This is the question that the Detroit Tigers would’ve not only asked themselves, but also answered, and done so definitively, before handing the former Milwaukee Brewers first baseman a $214 million contract to play for their ball club over the next nine years.
In order to financially justify paying him that much money, the Tigers’ front office would’ve answered this question with a firm belief that Prince Fielder is, at this very moment, a true talent 5.7 wins above replacement player.
This past season, at age 27, Fielder was evaluated at:
- 5.5 fWAR by FanGraphs;
- 5.2 rWAR by Baseball Reference; and
- 5.3 WARP by Baseball Prospectus
Over the last three years, Fielder has averaged:
- 5.1 fWAR according to FanGraphs;
- 4.7 rWAR according to Baseball Reference; and
- 4.3 WARP according to Baseball Prospectus.
So while the Tigers’ evaluation of Fielder may be ambitious, the following schedule of value and decline, with true talent declining at 0.5 WAR a year after age 29, is hardly impossible.
2012 – 5.7 WAR, $5.00M $/win, $28.5 million value.
2013 – 5.7 WAR, $5.25M $/win, $29.925 million value.
2014 – 5.2 WAR, $5.51M $/win, $28.652 million value.
2015 – 4.7 WAR, $5.69M $/win, $26.743 million value.
2016 – 4.2 WAR, $6.08M $/win, $25.536 million value.
2017 – 3.7 WAR, $6.38M $/win, $23.606 million value.
2018 – 3.2 WAR, $6.70M $/win, $21.44 million value.
2019 – 2.7 WAR, $7.04M $/win, $19.008 million value.
2020 – 2.2 WAR, $7.39M $/win, $16.258 million value.
The table shows that Fielder would need to accumulate approximately 37 wins above replacement from age 28 to 36. This has been done 78 times in baseball history.
Stop to consider how this Detroit Tigers team is built to win now, with Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander in their prime and so much money invested in players set to decline, like Victor Martinez and Jose Valverde, and the signing becomes, if not justifiable, then certainly understandable as a means of ensuring those peak performances and those dollars already invested don’t go to waste.
However, there is one issue with all this, and it’s an issue that probably doesn’t come into play until next season when a healthy Victor Martinez is scheduled to return to the lineup. Suddenly, the Tigers will have three players that really have no business playing anything other than two positions.
There may be some minor issues this coming year with Miguel Cabrera, perhaps the slightly better defender at first base (and that’s more of a comment against Fielder than it is a credit to Cabrera), not wanting to be a full time designated hitter, but losing a bit of defensive ability to put him in at third base or left field every once in a while is a small price to pay for a happy superstar. But make no mistake, the most common lineup throughout this season will see Fielder and Cabrera splitting first base duties 60/40. And this isn’t even considering what it will now take to get Delmon Young into the lineup.
It’s also ignoring one of the more unique, and therefore interesting aspects of Fielder as a baseball player, and that’s his size. Not only is he a large man, he’s a relatively short man, so much so that no player comes close to matching his physical dimensions as listed at Baseball Reference. Mo Vaughn comes close with his height and weight listing at FanGraphs, but that and a mutually successful season at the age of 27 is where most of the similarities between the two players end.
Although I’m sure there are some Detroit front office staffers who have been waking up in cold sweats after nightmares involving career paths like this:
Earlier I mentioned that 78 players in baseball history have done what Fielder needs to do to make his contract with the Tigers worthwhile. Of those 78, only one player had a listed weight of 250 pounds or more, and that was Jim Thome. The long time Indians first baseman is four inches taller than Fielder and weighs 25 pounds less.
Again, I stress that there has never been a baseball player quite like Prince Fielder. So, between this fact and the many difficulties in gauging an accurate weight from baseball players throughout history, it’s incredibly difficult to accurately suggest any accelerated declines for Fielder due to his body size.
Overall, the signing isn’t without a share of somewhat unreasonable expectations, but considering how definitively this single transaction puts an already competitive team ahead in their division, it’s a deal that’s much more forgiveable than it would be if it were agreed to by another organization, even one with fewer designated hitters on its roster.