Prince Fielder

Prince Fielder, Ian Kinsler, and mouthwatering moves

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Opening monologue: How many players in baseball history have a name as incompatible as “Prince Fielder?” Crazy, right? It would be like Bud Harrelson being named “Crown Batter” or Randy Johnson being named “Elfin Junkballer,” or Alex Rodriguez being named “Innocent victim.” Am I right? And what’s the deal with all the questions they ask when you try to pay for your gas at the pump these days? I’m trying to get fill up my car not join a dating service. Do you have a discount card? Do you want a car wash? Are you using credit or debit? What’s your zip code? Who was your favorite member of the Monkees? Why did they make Grown Ups 2?

There was something about the Detroit Tigers the last couple of years that irked me. You can’t call those Tigers underachievers, not exactly, because baseball is now a playoff-based game and the Tigers have done pretty well in the playoffs. They went to the World Series in 2012, and they were only a couple of plays away from making this year’s championship series with Boston interesting.

Still … the Tigers seemed to me like major underachievers both years. In 2012, with the league MVP (who, of course, won the Triple Crown), the guy I think was the best pitcher in the American League (Justin Verlander), a complimentary array of All-Stars and near All-Stars, and a spectacularly bad division to beat up, the Tigers won just 88 games (seventh best record in the league) and took a staggering amount of time to finally dispatch the talent-challenged Chicago White Sox in the division race. I thought it was one of the great under-performances in recent memory, but it was mitigated when they beat Oakland in a Game 5, and crunched the bloated and almost helpless Yankees in the championship series to get to the World Series (where they were trounced by a San Francisco team I think was clearly inferior in talent).

This year, the Tigers were better — but again, they seemed to punch way below their weight. They had the American League Cy Young and MVP winner, three dominant starters, a high-priced lineup that finished second in the league in runs scored, and they still finished with the third-best record in the league and again found themselves locked to the end in a divisional race with a team (Cleveland this time) that did not have the means to buy in their neighborhood. The Tigers, again and again the last two years, seemed to me to be less than the sum of their parts.

In my mind — and I admit right up front that this is wrong and utterly unfair — I blamed Prince Fielder.

When the Tigers gave Prince Fielder that nine-year, $214 million deal before the 2012 season, it seemed like one of those lousy moves rich teams make only because they can. The Tigers had just won 95 games and they ran away with a terrible American League Central division (no other team in the division was even .500). They won the division by 15 games, they scored many more runs than anyone in the division, they hit more home runs than any team in the division, they already had Miguel Cabrera (who led the league in average, on-base percentage and doubles) at first base. Prince Fielder seemed like the last thing the Tigers needed.

But it wasn’t a question of NEEDING Fielder. The Tigers had the money to get him. They had the package to convince him to come. So they got him. Fielder was coming off a monster year in Milwaukee where he hit .299/.415/.566 with 38 homers and 120 RBIs and was a key player in the Brewers reaching the NLCS. The Tigers did not need him but the thought of a Cabrera-Fielder middle of the lineup was mouthwatering.

It was so mouthwatering, in fact, that the Tigers were willing to do drastic and unsound things to make it happen. There was, of course, the humongous and seemingly interminable contract they gave him. It’s pretty obvious to anyone paying attention that long-term contract to players in their late 20s or early 30s pretty much never works. Here are the biggest contracts ever given to everyday players 28 or older (the age represents how old the player would be in his first season of the contract)*:

*I chose 28 because, best I can tell, players peak at 26-27, and so 28 is often the beginning of the decline. But I should note here that by choosing 28, I did leave out a couple of good long-term contracts — the Yankees first big deal with Derek Jeter and the Tigers deal with Miguel Cabrera.

1. Alex Rodriguez, age 32, 10 years, $275 million.
– You want this contract? Anyone?

2. Albert Pujols, age 32, 10 years, $240 million.
– How about this one?

3. Joey Votto, age 30, 10 years, $225 million.
– This contract hasn’t even started yet and — I say this as one of the world’s biggest Joey Votto fans — I predict there’s almost no chance the Reds will be happy they gave it. I know my friend Marty Brennaman won’t be.

4. Prince Fielder, age 28, 9 years, $214 million.
– More on this to come — at least he was a couple of years younger than the others at the start.

5. Joe Mauer, age 28, 8 years, $189 million.
– Now playing in a theater near you as a power-challenged first baseman.

6. Mark Teixeira, age 29, 8 years, $180 million.
– One of the more overlooked albatrosses on the Yankees.

7. Manny Ramirez, age 29, 8 years, $160 million.
– Funny enough, this might be the best deal in the Top 10.

8. Adrian Gonzalez, age 30, 7 years, $154 million.
– Within a year of its start date, the Red Sox were looking all over America for a place to dump this contract.

9. Carl Crawford, age 29, 7 years, $142 million.
– And the Red Sox wanted to dump this contract even more.

10. Todd Helton, age 29, 8 years, $141.4 million.
– Fangraphs had him worth roughly $105.1 million over length of contract so it wasn’t disastrous.

Look at that Top 10. I’d say the only people who would GO BACK and give out those contracts again are: The Red Sox with Manny (for all the trouble he caused, there are still two World Series championships during the Manny years) and Colorado with Helton (as much for sentimental reasons as baseball reasons). Obviously you can’t count the Votto contract yet because it hasn’t even started.

Giving out big contracts to players coming out of their prime is a loser. It just is. Josh Hamilton. Ken Griffey. Alfonso Soriano. Vernon Wells. Carlos Lee. Ryan Howard. On and on and on. Just about every disastrous contract in baseball history was some long-term deal given to a 28-to-32 year old in the hopes that he would (1) Be one of the few to hold off the effects of time or (2) Would be so good in the early years of the deal that the late years could be written off as collateral damage. It almost never works out either way. Option 2 is what I have to believe the Tigers were thinking about Fielder. I can’t believe they really thought Fielder would age gracefully.

So, they gave Fielder the big contract. That was the first thing. Second, they moved Miguel Cabrera to third base to make room for Fielder — one of those rare moves that makes a team drastically worse defensively at two positions.

The first year, Fielder hit more or less like the Tigers hoped he would. He hit 313/.412/.528 — pretty stout numbers. There were a couple of small negative signs. His homers were down and his slugging percentage was down. And while he still reached base a lot, it was in part because he got hit by a lot of pitches and was intentionally walked a bunch and was probably got a bit hit-lucky. Such things have a tendency of turning pretty quickly. Anyway, it was a good offensive season for Fielder, about as good as the Tigers could have wanted.

But were the Tigers a better team because of it? It’s hard to find. They scored 51 fewer runs in 2012 than they did in 2011. This wasn’t Fielder’s fault, of course, but it wash’t something he could prevent either. They were a much worse defensive team. According to John Dewan’s “Team Runs Saves” statistic, the Tigers were a good defensive team in 2011, saving 14 runs. In 2012, they were one of the worst defensive teams in the league, their defense COST them 32 runs. (In 2013, they were even worse with their defense costing them 66 runs). Again, it would be wrong to pin too much of blame on Fielder. But, he is a subpar first baseman. And Miguel Cabrera is a subpar third baseman.

Point is, Fielder had a GOOD year and it was hard to see how this helped the Tigers much.

In 2013, Fielder did not have a good year. His on-base percentage plummeted by 50 points, his slugging by 70, he failed to hit 30 homers for the first time since he was 22, and then he topped it off with another terrible postseason, which did not endear him to the hometown fans.

I hear a lot of people saying Fielder’s struggles were largely because he was going through some personal issues and that might be the big reason. Then again, it’s not like Prince Fielder type players age well. He’s obviously a big guy. I think of Boog Powell — league MVP at 28, dramatic drop at 29, and he had one good year the rest of his career. I think of Greg Luzinski — a 5-WAR player at 27, never a 3-WAR player after that. Kent Hrbek didn’t age well. His Dad Cecil Fielder did not age too well either. It’s hard to compare a player listed at 5-foot-11, 275 pounds with anyone else because, believe it or not, there has never been another player listed at 5-foot-11, 275 pounds. But big, slow, defensively challenged first basemen are not great bets to stay young into their mid-30s.*

*Though it should be said in Fielder’s defense that he has proven to be remarkably resilient and prolific for such a big man. He has played every game for the last three seasons. Among players weighing 235 pounds or more, only Fielder and Carlos Lee have played every game in a full season, and Fielder has done it four times.

All of which leads to Wednesday’s trade: Fielder to Texas for Ian Kinsler. As a pure baseball trade, there are many fun elements to the deal. Kinsler is a soon-to-be 32-year-old second baseman (they don’t usually age well either, but who does?) who plays good defense and was a very good offensive player until about 2011. He’s dropped off quite a bit the last couple of years — his power is down and he’s not finding ways to get on base — and I suspect his offense will fall more once outside the happy hitting haven of Texas*.

*Even when he was a good player, Kinsler didn’t hit much on the road. His lifetime road split is .242/.312/.399.

Fielder meanwhile — it’s fun to think about how well he might hit in Texas. Friend of Blog Brandon McCarthy tweeted this after the deal:

“Wait. Why is the right field fence so close? Quit fooling with me you guys…what? Oh…oh my god” *maniacal laughter* – Prince Fielder

— Brandon McCarthy (@BMcCarthy32) November 21, 2013

The move allows the Tigers to move Cabrera back to first and get a proper third baseman. The move allows the Rangers some freedom to use super-prospect Jurickson Profar. The move frees up money for the Tigers. The move gives the Rangers a major star as their huge television deal gets kicking. It makes sense on many levels for both teams, and it’s a risk on some level for both sides, and that’s what makes it a fun trade.

But I think the Tigers won the deal. They had to throw in $30 million to make it happen, but I still think they won. I think shoring up that infield so it isn’t a sieve, I think having some spending flexibility to work on actual weaknesses, I think Kinsler’s solid all-around play will all help.

Also, I think that the years and money left on Fielder’s contract are radioactive. Brilliant reader Stephen tweeted that Fielder could get a 7-year, $138 million deal on the open market (the Rangers portion of the contract) and that’s probably true because teams spend money poorly. What I see here is that the Rangers brought in s a 30-year-old first baseman who can’t field or run or throw and is coming off the lowest OPS year of his career. Sure, he could rebound. Sure he could put up huge numbers in that hitters’ ballpark. Then again, he could keep on declining. And that contract goes on and on and on.

Which current players are Cooperstown bound?

Miguel Cabrera
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With the election of Tim Raines, Jeff Bagwell and Ivan Rodriguez and with the Hall of Fame press conferences over, let’s wrap up Hall of Fame week with a look at today’s game and see if we can’t figure out who among current big leaguers are likely to get the call to Cooperstown one day.

The No-Brainers

I think it’s a 100% lock that, absent their being identified as international terrorist masterminds, the following guys are already in:

Albert Pujols — He’ll break 600 homers this season, is a three-time MVP, has a couple of World Series rings and will be above 3,000 hits before he’s done. He could’ve been hit by a bus five years ago and still would be a lock.

Ichiro Suzuki — Over 3,000 hits in this country, over 4,000 hits between here and Japan, with some added spice due to him breaking people of notion that only Japanese pitchers, and not hitters, could be effective in Major League Baseball. A first ballot guy, just like Pujols.

Miguel Cabrera — He has two MVPs, a Triple Crown and is approaching 500 homers and 3,000 hits already despite still being only 33 years-old. He may be beginning to descend from his career peak, but there is no reason at all to think that he doesn’t have several years of top performance left. He, like Pujols and Ichiro are already in.

Adrian Beltre — As recently as a couple of years ago I was convinced that voters would fail to appreciate his greatness, but something has changed recently in the way he is discussed by the baseball commentariat. His defense has been spectacular and has remained so even as he approaches 40 and, unlike what may have been the case a decade ago, it is widely appreciated. He’ll pass 3,000 hits this year.

Yadier Molina — I would’ve put him in the next lower category before Wednesday, but Ivan Rodriguez’s first ballot election shows that defense behind the plate carries more weight with the electorate than many considered it to. There’s also the fact that Molina has always been talked about as a Hall of Famer and has the respect of everyone he’s ever played with, often being cited as the heart and soul of the successful Cardinals teams of the past decade and change. Voters love that and that’ll do a lot to make up for the lack of typical Hall of Fame offensive numbers.

Justin Verlander — An MVP/Cy Young combo and a couple of other years when he could’ve easily won the Cy Young set Verlander apart, especially if his rebound 2016 presages a few more years of excellence. Assuming a normal decline, he’ll top 3,000 strikeouts will be between 225-250 wins one thinks. Wherever he ends up on those numbers, though, there is going to be — heck, there has to be — a rethinking of what a Hall of Fame starting pitcher looks like by the voters in the coming years. Guys like Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling are getting overlooked because they don’t have 300 wins and a boatload of complete games, with voters not yet grokking that the game has changed. By the time Verlander is on the ballot, I suspect that they will have fully grokked it and that his case will be easier than it has been for some others who came before. The guy to watch as this dynamic unfolds: Roy Halladay, who hits the ballot in two years.

 

Probably In, But People Will Argue

Carlos Beltran — His career stock has improved as he’s continued to an effective hitter late in his career, but I feel like he may not yet be fully appreciated by many due to the lack of hardware and rings and things. Overall, however, his numbers are comparable to several Hall of Famers. One thing a lot of people overlook in Hall of Fame careers is just how much playing for one team — which was once the norm due to the Reserve Clause — colors the narrative of a player’s case. Beltran is Billy Williams, right? Except without the entire career with the Cubs and the adoration of those fans to speak for him. As we’ve seen with Tim Raines, having someone stump for a guy is important. Which team’s fan base stumps for Beltran?

 

Probably NOT in, But People Will Stump For Them

Chase Utley — I feel like he’s just short, though that’s mostly due to him getting a late start in his career and not compiling some of the counting stats voters like to see. Was definitely the best second baseman around for a number of years and has the rate stats and defensive reputation. A good case can be made for him. But the same is true of Larry Walker, Alan Trammell and a number of other guys who haven’t gotten the Hall of Fame love.

Jimmy Rollins — Utley’s former teammate may have an opposite case: a lot of good counting stats based on being a regular at 21, but he has somewhat lackluster rate stats and secondary stats for a Hall of Famer.

Joe Mauer — If he had stuck at catcher he’d have a stronger case — and if he weren’t so unfairly denigrated by Twins fans and those who cover them his existing case would be more appreciated — but the odd arc of his career and setbacks due to concussions will likely make him fall short. There’s a very interesting statistical/historical case to be made for Mauer, but it’s not one that, barring an unexpected late career offensive renaissance, will get much of a hearing I suppose.

 

On the way, but need to pad their resumes

Clayton Kershaw — The only thing keeping him out of the “already in” group is the fact that he has only played for nine seasons and you have to have ten in order to be eligible. Yes, even after 10 his career will be super short, but what he has done in his nine seasons — three Cy Youngs and three other top-5 Cy Young finishes, four ERA crowns and three strikeout crowns, — has been pretty outstanding. I suppose that if he suddenly turned into a tomato can and spent a decade with ERAs in the 5s people would rethink him, but the smart money has him cruising in based on his first decade alone, padded with even merely good later years. And there’s no reason to think that his next couple of years will be merely good.

Robinson Cano — Only 12 seasons under his belt but already north of 2,200 hits and, barring serious injury, will likely finish his career at or near the top of most offensive categories for second basemen. He plays every dang day. Multiple All-Star selections and a lot of MVP votes. Barring a Dale Murphy-style falloff, I think he makes it.

Dustin Pedroia — Likely has it on peak performance already — the Rookie of the Year, the MVP, a couple of World Series rings for which he is given a large amount of credit — but he has only played 11 seasons, which is generally too short for Hall of Famers not named Koufax. Second baseman have historically fallen off younger than players at other positions, but if Pedroia, like Cano, avoids that and has a standard career decline, he’s Cooperstown bound.

Buster Posey — There are only eight years under Buster’s belt, but they’ve been great years. Someone besides Bruce Bochy will get credit for the Giants’ three World Series rings, and it’ll likely be Posey. That is, if his down 2016 season isn’t the beginning of an unexpectedly sharp falloff.

Mike Trout — The shortest tenure of anyone on this list, but the guy has already put together a Hall of Fame peak by the age of 25 and only needs to gain eligibility. If he falls off to merely very good starting now he’ll have already made it. WAR is a counting stat which accumulates over a career. By the time 2017 is over, he will likely have passed Hall of Famers Tony Lazzeri, Kirby Puckett, Orlando Cepeda, Larry Doby, Nellie Fox, Bobby Doerr, Mickey Cochrane and Tony Perez. In less than seven full seasons.

UPDATE: Joey Votto — I forgot him when I first published this. Which, I dunno, was maybe some weird unconscious impulse I had which channels what I think voters will do. We’ve come a long way in appreciating on-base ability and rate stats and eschewing RBIs and things when it comes to evaluating hitters, but I feel like, to some, Votto is an extreme case here. He shouldn’t be — he’s a career .313 hitter and has slugged to the tune of .536 — but the negative narrative that has been written by some in the media that Votto is too timid a hitter or that his taking walks somehow has hurt the Reds has had some annoying staying power. All of that said: he’s only got ten years in. If he continues doing what he’s doing, he’ll be a strong Hall candidate. If he has even one or two more years where he shuts the naysayers up and, say, finishes first or second in the MVP voting, he’ll be in. Alternatively: if the Reds ever trade him to a contender and people see how valuable his production is in a lineup with even a modicum of support, that narrative changes immediately.

Others

Ian Kinsler — Dustin Pedroia without the MVP and the rings? I suppose a lot of people would take issue with that, but they’re a lot more similar than you may suspect. Kinsler has a higher bWAR in the same number of seasons as Pedroia, even if he doesn’t have the same level of fame.

Max Scherzer — If he can keep up the peak he’s established over the past few seasons for a bit longer, or if he can show remarkable longevity, he could possibly make up for blooming a bit late.

Zach Greinke — Could go either way. We’ve likely already seen his best seasons — and his two best were, uncharacteristically for a Hall of Famer, several years apart — but if he has several more good ones, he’s in the conversation.

Felix Hernandez — I feel like 2017 will be key. Two years ago I’d have said he was well on his way, but two average seasons in a row at ages 29 and 30 could be the precursor to a less-than-Hall-of-Fame second act.

There are likewise several players who have begun careers which look a lot like guys who eventually made the Hall of Fame — Freddie Freeman, Anthony Rizzo, Chris Sale, Jose Altuve, Manny Machado, etc. etc. — but for the most part they’re just too early in the game to project. Let’s hold off on them for a few years, shall we?

I feel pretty good about this list thus far, however. What say you?

Josh Johnson retires from baseball

PEORIA, AZ - FEBRUARY 21: Josh Johnson #55 of the San Diego Padres poses during Picture Day on February 21, 2014 at the Peoria Sports Complex in Peoria, Arizona. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
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Oft-injured pitcher Josh Johnson is retiring from baseball, ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick is reporting.

Johnson, 32, hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2013. The right-hander underwent his third Tommy John surgery in September 2015 but wasn’t able to bounce back.

Johnson spent most of his career with the Marlins, but also pitched for the Blue Jays in the big leagues, as well as the Padres in the minors. He retires with a career 3.40 ERA, 915 strikeouts across 998 innings in the majors, and two All-Star nominations. Johnson led the National League with a 2.30 ERA in 2010, finishing fifth in NL Cy Young Award balloting. One wonders what he could have accomplished if he was able to stay healthy.