The Winter Meetings in Dallas opened with a bang amid reports that Jose Reyes had agreed to a six-year, $106 million deal with the Marlins, pending a physical. Prior to Reyes' signing, there had been precious little movement among this winter's top-tier free agents. In the three weeks since Jonathan Papelbon inked his four-year, $50 million deal with the Phillies, the highest-dollar signing was Heath Bell's three-year, $27 million deal—also by the Marlins, who with their new ballpark are suddenly the game's biggest spenders. Many execs, agents, and onlookers expect a fair bit of business to get done in Dallas given the opportunity for face-to-face interactions, though whether Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and C.J. Wilson will leave town with new contracts remains to be seen. Reyes' signing likely eliminates the Marlins from considering any of those three players, all of whom could top $100 million. I've already covered Wilson; today's look is at the market for Fielder.
In some ways, Fielder is hitting the market at the best time. He's just 27 years old (28 in May), coming off a season in which he hit .299/.415/.566, ranking second in the league in on-base percentage and homers (38), third in slugging percentage, and fourth in True Average. He doesn't have the crowded mantelpiece of the 31-year-old, three-time MVP Pujols, but the latter is coming off career lows in on-base (.366) and slugging percentage (.541), strong stats from anyone else but enough to raise the specter of his decline, particularly given that with the exception of a five-point gain in slugging percentage from 2008-2009, his slash stats have been falling for three years running. Skeptics look at Fielder's massive figure and his 275-pound listed weight and say they want no part of his future, particularly without a path to eventually playing designated hitter, but health is a skill, and he has averaged 160 games a year over the past six seasons, never hitting the DL once. Pujols has averaged a solid 152 games per year in that span but has made three trips to the DL (oblique strain, quad strain, and a wrist fracture that cost him just the minimum this past year). Assuming a potential eight-year deal for both, one team will be paying upward of $20 million for Fielder's age-35 season, another for Pujols' age-39 season.
On the other hand, Fielder's timing still isn't outstanding. The game's three highest-spending teams (using 2011 figures) already have nine-figure commitments to their first basemen; the Yankees have Mark Teixeira locked up through 2016, the Phillies have Ryan Howard booked through then, with a 2017 club option, and the Red Sox have Adrian Gonzalez tied up through 2018. The fifth-, seventh-, ninth- and 11th ranked teams, the Mets, White Sox, Twins, and Dodgers are all in cost-cutting mode, with the Sox (Paul Konerko) and Twins (Justin Morneau) both facing eight-digit commitments to their first basemen in each of the next two seasons, and the other two paring payroll amid ownership crises. The 12th-ranked Tigers, have first baseman Miguel Cabrera locked up through 2015. Given all of that, the list of teams that might pony up for Fielder quickly dwindles. Here's what appears to be in play as the meetings open.
Marlins: "Decked out in garish new threads and bragging about their new home (which has some garishness as well), the Marlins are playing the part of the nouveau riche, ostentatiously flashing around thick wads of bills in an attempt to make everyone forget their petty, cheapskate ways." That's what I wrote about the Marlins' interest in Wilson, noting that he ranked lower on their priority list than Pujols and Reyes, to whom they were rumored to have made lowball offers. On Friday, Fox's Ken Rosenthal and Jon Morosi reported that the Fish have discussed Fielder internally, noting that the team might be a particularly good fit given the slugger's Orlando residence and the Marlins' need for another left-handed power bat. However much sense that made when it was reported, it has since been superseded not only by the Reyes signing but the news that the team is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission over the means via which the taxpayers of Miami-Dade County were forced to foot 80 percent of the bill for the new stadium. Team vice president PJ Loyello said that the probe "will have no effect whatsoever on our roster plans," and thus far that appears to be true, but it would still be a stretch to envision the Marlins making not one but two nine-figure signings in one winter.
Cubs: With Carlos Pena a free agent, the Cubs have an obvious hole at first base, and much to gain by plucking Fielder from a division rival that finished 25 games ahead of them in the NL Central standings. However, incoming president Theo Epstein is well aware that the team isn't really in position to win in 2012, and probably not 2013 either; between the $76 million owed to Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano, the dearth of championship-quality players currently on the roster (Starlin Castro and… Carlos Marmol?) and little in the way of immediate help from the farm system, spending more than $40 million on two years of Fielder with no hope of winning seems like a sucker's bet. Neither Epstein nor new general manager Jed Hoyer looks like a sucker, so the only way this is likely to happen is if his market really dries up and the team is persuaded it's getting a steep discount.
Mariners: As the Brewers' director of scouting from 1999-2006, Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik is the man who drafted Fielder in 2002, so it's not surprising that Seattle would be linked to the slugging first baseman. Given an eyesore of an offense, one that ranked last in the league in scoring as well as all three slash stats, the need for his big bat is certainly there, particularly as it becomes clearer that Justin Smoak (.234/.323/.396 in his age-24 season) isn't the star in the making that some thought he was. Despite losing 95 or more games in three of the past four seasons, the team hasn't fallen lower than eighth in the league in attendance, so it seems likely they could afford him, particularly given they've only got $38 million on the books for 2013, and $21 million for 2014. On the other hand, it's going to take more than just one slugger to turn things around in the Emerald City; though they have more in the way of young talent than the Cubs, the Mariners would also be spending a big chunk of change on Fielder during a time when they won't be competitive.
Nationals: As noted previously, this is a team on the rise, given their 80-81 finish amid the return of Stephen Strasburg, the emergence of youngsters like Jordan Zimmermann, Wilson Ramos, and Danny Espinosa, and the pending arrival of Bryce Harper. In signing Jayson Werth last winter, GM Mike Rizzo has demonstrated a willingness to spend big money, and in Fielder, he'd be getting a player four years younger and much closer to his prime years. The lineup has room for Fielder; incumbent first baseman Mike Morse can slot back into left field, where he spent much of 2011 before Adam LaRoche was injured. The team would need to find a way to absorb the $8 million salary and $1 million buyout due to LaRoche, who underwent surgery for a torn labrum and rotator cuff in mid-June, but on the other hand, they could turn 23-year old first-base prospect Chris Marrero into a trade chip, albeit not a major one. It all makes a whole lot of sense… except that the Nats' interest in Fielder is said to rank below their desire to land a starting pitcher.
Brewers: Despite playing in the majors' smallest market, the Brewers have drawn three million fans in three of the past four years, making two trips to the playoffs. Owner Mark Attanasio has shown a willingness to go all in, spending money when winning was within the team’s reach; in 2008, the Brew Crew traded for CC Sabathia in a successful push for their first post-season appearance since 1982, while last winter, the team emptied out its farm system to acquire Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum to make one more run with Fielder, and the team made it all the way to the NL Championship Series. This is the only organization Fielder has ever known since being drafted back in 2002, and while they can't offer him the moon and stars, they've made it publicly known they're willing to go as high as six years and $120 million, up one year and $20 million from what they offered this past spring. That may be just for show—they made a similarly public offer to Sabathia before he departed for the Yankees, and GM Doug Melvin hasn't spoken to Boras since the general manager meetings in mid-November—but they do present a strong, comfortable fallback option.
Rangers: The two-time defending AL champions spent the 2011 season cobbling together a first-base solution out of Mike Napoli, Michael Young, and Mitch Moreland, but the latter got the bulk of the playing time and hit just .251/.311/.359 in that role; furthermore, the team jut announced that he's going to need 8-12 weeks to recover from wrist surgery. The Rangers have a massive television contract to help fund their rise into a powerhouse, but they’re already facing a significant rise above last year's $93 million Opening Day payroll. After signing Joe Nathan, they have around $77 million committed to 10 players including Leonys Martin, with significant raises due the arbitration-eligible Mike Napoli, Nelson Cruz, Mike Adams, David Murphy, Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison et al; BP contributor Joey Matschulat estimated that bunch will cost another $30 million. They're not out of the running yet on Wilson, and at the very least, they've offered the impression that he's a higher priority than Fielder.
Blue Jays:A Cleveland CBS radio report has the Jays as the leaders for his services, and while it’s been downplayed elsewhere, it’s not hard to see the appeal. The team finished 81-81 last year, but that was good for just fourth in the AL East. They clearly have a need at first base given Adam Lind's abysmal .243/.291/.432 line and −0.1 WARP over the past two seasons, and having ranked no higher than 10th in the league in attendance over the past three years while drawing less than two million fans each time. They could use a gate attraction such as Fielder as they attempt to mount an assault on the New York-Tampa Bay-Boston hegemony, particularly as they look to 2013, when the playoffs expand. The big-market Jays are believed to have plenty of money to spend; last year’s $70 million payroll could jump as high as $120 million according to team president Paul Beeston. It all makes a surprising amount of sense, given the ambivalence of Texas and Washington.
At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be any team that’s as hot and heavy for Fielder as we might expect. Perhaps it’s because of the perception that he needs to sign with an AL team for future DH purposes, but perhaps he needs the Wilson or Pujols dominoes to fall to move to the top of teams’ priority lists. Stay tuned.