Detroit Goes for It, Signs Prince Fielder

The Mystery Team strikes again. After months of rumors that had Prince Fielder going to Washington, Texas, Baltimore, Seattle, and everywhere in between except Detroit, the Tigers decided to respond to Victor Martinez‘s knee injury in the most extreme way possible – giving Prince Fielder an enormous amount of money.

As first reported by Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports, with the details added by Jon Heyman, Fielder is set to receive $214 million over the next nine years, or just under $24 million per season. Essentially, he got the same deal as Albert Pujols, just minus one year in length. This deal ranks behind only that deal and the two Alex Rodriguez contracts as the largest investment in the history of the sport, so Fielder has essentially been paid at a level that puts him in the same company as two inner-circle Hall of Famers. No pressure or anything.

Let’s start with this deal from the Tigers perspective. As I wrote yesterday, the Tigers couldn’t afford to settle for an inferior DH replacement after losing Victor Martinez for the season with an ACL tear. With Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander in their primes, the team was essentially committed to contending, but they didn’t have a championship roster around them. The Tigers were absolutely in the sweet spot of the win curve where improving the roster could have the most impact. Adding Fielder pushes them from a solid team that would be in the mix to win a bad division up to being able to plan on playing in October and potentially challenging for a World Series title. After Martinez went down, there was probably no team in baseball that needed Fielder more than Detroit.

If they were an 85-87 win team yesterday, they’re probably closer to an 89-91 win team today. The difference in expected playoff odds for an 85 win team and a 90 win team, even in a division with no obvious challenger to the throne, is enormous. So, it’s understandable that the Tigers decided to be extremely aggressive in their desire to put the best team that they possibly could on the field for the next few seasons. When you have two superstars in their primes, you want to maximize your chances of capturing a ring, and no available player gets the Tigers closer to a championship than Fielder does.

With all that said, the long term costs of putting Fielder on this roster were extremely high. No matter how much you might like Prince Fielder’s bat, there’s no getting around the reality that he’s going to be extremely overpaid during the second half of this contract, and this deal could turn into an albatross very quickly. As we noted a few months ago, the historical aging curve for heavy players shows significant drop-off at earlier ages than most players, as it’s hard for a player carrying that much mass to maintain health and flexibility as their body starts to wear down. Fielder will have to be a big time outlier if he’s going to remain a productive player into his mid-30s, and even if you’re aggressive in your estimations of future salary inflation, a $214 million contract is going to pay him at premier player rates at ages when he’ll probably be more of a part-time role player. The question isn’t if Fielder will become a hinderance to the Tigers ability to compete, but simply a matter of when.

At this price, the Tigers are paying for something in the realm of 35 wins over the next nine years. If you believe that Fielder is a true talent +5 win player and apply the standard player aging curve which knocks off half a win per year, he’d be expected to produce +27 wins over that timeframe, a performance worth about $156 million at today’s prices. As you can see, the gap is so large that there’s almost no chance that Fielder is actually worth $214 million over the next nine years. The Tigers have basically borrowed from their future to pay for the present, and this deal is going to harm their ability to contend down the line. If Fielder ages well, he may not begin to be a real liability for three or four years. That’s the window the Tigers have essentially given themselves with this contract – win a title before 2015 before the cost of this deal becomes prohibitive to building a contending team around that contract.

With Miguel Cabrera under contract for four more seasons and Justin Verlander in town for at least three more, Fielder’s addition should make them legitimate title contenders during that window of time. And, if they win a World Series during that time, it will be easy to live with the cost to the future of the franchise while throwing a parade. However, that argument can be used to justify signing any player to any sized contract, and shouldn’t be how teams operate. At some point, the cost begins to exceed any potential benefit you could reasonably expect, no matter just how desperate you are to win or how much you think a single player will help you.

Fielder will absolutely help the Tigers. He might even be enough to help them get to the World Series and perhaps take home a trophy. But, in reality, if the team had $214 million to spend this winter, they should have been in on Jose Reyes and C.J. Wilson, who won’t make as much between them as what the team just guaranteed Fielder. As I wrote yesterday, the Tigers definitely needed to make an impact move, but because they got stuck in a position where there was only one impact bat left on the market, they found themselves having to vastly overpay in order to get that improvement.

For Detroit’s sake, I hope they win a title in the next three years, because the franchise’s ability to compete long term just took a serious hit. Borrowing from the future to win in the present isn’t always a bad idea, but at these prices, the Tigers should have explored other options. The cost was simply too high.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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