Generously listed at 5’11” and 275 pounds, Prince Fielder has never looked like the most durable guy. Despite that, nobody has played in more games since 2006 than him.
Fielder’s latest streak — 546 consecutive games played — came to an end Saturday night, when the Rangers held him out of the lineup with a herniated disk in his neck. It was the first game Fielder missed since September 13, 2010, when the Brewers held him out of a game with flu-like symptoms.
The last game he missed before that? September 3…2008. He hasn’t missed two games in a row since August 24-25, 2007. Overall, Saturday night was just the 14th game Fielder sat out since becoming a full-time player on Opening Day 2006.
That’s an incredible stretch of durability for anyone, let alone a slugging first baseman who’s always struggled to keep his weight down. To Fielder’s credit, his offseason workouts are, for lack of a better term, insane. He knows that he has to work hard to stay in shape, and now that he just turned 30, it’s going to take more work than ever before.
Pushing himself as much as he does may be starting to taking its toll, however. Another slow start has left more than a few people wondering if we’re already seeing Fielder on the back end of his career. He’s never been one to start hot out of the gates — while his career .277/.381/.479 line in March/April would be plenty good for most players, it accounts for his worst month by OPS. The concerns of decline are more than just a bad first month in Texas, though — it goes back to his time in Detroit, too.
When Fielder signed with the Tigers, the expectation was that he and Miguel Cabrera would form one of the scariest 1-2 punches in the league. Prince had already been tag-teaming with Ryan Braun for 5 years, but Cabrera was on a completely different level — especially in 2012, when he won the Triple Crown and his first MVP. If you believe in the concept of lineup protection, Fielder helped Cabrera to that Triple Crown, looming behind Miggy in the batting order every night. If you don’t believe in lineup protection, Fielder was merely ridiculously good with the bat that year, too.
While his power numbers were down — to be expected when you move from Miller Park’s home run-happy environment to Comerica — Fielder hit a career-high .313 that season, showing that he’s more than just muscle. The power production continued to fall in 2013, though, and he failed to hit 30 home runs for the first time since his rookie season in 2006. His defense at first base was as bad as ever, leading to a fWAR of just 2.2 despite making $23 million. Between that and another disappointing postseason, the Tigers decided it was best to trade him while they still could.
It’s entirely possible that Fielder’s troubles off the field — he was going through a divorce — led to some problems concentrating on it last season. Apparently, he also started to feel the neck issue that’s been bothering him this year last season, which might also explain the sudden power dip. For whatever reason, the Rangers didn’t make Fielder take a physical following their trade for him this winter, and the herniated disk didn’t come up on his spring training physical because he wouldn’t tell team doctors that something was wrong. Instead, he just played through a stiff neck and a loss of strength on his left side without saying anything.
While that part may be alarming to some, it’s also a big reason why he’s been able to play in so many games to this point in his career. He’s so competitive (and really, stubborn) that he’ll refuse to say something’s wrong for fear of not being in the lineup and letting teammates down. This is the same guy that doesn’t like being a designated hitter because he wants to be on the field for the entire game instead of just four at-bats.
In the past, that’s been an asset. As he gets older, though, it’s going to start hurting the team — if it hasn’t already. Yes, the Rangers have to go back to using Mitch Moreland at first base if Fielder is out of the lineup. But the difference between Moreland and the version of Fielder that slugs .360 isn’t that great. If it means getting Fielder going again and getting him back to where he was in 2011 and 2012, then maybe it’s time to start giving him more regular days off, like you would any other 30+ year-old star. And yes, maybe it’s time for Prince to drop the moral stance against the DH and figure out how to get comfortable in that role every once and awhile.
Fielder is still owed $144 million over the next six seasons. While $30 million of that is being covered by Detroit, if the Rangers are going to get any kind of value out of him, they’re going to need to be proactive in keeping him fresh. If they don’t, they’ll be paying for a $114 million singles hitter.