The Prince Fielder contract: all kinds of crazy

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For almost every big free agent deal there are (a) the financial implications; and (b) the baseball implications. Often a deal is good on the baseball side of things but not so good on the financial side of things.  In the case of Prince Fielder going to the Tigers for nine years and $214 million, it makes very little sense on either side of the ledger.

This is not to say that signing Prince Fielder makes the Tigers a worse baseball team in 2012 than they were in 2011. Far from it.  With Victor Martinez out all year following knee surgery and the Tigers’ lineup already looking suspect beyond MVP-caliber first basemen Miguel Cabrera, Fielder’s bat is going to pay immediate dividends and should make the Tigers the favorites to repeat in the AL Central.

But what helps the lineup in 2012 creates both roster problems and financial problems going forward.

Victor Martinez will be back in 2013 and will be owed $13 million. And he’s still under contract for 2014 to the tune of $12 million. Thanks to the presence of Alex Avila and his own balky knees, Martinez’s days at catcher are basically over. That means that in Fielder, Cabrera and Martinez, the Tigers will have three expensive men for two positions for at least two years after this one. And to be honest, come 2014, all three of them should probably be playing DH anyway, as both Cabrera and Fielder are among the worst defensive first basemen in baseball.

But the roster problems extend beyond next year, and they become combined roster/payroll problems.  The $214 million owed Fielder, as well as the money owed Cabrera and Martinez, already represent a lot of cash owed to very few players.  Then you figure that Justin Verlander is going to need a pretty massive extension before the end of the 2014 season and you have a very top-heavy payroll.

And finally, there’s the contract for its own sake. Prince Fielder turns 28 early this season, so he is younger than your average big-splash free agent and thus nine years for him isn’t as bad as nine years for a 30 or 31-year-old. But it’s hard to envision a world in which paying him $40 million for 2019 and 2020 is going to pay off for the Tigers.  Such contracts have rarely if ever paid off for anyone.

But that’s the future. For the present, this deal does make the Tigers better.  Not perfect. The Tigers still have many holes in their lineup.  The team’s strength is still its pitching. Justin Verlander is the best in the AL, but it’s not like he can get better than he was in 2011. Jose Valverde was fantastic in 2011, but he’s actually, you know, gonna blow some saves at some point. Maybe Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer improve. Maybe they don’t. The point is that there are way more moving parts on a team than the well-appointed third and fourth slots in the 2012 Tigers’ lineup.

Signing Fielder likely ensures another AL Central crown. So, if you’re a Tigers fan, yes, you should be happy. But it doesn’t guarantee anything more than that and may hinder the Tigers’ competitiveness in the future. So try to keep your excitement under control.

In the playoffs, the Yankees’ weakness has become their strength

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Two weeks ago, when the playoffs began, the idea of “bullpenning” once again surfaced, this time with the Yankees as a focus. Because their starting pitching was believed to be a weakness — they had no obvious ace like a Dallas Keuchel or Corey Kluber — and their bullpen was a major strength, the idea of chaining relievers together starting from the first inning gained traction. The likes of Luis Severino, who struggled mightily in the AL Wild Card game, or Masahiro Tanaka (4.79 regular season ERA) couldn’t be relied upon in the postseason, the thought went.

That idea is no longer necessary for the Yankees because the starting rotation has become the club’s greatest strength. Tanaka fired seven shutout innings to help push the Yankees ahead of the Astros in the ALCS, three games to two. They are now one win away from reaching the World Series for the first time since 2009.

It hasn’t just been Tanaka. Since Game 3 of the ALDS, Yankees pitchers have made eight starts spanning 46 1/3 innings. They have allowed 10 runs (nine earned) on 25 hits and 12 walks with 45 strikeouts. That’s a 1.75 ERA with an 8.74 K/9 and 2.33 BB/9. In five of those eight starts, the starter went at least six innings, which has helped preserve the freshness and longevity of the bullpen.

Here’s the full list of performances for Yankee starters this postseason:

Game Starter IP H R ER BB SO HR
AL WC Luis Severino 1/3 4 3 3 1 0 2
ALDS 1 Sonny Gray 3 1/3 3 3 3 4 2 1
ALDS 2 CC Sabathia 5 1/3 3 4 2 3 5 0
ALDS 3 Masahiro Tanaka 7 3 0 0 1 7 0
ALDS 4 Luis Severino 7 4 3 3 1 9 2
ALDS 5 CC Sabathia 4 1/3 5 2 2 0 9 0
ALCS 1 Masahiro Tanaka 6 4 2 2 1 3 0
ALCS 2 Luis Severino 4 2 1 1 2 0 1
ALCS 3 CC Sabathia 6 3 0 0 4 5 0
ALCS 4 Sonny Gray 5 1 2 1 2 4 0
ALCS 5 Masahiro Tanaka 7 3 0 0 1 8 0
TOTAL 55 1/3 35 20 17 20 52 6

In particular, if you hone in on the ALCS starts specifically, Yankee starters have pitched 28 innings, allowing five runs (four earned) on 13 hits and 10 walks with 20 strikeouts. That’s a 1.61 ERA.

While the Yankees’ biggest weakness has become a strength, the Astros’ biggest weakness — the bullpen — has become an even bigger weakness. This is why the Yankees, who won 10 fewer games than the Astros during the regular season, are one win away from reaching the World Series and the Astros are not.