one can question the legitimacy of his hitting tools, either. Fielder may see his raw statistics decline just a bit, but then again, he may have witnessed that even if he stayed in Milwaukee.

Yeah, but how much better is Fielder than Martinez, really?
Keep in mind that Martinez is a converted catcher, albeit one who could (and can) hit the baseball like nobody’s business. Compare Martinez’s line over the last three seasons (.312/.372/.481) to Fielder’s (.287/.409/.547), and you come to realize there is a 37-point differential in on-base percentage and a 66-point gap in slugging percentage. Even docking Fielder points for changing leagues and ballparks is not going to make that OPS gap of 103 points disappear. Fielder is the superior batter by a fair margin.

Is Cabrera-Fielder now the best one-two and the best righty-lefty punch in the majors?
Many would have claimed that Ryan Braun and Fielder formed the best righty-lefty punch prior to Fielder’s signing elsewhere, and it does appear that Fielder and Cabrera have a legitimate claim to being known as the best tag-team in baseball. If you go by adjusted-OPS, the Tigers now boast, at worst, two of the top six hitters in the league since 2009, with Cabrera finishing in second place and Fielder tying Jose Bautista for fifth.

What does the rest of the Tigers’ lineup look like now?
One has to think Austin Jackson, Brennan Boesch, Delmon Young, Ryan Raburn, Jhonny Peralta, Ramon Santiago, and Alex Avila work into the equation in some way or another. The specifics will remain shaky until finding out what position Cabrera will play.

Is there ever a time to doubt Boras’s ability to find an appropriate deal?
Never.


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

Related Content:  Detroit Tigers,  Prince Fielder,  Deal

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