The Detroit Tigers came out of nowhere Tuesday, and signed baseball’s number 2 free agent, Prince Fielder to a massive contract. The Mariners, Nationals, and Rangers were all rumored to be front-runners in the race for the first baseman’s services, but in the end it was Detroit who swooped in to win the race. Fielder’s father, Cecil, played six and a half seasons with the Tigers, where he hit 245 home runs for the franchise. His son will now reside in Detroit for the next nine seasons, and make an incredible $214 million ($23.7 million AAV). Is the hefty first baseman worth such a monster contract and does he have the ability to put the Tigers over the top in a loaded American League?
My weighted average projection based on Prince’s last three seasons, is that Prince will be a 5 fWAR player for the next two seasons. Then I simply assumed Prince would decline by a half a win per seasons once he turns 30. Using linear-dollars per WAR to calculate the dollar value of this production (with a 5% inflation rate), I came to the conclusion that a simple projection of Prince’s worth over the course of this contract would be $184 million. Thus, the Tigers overpaid for Prince by $30 million if you assume he’ll decline in the same way a major leaguer with a typical body would. That last assumption is critical in this analysis, because Prince is not your average major leaguer; he is 5’11” and 268 pounds. Fangraphs did an insightful analysis of how heavier players decline, and based on that graph it seems as though Prince could decline much quicker than projected, and be worth even less than $184 million. Fielder might be a $23.7 million player now, although I’m not sure he is (for example: in 2010 he wasn’t close to being worth that type of money), but 4,6, 9 years from now? It’s ridiculous to think he would be. Thus, financially this was the wrong move for Detroit, but they have the talent to win now, and this factor brings up a whole new set of questions.
The fact of the matter is that the Tigers know this contract will end up being an albatross, they know Prince won’t be worth it in the end, but they don’t care. If Prince Fielder can bring a championship to Detroit; that could be enough in their front office’s mind to justify this contract. The Tigers were as good as any team in the league last year, in which they reached the ALCS. Detroit sat back all off-season and watched the Angels sign Albert Pujols and CJ Wilson, the Rangers sign Yu Darvish, the Rays make super-prospect Matt Moore a member of their starting rotation, and the Yankees acquire Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda. They also lost their third most productive hitter, Victor Martinez for the entire 2012 campaign. Detroit essentially had to make a move, to give them a chance to compete against the premier clubs in the A.L.
Last season Martinez hit a wOBA of .368 mainly at DH, which produced an fWAR of 2.9. That’s a large chunk of production missing in the middle of the Tigers’ lineup, which Fielder can now seamlessly fill. In even his worst season, Fielder amassed a better wOBA and fWAR than Martinez did last seasons; thus replacing Martinez with Fielder will help the Tigers overall. Now Detroit has the option to move Miguel Cabrera to 3rd base and let Fielder play first. Cabrera has 389 career games at third with a DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) of -30 and UZR/150 of -4.5, which isn’t horrible, but those games were played a long time ago when he was in better shape. A possible strategy would be to start the very inconsistent Brandon Inge at 3rd and have Cabrera DH. If Inge can perform at his 2010 All-star level (2.1 fWAR), then the Tigers will be a very good team in 2012.
The 2012 Detroit Tigers will have a lineup that includes, Cabrera, Fielder, Alex Avila, Jhonny Peralta, Austin Jackson, and Delmon Young. Their rotation boasts Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello. On paper, it looks as though the Tigers are set to match their 2011 win total of 95 wins (48.5 fWAR), but are they really? I aggregated FANS projections to give a fairly accurate projection for fWAR of the 2012 Tigers, of 49.6. The projected team total fWAR of 49.6 makes the Tigers, a 92-98 win team in 2012. Thus, even though the Tigers will lose Martinez in 2012, the addition of Fielder is enough to make them a playoff team and World Series contender. Prince Fielder’s legacy in Detroit will be defined on whether or not he brings a World Series, because if he does not, an overpaid fat 36 year-old first baseman will be all that’s remembered.