[To be followed by, you guessed it, the case against signing Prince Fielder. This article will focus solely on the reasons to consider signing Fielder, and a subsequent article will focus solely on the reasons not to consider signing Fielder.]
With Carlos Pena likely off to greener pastures in free agency, the Chicago Cubs have a gigantic hole at first base, and in the middle of the lineup. Might it take a gigantic first baseman to fill that hole?
Setting aside the Disney dream story that is Bryan LaHair, it’s hard to view (gigantic) free agent first baseman Prince Fielder as a non-option for the Cubs. Yes, he’ll cost a lot of money. Yes, he’s beefy. Yes, his defense is not the top of the top. But the Cubs need a big bat at first, and Prince is a currently-available big bat at first.
It must be considered.
What follows are the reasons the Chicago Cubs should sign Prince Fielder, to the exclusion of the equally-relevant reasons the Cubs should not sign Fielder, which will be addressed later.
The first reason to sign Fielder almost pass without discussion: the guy is an offensive force.
Some folks like to point to the yo-yo’ing of Fielder’s numbers through his career, calling him inconsistent. Here’s the thing about Fielder’s offensive numbers: even when they yo to the downside, they’re still pretty damn good. Fielder’s worst season since his rookie year was when he was 24, back in 2008. That year, he hit “only” .276/.372/.507, with 34 homers and 102 RBI. His OPS+ of 130 that “bad” year would have placed him first or second on the Cubs every single year since 2005.
The rest of the time, Fielder’s been a monster. His career .282/.390/.540 line places him among the best hitters in baseball over the last half decade. He averages 37 homers, 32 doubles, and 106 RBI every 162 games. He’s been in the top 16 in league OPS every season since his rookie year, and has three times been in the top three.
If the yo-yo’ing criticism has some teeth, it’s this: Fielder appears to alternate awesome seasons with really, really awesome seasons.
The Impact on Players Around Him
Maybe Rickie Weeks, Casey McGehee and Corey Hart really are impressive hitters. I’ll grant that possibility.
But when your lineup features a couple guys like Fielder and Ryan Braun, a pitcher’s margin for error with respect to the other seven hitters gets a whole lot slimmer. Batters in front of Fielder benefit from a pitcher’s awareness that, if he doesn’t get this guy out (and throw him strikes), he’s going to have to face Fielder with a man or men on. Batters behind Fielder benefit from a near 40% chance that they’ll be hitting with a man on base, which also improves the pitches they see.
Prince Fielder is 27 years old. Most free agents hit the market in the middle of, or at the back end of, their prime years. Fielder is still at the outset of what is traditionally believed to be a player’s peak years.
Signing Fielder to, for example, a seven year deal may not be as egregious as you think: in the final year of the deal, he’d still be only 33 years old to start the year.
No, Fielder’s defensive prowess is not going to convince any teams to sign him. But it turns out that it’s not quite the boogyman you may have thought. While Fielder’s range is limited, his fielding percentage is just about league average (he actually is sometimes at the back of the pack, but the difference between the best and the worst first baseman, in terms of fielder percentage, is in the one thousandths). In other words, Fielder doesn’t get to quite as many balls as the average first baseman, but neither does he make more errors – on a percentage basis – than the average first baseman.
Let’s talk about that range thing. Range factor, which is the number of assists and putouts a player accumulates per nine innings, isn’t a particularly useful evaluative tool when it comes to first basemen. The reason should be obvious: while it includes the plays a first baseman makes himself, it also includes the throws he receives at first. So, for example, if you were the first baseman on a team full of fly ball/strikeout pitchers, your range factor would be decidedly low (the fact that Fielder has been near the top of the league in zone rating (i.e., how well a player gets to balls in his “zone”) the last few years suggests something like this is going on). Even if you do believe range factor is an effective ding on Fielder, here’s the thing: he’s about 4% lower than average. That’s it.
Another big part of what a first baseman does defensively is save errant throws. Fielder is no Carlos Pena in that department, and his “scoop percentage” (the number of bad throws he saves) is probably below average. But, once again, he’s not terribly far off the mean – through August of this past season, Fielder’s 70% scoop percentage was just a bit lower than the league average 82%.
I’m not trying to make Fielder out to be a great defensive player. He’s not. Advanced defensive metrics, and the eyeball test, tell you he’s probably in the bottom half of the league defensively at first base. But is his defense so abysmally bad that he shouldn’t be considered? No way. Indeed, according to Bill James’ calculations, Fielder’s defense in 2011 cost his Brewers just one run.
The Wait and the Window of Competitiveness
A name you hear thrown around in discussions about Fielder’s expected contract is Mark Teixeira, who got eight years and $180 million from the Yankees. The reason for the comparison has less to do with the players’ respective track records at the time of free agency (Tex was Gold Glover who was also a very good hitter, Fielder is a great hitter) and more to do with the fact that Teixeira’s free agency represents arguably the last time a game-changing first baseman was available on the free agent market.
That was three years ago.
The point here? Guys like Fielder don’t come along in free agency every year. So, even if your team’s window of competitiveness is not for another year or two, you’d be wise to strongly consider locking a guy down when he’s actually there to be locked down. Don’t believe me? Take a glimpse at the projected potential free agent market at first base next year, courtesy of Cot’s: Travis Hafner, Aubrey Huff, Adam LaRoche, Carlos Lee, James Loney, Mike Napoli, and Ty Wigginton.
No. Guys like Fielder and Teixeira are a rare thing. And did I mention that Fielder is a year younger now than Teixeira was when the Yankees signed him?
It’s going to take a ton of money to sign Prince Fielder. There is no debating that point.
But, even if he gets the max of what he’s asking – $200 million over eight years – is that enough to make signing him out of the question? I’m not so sure.
According to Fangraphs, Fielder’s “value,” translated to dollars, over the last five seasons, going backwards, are: $24.6M, $13.5M, $28.8M, $7.6M, and $20.9M. That’s strictly what he’s been “worth,” mind you, and does not include the premium always associated with signing a player on the free agent market. That is to say: he was always going to get more than he was “worth,” but it turns out that what he’s “worth” is a lot closer to what he’ll get than we might have thought.
Will Prince be “worth” $25 million per year when he’s 33/34 years old? No. Probably not. But, you are, in some ways – to borrow a particularly apt cartoon analogy – paying tomorrow for a hamburger today. “Overpaying” Fielder in 2016 and beyond is part of the price of signing him today.
And, don’t forget: with the new CBA effectively capping what the Cubs can spend on the draft and in the international amateur market in 2012 at about $13 million or so, the team will have some extra money to shift to the big league payroll. In 2011, the Cubs spent about $20 million on the amateur side. Assuming that number was expected to hold steady in 2012 (I’ll be you a shiny nickel Theo Epstein had talked Tom Ricketts into upping that figure), that’s an additional $7 million per year that the Cubs have to work with. It should be put to work somewhere.