On Saturday, Steven Goldman begged Prince Fielder not to sign during BP’s one-day Christmas break. Luckily, there was no Pujolsian contract offer under Fielder’s tree, and all of us got our wish. And as the calendar flips into 2012 and spring training approaches, it is looking less and less likely that the 27-year-old Fielder will come close to landing the 10-year, $254 million deal that Pujols got from the Angels. All of that could change with a single phone call to Scott Boras, but despite the agent’s 73-page overture to interested teams, the demand simply is not there.
Hitting free agency on the right side of 30 is every star player’s dream. For Fielder, though, a perfect storm has turned that dream into a nightmare. Four of the large-market teams—the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, and Tigers—are set at first base. Two others—the Dodgers and Mets—are in dire financial straits. The Blue Jays, Cubs, Mariners, Nationals, and Orioles would not become instant contenders simply by adding Fielder. And the Rangers are unlikely to break the bank for him after shelling out $51.7 million for the rights to Yu Darvish.
That raises an intriguing question: Should Fielder take a one-year deal to rebuild his value? Typically, players who settle for short-term contracts are looking to prove themselves, which certainly is not the case with Fielder. He is coming off of a 4.9 WARP campaign, has posted an OBP over .400 in each of the past three seasons, and is one of the league’s few consistent power threats. Any increase in Fielder’s value would have to come from a positive change in the market.
The risk of waiting an extra year for long-term financial security is relatively low for Fielder. His production is unlikely to suddenly plummet during his age-28 season, and the number of days he has missed since becoming a full-time player in 2006 can be counted on two hands. Boras should be able to find a suitor willing to commit $20-25 million to Fielder for 2012, since that team would get the short-term benefit of a slugger in his prime without worrying about his long-term durability and a possible move to designated hitter.
Next year’s market may also prove more favorable.
The current list of big-league first basemen who will be free agents after the coming season is: Aubrey Huff, Adam LaRoche, Carlos Lee, James Loney, Lyle Overbay, Ty Wigginton, and—factoring in a position switch—Nick Swisher. Not one of those players is in Fielder’s class.
There may also be a greater demand for his services. The aforementioned quintet of interested teams would be a year closer to contention. The Rangers could be looking to replace Josh Hamilton’s bat if he departs in free agency. The Dodgers, pending a successful sale, would be in better financial shape. The Red Sox—with Daisuke Matsuzaka and David Ortiz coming off the books—might be more willing to spend, even if Adrian Gonzalez’s presence would force Fielder to DH. The Giants, who continue to show little faith in Brandon Belt, could turn to Fielder if their thus-far fruitless negotiations with Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum turn sour.
Some of those scenarios are admittedly farfetched, but with no legitimate competitor on next year’s free-agent market, only one of them would have to create a need for a star first baseman to get Fielder the deal he wants. Boras will undoubtedly keep his ears peeled for blockbuster offers in the coming weeks. If no one caves, though, reentering the market next winter may actually be best for Fielder in the long run.