Fielder playing waiting game but Rangers are still the best fit
Prince Fielder is by far the top free-agent still remaining on the market
No player has ever signed a nine-figure contract after the end of December
The Rangers can offer Fielder a chance to win and a talented lineup around him
The January or even February date that Prince Fielder finally signs a new contract will be a forgotten footnote long before the presumed multi-year deal expires.
Soon after he picks a new team, Fielder will report to spring training, answer a few questions about what he was doing during the long wait (probably some combination of vacationing and working out, just like every other ballplayer) and about what took so long to decide (it was a developing market and required an ownership-level decision, as his agent, Scott Boras, might say).
Fielder will then return to playing games and all that will matter is how he plays from April to September and especially October in each of the next six, seven, eight or nine years of his new contract. What happened in the winter of 2012 will stay in the winter of 2012.
The most likely cause for the current delay in the employment choice of Fielder -- the Cubs, Mariners, Nationals and Rangers are all reportedly courting the three-time All-Star first baseman and the Tigers suddenly could use a bat in the wake of Victor Martinez's knee injury -- concerns a 6'5" Iranian-Japanese pitcher. Yu Darvish has until Wednesday to sign with the Texas Rangers, the team that won his negotiating rights, and it seems reasonable to suppose that Boras is waiting to see if Texas makes a big financial commitment to him. If the Rangers don't spend what's presumably an allocated budget of nine-figures for Darvish -- a posting fee of $51.7 million plus at least that much salary -- then that money could go a long way toward wrapping up Fielder.
It makes perfect sense for Fielder and Boras to wait. The Rangers are the best fit.
If, however, Texas' meeting with Fielder last Friday was more perfunctory courtesy than genuine interest -- or, perhaps, a negotiating tactic to let Darvish know that the Rangers could spend their money elsewhere -- than the strategy could backfire. Even with the Rangers' influx of television money (more on this below), affording both Darvish and Fielder is no guarantee.
But here's why the Rangers and Fielder still a good match:
The Rangers have the cash. In Sept. 2010 they agreed to a 20-year, $1.6-billion television contract with Fox Sports that will go into effect after the 2014 season.
The Rangers are the only 2012 World Series contender seeking Fielder's services. While the Cubs, Mariners and Nationals are all moving in the right direction -- with the Nationals the farthest along in that process -- only the Rangers made the playoffs in any of the past three seasons, and they even reached the World Series twice, losing this past year despite twice being one strike away from a championship.
Texas has the most offensive-friendly ballpark. Rangers Ballpark in Arlington is a launching pad. In the last four years its major league rank for most home runs has been: 3rd, 2nd, 10th, 1st. Fielder would also join a lineup that scored 855 runs last season, third-most in the majors.
The Rangers play in the American League and thus can use the designated hitter. Fielder has shown no signs of slowing down despite his 5'11", 275-pound (or more) physique, having played no fewer than 157 games in any of his six full seasons, all with the Brewers, and has played 485 out of a possible 486 games in the past three seasons. Still, it never hurts to have an insurance policy. The Mariners are also an AL team, but they just traded for Yankees prospect Jesus Montero, whom many scouts think is best suited to be a DH. And while the Rangers have DH Michael Young under contract through 2013, it's probably later in Fielder's contract that playing him at DH will matter more, not to mention that Young only started 69 games in that spot last year anyway
The Rangers have a need. No, they don't really need a lot more offense -- the lineup already features Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre, Michael Young and Mike Napoli -- but first base could stand an improvement over Mitch Moreland. The rotation would seem to be a greater need, but Texas already stands to gain from a third straight season of a reliever-to-starter conversion. C.J. Wilson and Alexi Ogando made the change the last two seasons, and both were All-Stars in 2011. This spring Texas plans to move closer and former AL Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz into the rotation, and he has the best pure stuff of any of that trio.
Adding Fielder would help the Rangers keep ahead of the Angels, who, flush with the cash of their own new TV deal, signed high-priced free agents Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, and also added reliever LaTroy Hawkins and catcher Chris Iannetta. Los Angeles finished the season 10 games behind Texas in the AL West but was within as few as three games with two weeks remaining in the season. Now, the AL West could become a TV-fueled arms race between the two clubs.
And the most emotionally tantalizing reason -- and the one even casual fans of other teams could rally behind -- is that a move to the Rangers would reunite Fielder in the same division with Pujols, who joined the Angels from the Cardinals, who, of course, play in the NL Central with the Brewers. It has been speculated that Boras has been angling for a contract for Fielder that would exceed Pujols' $240 million pact with Los Angeles, forming a challenge and furthering a rivalry with the more accomplished (but four years older) Pujols.
The most coveted commodities for a ballplayer -- at least for a power hitter -- are home runs and championship runs, which Texas is best suited to offer Fielder among the clubs courting him.
Of course, another small factor that could account for the length of deliberation is the number of contract options that could be on the table, given Fielder's age. At 27, he's among the younger free agents to hit the market, and some have suggested he could take a short-term deal (say, three or four years) at a record-breaking average annual value ($30 million?) and then re-enter the market at 30 or 31 and still get a significant multi-year deal. Or, more likely, Boras could negotiate a long-term deal that includes an opt-out clause after a few years, replicating the lucrative deal CC Sabathia got with the Yankees, which he used as leverage to negotiate a minimum $30 million extra.
And waiting until later in the offseason has always been a Boras negotiating tactic. Three of the top remaining free agents -- Fielder, starter Edwin Jackson and first baseman Carlos Peña -- are Boras clients. Still, this is exceptionally late; according to research done by mlb.com, no nine-figure deal has ever been agreed to after December.
A story on the Nationals' official website said there is a "99 percent" chance that club wouldn't sign Fielder, but isn't it also possible that a club hoping to drive down Fielder's price would also say such things publicly?
Without the Rangers to drive up the bidding, Boras may have a real quandary on his hands. There's no doubt he'll find a team to sign Fielder for a hefty sum, but it may be a far cry from landing a contract comparable to Pujols' deal.
But if the Rangers are interested buyers, then Fielder will have found a great new home.