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.

MLBPA thinks all 30 teams will take a “file-and-trial” approach to arbitration

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There’s something interesting deep in Ken Rosenthal’s latest notes column. It’s about arbitration, with Rosenthal reporting that the players union believes that all 30 teams will take a “file-and-trial” approach to arbitration this winter.

If you’re unfamiliar with this, it breaks down thusly:

  • In mid-January, teams and players who are eligible for arbitration will exchange proposed salary figures. The player says what he thinks he’s worth based on comparable players of his quality and service time and the team will propose a lower counter-figure;
  • Generally, the parties then use these proposals as negotiable figures and eventually reach a compromise deal, usually near the midpoint between the two figures, avoiding arbitration;
  • If a deal cannot be reached, they go to an arbitration hearing and arbitrators pick one of the numbers. They CANNOT give a compromise award. It’s either the higher player’s number or the lower team number.

In the past, a handful of teams — most typically the Blue Jays, Braves, Marlins, Rays, and White Sox — employed a “file- and-trial” approach, meaning that they treated the figure exchange date as a hard deadline after which they refused to negotiate and stood content to go to a hearing. As more teams have adopted this approach, there have been more arbitration hearings. As Rosenthal notes, last year there were more hearings than in any offseason for the past 25 years. Now, the union thinks, every team will do this. If they do, obviously, there will be even more hearings.

There is certainly an advantage to file-and-trial for a team. It makes the player and the agent work harder and earlier in order to be prepared to negotiate with the club before the file deadline. It also makes them work a lot harder to come up with a defensible filing number given that, rather than merely being an opening salvo in an extended negotiation, it’s something that they will certainly have to defend in open court. It’s also simple hardball. Teams have greater resources than the players and the agents and it’s less painful for them to pay for lawyers and hearing prep and to conduct the actual hearing. There’s risk to the team, of course — they might lose and pay more than a settlement would’ve cost — but teams are obviously concluding that the risk is worth it.

The only question I have is, if the union is right and all 30 teams will now proceed this way, how was that decided? Everyone suddenly, after several decades of arbitration, simply decided to take the same approach? Or was there, I dunno, a meeting in which the strategy was coordinated? Inquiring minds want to know!