Handicapping the Prince Fielder Derby

Prince Fielder

All (likely) soon-to-be former Milwaukee Brewers all-star slugger Prince Fielder wants for Christmas is a home.

The 27-year-old free agent slugger is by far and away the best free agent left on the open market. He’s coming off a season that saw him post this monster line in his walk year: .299 BA, 38 HR, 120 RBI, .566 slugging percentage  .981 OPS and a WAR of 5.2. Those numbers are impressive enough on their own before you factor in the fact that he’s missed all of 13 games in the past six seasons. Read that number again — one of the most dangerous young hitters in the Major Leagues has missed 13 games in six years. That’s virtually unheard of in today’s day and age. 

Of course for as good as Prince has been for the Brewers on the field, leading them back to relevance for the first time since the early 80s including a pair of playoff berths (2008 and 2011), he’s been even better for them off of it. Fielder has generated millions of dollars in merchandise revenue for the Brewers. Walk around Miller Park on any given game day and you’ll find hundreds of fans rocking Fielder jerseys and shirseys. Fielder has been a one-man marketing tour-de-force in the Cream City, establishing himself as one of the most popular players in team history with both fans and the media.

At this point though, it seems like Prince Fielder is the Major League Baseball equivalent of Jennifer Aniston…

Jennifer Aniston Rolling Stone cover

(Ed. Note: You’re welcome)

…in that he’s the prettiest single girl that nobody wants to lock into a long term commitment. So why aren’t teams busting down agent Scott Boras’s door offering him an Albert Pujols-type contract or even more?



The Marlins, who were rumored to have been offering Pujols a contract in the neighborhood of a mind-bending $300 million, have reportedly declared themselves out of the Prince Fielder derby, seemingly content to go into the season with sweet swinging Gaby Sanchez (.266, 19 HR, 78 RBI, .779 OPS in 159 games in 2011) at first base. The decision to save their pennies when it comes to Fielder reportedly has as much to do with economics as it does the fact that Fielder doesn’t have the same marketing clout with Latin American audiences that Pujols would have.

With them out of the picture, that likely leaves a handful of teams — the Rangers, Mariners, Cubs, a Mystery Team (ooh, the intrigue!), and the Brewers as Fielder’s likely destinations. Let’s take a closer look at Fielder’s possible destinations, the odds that he lands with each team, and why each should act now before the others get in on the bidding.

Mariners (5-2) — The Seattle Mariners have got to be considered the odds-on favorites to land Prince Fielder at this point. GM Jack Zduriencik knows Fielder from his days in the Brewers front office. The team is coming off one of the more miserable stretches in their history and needs to do something to win back a waning fanbase. Ownership is deep-pocketed and seemingly willing to do whatever it takes to win more games and get more butts in the seats. Reports surfaced last week that the Mariners were the leaders in the clubhouse for Fielder, who would give the team its biggest bat since Ken Griffey Jr.’s heyday. But like any good poker player, Zduriencik downplayed those reports.

Per MLB.com’s Greg Johns:

“I don’t want to talk about Prince, but I would say the wording of that is misleading,” Zduriencik said. “Because you don’t know, on any free agent, I have no clue how many clubs are in on any free agent that we’re talking to.

“Even today, the guys I’ve sat with tell me they’ve got five clubs interested in their player or players,” he said. “And in any case, how do you know that? Another ballclub is not going to tell you. As I’ve said with all of this stuff, I’d prefer to be low key on any discussion. My style is not to build up a big fanfare. Sometimes these things get legs of their own. To say anybody is a front-runner, I don’t know how that would have come out.”

Even if Zduriencik claims he doesn’t know for sure, when his alternative is going into 2011 with struggling young slugger Justin Smoak at first base (.234, 15 HR, 55 RBI in 2011), you have to think he’s going to be taking a very serious run at Fielder.

Cubs (5-1) — The Cubs make the most sense out of all these options. They have money to spend, they’re a big market, and signing Prince would stick it to their division rivals 90 minutes to the north. That being said, it appears as though the Cubs are embarking on a rather extensive rebuilding project instead of trying to win right now. The team was content to let power-hitting third baseman Aramis Ramirez walk as a free agent. The team appears to be in the midst of a youth movement, having purged many of their high priced veterans from the roster with the exception of Alfonso Soriano, and may well be poised to go into the season with Triple-A All-Star Bryan LaHair at first base.

LaHair was solid down the stretch in a late September audition for the Cubs, hitting .288 with 2 HR, 6 RBI and 5 2B in 20 games. But Cubs fans are wary of late season success stories, especially after Mike Quade’s late season success in 2010 turned into a disastrous full season in his first and only campaign as manager. LaHair, while solid, doesn’t have Fielder’s offensive firepower nor his star power. People won’t buy tickets to see Bryan LaHair but they’ll do so in droves to see Prince. President Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer have to factor in the fact that while Prince won’t come cheap, he is only 27 years old and could be a cornerstone at Wrigley Field for years to come if they show him the money. 

Rangers (8-1) — The Texas Rangers can’t be ruled out given that Fielder has a pre-existing relationship with pitching coach Mike Maddux from their Milwaukee days and the team is desperate to make a splash in free agency after seeing left-handed starter CJ Wilson sign with the rival Angels. Fielder’s bat would allow them to match the Angels’ signing of Pujols both in terms of offensive production and star power. Plus The Ballpark at Arlington is a notorious hitters park, with an inviting overhang over the right field fence reminiscent of Tiger Stadium, where Fielder spent his pre-teen years mashing batting practice home runs under the watchful eye of his now-estranged father Cecil.

But for as much sense as this move would make, Jon Daniels is reportedly interested in spending his pennies elsewhere. Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal is reporting the Rangers are more interested in beefing up their already solid rotation, focusing instead on a potential trade for the Cubs’ Matt Garza or entering the bidding for recently-posted Yu Darvish. Barring any surprises, it appears the Rangers are content to go into 2012 with Mitch Moreland and/or Michael Young manning the first base bag. This could all change if the Rangers are unable to make a deal with the Cubs for Garza or if they lose out on the Darvish bidding.

Mystery Team (15-1) — Ah yes, the myseterious Mystery Team, the one that always seems to swoop in out of nowhere at the last second and make the big free agent splash. Just as nobody thought the Angels were going to get in on the Pujols bidding until the last second, there’s a handful of teams that, while not making waves for Prince right now, could step in at the last second with a Godfather-esque offer for the portly slugger. The trendy three mystery teams at this point — the Nationals, Orioles and..wait for it…the Cardinals.

The Nationals have shown a desire to hand out crazy money in the past, having given Jayson Werth a 7-year $126 million contract last offseason. Fielder is a much better and much more valuable player than Werth, the kind of guy that can fill Nationals Park in a way that only Stephen Strasburg has over the past few years. The Orioles need to do something — anything — to reinvigorate interest in the franchise after years of apathy. They don’t have a great young core but adding Fielder gives them instant credibility with their fans and potential free agents. He would be the team’s biggest free agent signing since Albert Belle but the only difference is, Fielder’s likely to work out a lot better than the Belle disaster did. 

The Cardinals are perhaps the longest shot of the bunch to be the Mystery Team, but they can’t be ruled out at this point. The team has money to spend after losing out on Albert Pujols. They play in a hitter-friendly stadium in one of the best baseball markets in the world, something that is surely not lost on Fielder, having played there dozens of times over the course of his career. Signing Fielder would be about as good a PR maneuver as they could make at this point as well, showing their fans that they’re committed to doing everything they possibly can to keep the team in the World Series conversation for years and giving them an exciting young slugger to build around for years to come. Unlike the Nationals and Orioles, there hasn’t been much talk about the Cardinals having interest in Fielder. The company line has been that they’re content to go into the season with Lance Berkman as their starting first baseman, that they’ve been bracing themselves for Pujols’ departure since prior to the 2011 campaign. Of course, in my opinion, this makes them all the more likely to surprise everyone with a giant bid. If the team is going to successfully defend their World Series crown, they’re going to have to find some way to replace Pujols’ numbers in a lineup that is otherwise lacking that kind of offensive firepower.

Brewers (30-1) — The Brewers are all but out of the Fielder derby at this point. After signing Ramirez, the general consensus is that the team is done making major moves on the free agent market. Right now, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel‘s Tom Haudricourt is reporting the Brewers’ budget is all but tapped out. The team has set themselves up well moving forward without Prince. But if nobody else steps forward with the kind of long-term lucrative contract that Fielder’s expecting, it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibilities that Fielder could simply choose to punt on 2012 and sign a one-year deal in Milwaukee.

For as crazy as that sounds, it could prove to be an even more lucrative decision for him in the long run. Think about this for a second — if Fielder can put up similar numbers in 2012 to what he did in 2011, he’ll be in line for an even bigger long term contract following the 2012 season. His presence on the Brewers makes them the odds-on favorites in the NL in 2012 and replicating his postseason success will make him even more attractive to big market teams like the Dodgers, Yankees and Red Sox, all of whom will likely have Monopoly money to spend on the man who will be without question the biggest free agent next offseason should he sign a one year deal with the Brewers for 2012. It’s the longest of longshots for sure, but it is within the realm of possibilities should he not receive an offer to his liking from any of the aforementioned teams.

Personally, I think Theo and the Cubs open the coffers and make him an offer he can’t refuse, making him the cornerstone on which the Cubs will be built for years to come. But that’s just me…Boras has proved to be nothing if not unpredictable over the years.