With 2011 winding down, Prince Fielder is still looking for work. When the off-season started, Fielder was firmly planted in the second tier of elite free agents this winter with Jose Reyes and CJ Wilson, just behind Albert Pujols but plenty valuable in his own right. With several teams interested in Pujols, Fielder seemed poised to make a solid consolation prize for someone.
Now we’re more than two months into the off-season and more than two weeks past Pujols’s signing with the Angels. It’s clear that the two runners up in the Pujols derby — the Marlins and Cardinals — have moved in different directions. Fielder’s old team in Milwaukee has spent money in a number of other places this winter, including on Aramis Ramirez, and no longer seems to be in position to sign him. The Mariners have some interest in Fielder, but it seems to be lukewarm at best to this point. The Rangers don’t seem to be a landing place for the big man, especially now that they’re going to be paying a huge sum for Yu Darvish. The Cubs, who seemed to be a logical a contender for Fielder’s services, have apparently decided to engage in a slow rebuild under their new front office and don’t seem to be very interested now.
So what should Fielder do? Should he take a one-year deal with the Brewers or the Rangers in hopes of having a huge year, winning a World Series, and driving his value through the roof? Or should he keep waiting things out, hoping that the Marlins or Nationals or Cubs or Mariners finally agree to break the bank and give him a seven or eight year deal that will set him up for the rest of his life?
Perhaps the most important thing to do first is to understand why Fielder’s situation is a bit different from the one that Pujols was in before signing his deal with the Angels earlier this month. Fielder’s made about $35 million to this point in his career because he never accepted a long-term extension with the Brewers to buy out his free agency years. Pujols, after his age-27 season, was partway through a 7-year/$100 million deal that ended up paying him $116 million through 2011 thanks to a team option. Pujols could’ve made more over that span if he’d elected for free agency after 2006 instead of signing that long-term deal, but he knew it was likely that he’d have a second huge payday coming post 2010 or 2011 as a free agent. Still, he knew when he was 27 that the $100+ million was in the bank, even if his career somehow ended before the deal was up.
Fielder’s elected to go a different route by cashing in as much as possible as soon as he’s a free agent. There’s a reason for that, even if Scott Boras probably didn’t mentioned it in the huge binder of Fielder facts he compiled. If you take a look at some first basemen who are, well, shaped the same way as Fielder is, they don’t tend to have the longest careers. Mo Vaughn was a great player through 30 and a good player through 32 and he didn’t even play a full season after that. Prince’s father, Cecil, had his two best years at 26 and 27, tailed off a bit through his age-32 year, and was done a week before his 35th birthday. Obviously we’re only looking at two guys here, but if you figure that Prince will age along roughly the same scale then you have to figure he’s got maybe five or six productive years left before he starts to decline.
That means that at this point, he can reasonably be asking for a 6-8 year deal in the neighborhood of $120-$150 million. That’ll be his big pay day, and however much he makes after that deal is up, if he still has a career, will be gravy. Maybe I’m wrong here and he’ll turn into the guy that Baseball-Reference says he most resembles to this point in his career, Eddie Murray. Murray played into his 40s, he had a career year at 34, and he was still a productive player at 39. If I’m right, though, and Fielder holds out for a big deal this winter, he’ll have at least cashed in one big payday in his career and no one will say that he didn’t earn it based on what he’s done with the Brewers and what he’ll probably do through his early 30s.
The problem, though, is that the clock is already ticking on Fielder. Nothing I’ve written about the likely length of Fielder’s career is a secret: there’s a reason that the Marlins and Cardinals were willing to go nine or ten years with Pujols, who’s 31, but won’t consider going that long with Fielder, who’s 27. If people are nervous about Fielder at 27, how nervous will they be when he’s 28 and sees even a slight downtick in production?
There’s still almost three months until the bulk of spring training starts. It’s certainly possible that by then, Fielder may have to accept a one-year deal because a one-year deal would be better for him than a two or three or four year deal right now, but we’re still a ways off from that point. As slow as the market seems to be for Fielder right now, waiting until next year to sign a long-term deal is no guarantee that it’ll get Fielder what he wants. He’s gone this far, he and Boras may as well wait this out as long as possible and hope that someone caves in and gives them something resembling what they want.