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.

Evan Longoria: ‘I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base’

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The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.

Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.

Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”

Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.

The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.