With echoes of A-Rod, Fielder deal gives Tigers a powerful punch
Prince Fielder agreed to a nine-year, $214 million deal with the Detroit Tigers
The Tigers were not pursuing Fielder until Victor Martinez hurt his knee recently
Along with Miguel Cabrera, Fielder gives the Tigers the majors' best 3-4 combo
Five thoughts on Tuesday's news that former Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder had agreed to a nine-year, $214-million contract with the Detroit Tigers:
1. Aaron Boone : Alex Rodriguez :: Victor Martinez : Prince Fielder
Forgive the SAT-style analogy, but the parallel is hard to ignore. Before the 2004 season, when the Rangers were shopping Rodriguez, the Yankees initially had no interest in the reigning American League MVP -- until incumbent third baseman Boone tore his ACL while playing pick-up basketball. New York then entered and won the A-Rod sweepstakes by shipping a package centered around Alfonso Soriano to Texas.
Fast forward to this winter, when the Tigers weren't significant players for Fielder -- until Martinez, the club's primary designated hitter, tore his ACL doing offseason workouts. With a free lineup slot, an aggressive owner and an open window of opportunity, the Tigers pounced on Fielder.
2. The best back-to-back duo in baseball
In short, when it comes to players the caliber of Fielder and Miguel Cabrera, you make room for them. Detroit now has the best pair of Nos. 3 and 4 hitters in the majors with, in one order or the other, a 27-year-old Fielder and a 28-year-old Cabrera, both of whom are in their prime now and should remain there for a couple more years.
The logistics of this move are a little more difficult as both are best suited to be first basemen and/or DHs. In 2012 the remedy is simple -- one plays first (probably Fielder) and the other DHs (probably Cabrera).
The issue gets more complicated when Martinez returns to the lineup either late in 2012 or in '13; he is still signed for $38 million through the 2014 season. Certainly, the Tigers could try trading V-Mart, though one imagines their first thought will be to see if Cabrera can return to being a full-time third baseman, where he played through 2007. But they have up to a year to figure that out, before having to explore trade options or more creative scenarios.
The deal for Fielder seems to have come together quickly with a drastic change of heart in the Tigers' front office by ownership and management. Just last week, team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski told MLive.com, "Of course we'd consider Prince Fielder, but realistically it's probably not a good fit. We anticipate Victor Martinez coming back in 2013 and playing at the level he was at last season. I would just say the fit is really not there at this point."
Dombrowski hinted the same in his teleconference about V-Mart. And because of it, my analysis of V-Mart's injury now looks silly for two reasons.
First, I wrote that there is "no simple replacement for a hitter that batted .330 with a .380 on-base percentage, 12 home runs and 103 RBIs last season." Well, the Tigers drastically improved three of those stats with one player, as Fielder batted .295 with a .415 OBP, 38 home runs and 120 RBIs last season. Pretty simple replacement.
Secondly, and more embarrassingly, I made this joke: "Suddenly pursuing a mega-free agent such as Prince Fielder now because of a one-season injury to Martinez would be akin to the adage of joining the Marines and going through boot camp just because you want to lose 10 pounds." Ouch. Clearly, I shouldn't have underestimated owner Mike Ilitch's spending power and desire to win.
3. Who says you can't come home again?
Prince Fielder grew up around the Tigers, when his father, Cecil, played there for six and a half seasons in which he made three All-Star teams and slugged 245 home runs, twice leading the majors in that category with 51 in 1990 and 44 in 1991. Prince hung around the clubhouse, played with his father's teammates and even took batting practice on the field at Tiger Stadium.
That relationship soured, however, during the last decade, largely over money and other issues.
Now Prince will be making his father's old city his new home, and apparently their relationship has improved. Shortly after the news of the contract was announced, Cecil appeared on XM's MLB Network Radio and told Jim Bowden that he has had a few conversations with his son and that "time heals all wounds." That's encouraging to hear for the sake of the father-son relationship and will help when Prince receives the inevitable bombardment of questions about his father.
4. The First American Migration
The tracking of star power shows the early makings of a trend in which National League power-hitting first basemen are seeking refuge in the AL. This winter Albert Pujols left the Cardinals for the Angels and Fielder has now left the Brewers for the Tigers. Last offseason Adam Dunn left the Nationals for the White Sox on a four-year deal, and Adrian Gonzalez departed the Padres for the Red Sox (though he was initially traded, Gonzalez quickly agreed to a seven-year contract with Boston). In addition, the Yankees (eight years to Mark Teixeira) and Twins (six years with Justin Morneau) have long-term commitments to slugging first basemen.
Meanwhile, only twice since 2006 has an NL team given a first baseman a contract of four or more years; Derrek Lee signed a five-year contract with the Cubs in '06, and the Phillies extended Ryan Howard in 2010 (on a five-year contract that only begins in 2012). The Reds' Joey Votto will be the next most compelling test case, as he is signed for two more seasons before he hits the free-agent market in advance of the 2014 season.
Power-hitters risk aging more rapidly in today's testing era, with bans and severe suspensions for both steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, as well as for amphetamines or "greenies." Players' career trajectories are more closely resembling a bell curve again rather than a plateau, as we saw when Barry Bonds maintained his power well into this late 30s. For players on long-term contracts, the AL has always been the safer bet because of the fallback of the DH for players whose skills decline more rapidly.
Of course, I'd be remiss not to note the necessary correlation with AL clubs gaining the financial resources to make such moves, such as the new TV money for the Angels and Rangers, so that the Red Sox and Yankees aren't the only clubs spending huge amounts of cash. Also, don't forget that the National League has won the last two World Series and three of the last four.
5. Scott Boras does it again
Despite facing scrutiny that he waited too long to find a team for Fielder, Boras managed to land his client a monster contract, just the fourth for over $200 million and the largest ever at such a late date, with the previous record-holder for latest nine-figure signing date being Carlos Beltran's seven-year, $119 million on Jan. 9, 2005. Not coincidentally, the other January signee was Matt Holliday, and it's worth noting that Beltran, Fielder and Holliday were all represented by Boras while negotiating those contracts.
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