It seems to be a foregone conclusion in Milwaukee that Prince Fielder is a goner. A rough estimate of the Brewers’ payroll might have them about $10 million short of 2011’s outlay once arbitration numbers are final, and $10 million a year is not enough to sign Prince Fielder. But baseball benefits from a long, well-recorded history. What can we learn from the other Prince Fielders that have left before?
First, we should probably define a Prince Fielder. He’s averaged more than four wins per season for the last five seasons, so that gives us a good place to start. And the 27-year-old Prince Fielder is leaving in Free Agency, which began in 1976. That gives us our time frame, and reminds us that age is part of this as well.
Here are some similar situations from the past thirty-plus years:
The Padres traded their jewel a year before he hit free agency, but otherwise the parallels are strong. In an average offensive year for the Padres, Gonzalez hit 35% better than league average (Fielder 37%). In 2011, the tandem of Jesus Guzman, Kyle Blanks, Brad Hawpe, Anthony Rizzo and Jorge Cantu managed a wRC+ of 94. Which sounds okay until you compare it to other teams and realize they were third-worst in the National League at that position. The Padres? They went from scoring 665 runs in 2010 (with a 93 wRC+) to scoring 593 runs (89 wRC+) in 2011. They felt it.
Miguel Cabrera managed to make the four WAR / five year cut off despite one of his years being his half-season debut, that’s how good Miguel Cabrera is. He also put up offensive numbers that were 35% better than the league average, and his team also elected to replace him from the inside. The production drop from Cabrera to Mike Jacobs, who was worse than replacement in over 500 PAs the next year, somehow didn’t manage to hurt the Marlins as much as it did the Padres. In 2008, the Marlins were 2% worse than league average without Cabrera in the lineup. In 2009, they were 4% worse. Hanley Ramirez, Jorge Cantu and Cody Ross had their best years (and from Dan Uggla his second-best) without Cabrera, so that’s how they did that.
Teixeira actually misses our WAR/year cutoff by a smidgen, and his inclusion on this list was also complicated by a mid-season trade. It’s hard to pinpoint the Rangers with and without him because of it, but he seems to make sense on this list. The 2006 Rangers were 3% below average offensively, the 2007 Rangers, which featured him for half of the year, were 5% below average, and the 2008 Rangers, which had Chris Davis and Hank Blalock at first base, were 12% above average. Milton Bradley coming in and giving them a 158 wRC+ on a cheap contract was maybe a big reason for that last jump
Giambi only needed the three years previous to his 2001 departure from the Athletics in order to rack up more than 20 WAR. So, yeah, he was good. Those 2001 A’s enjoyed his 38 home runs and 193 wRC+ to an offensive year that was 8% better than league average. The 2002 version got a 114 wRC+ from the position and the team rocked right along to a year that was 6% better than average at the dish. Young Eric Chavez and young Miguel Tejada made it work without their slugger, and the team found some guy named Scott Hatteberg to put up a 120 wRC+ at first. Maybe you’ve heard this story.
In 1999, a large (and largely loved) first baseman ended a string of offensive seasons in which he did no worse than 33% better than league average for the Red Sox. And yet his final year with the team was filled with fear and loathing, and the team seemed happy to let the big man leave. The offense took a hit — the team fell from 7% better than the league to only 1% better — but it wasn’t all from lacking offense at Vaughn’s position. Mike Stanley and Brian Daubach split the position (along with DH), and both managed to put up more than two WAR and offense that was 20% better than the league. Oh and the 1999 Red Sox won two more games than the 1998 version and ended up in the post-season again.
Palmeiro was 29 when he left the Rangers in 1993, but that seemed like late blooming at the time. The team dropped from 2% better than the average offense in 1993 to 1% worse in 1994, but they also got three WAR from (and a 136 wRC+) from Will Clark, so it doesn’t really seem like first base was to blame. Instead, maybe it was the 463 plate appearances with a 94 wRC+ from Juan Gonzalez that failed to give the team the boost they needed. The team went from ten games over five hundred to ten under, but again: don’t blame Will the Thrill.
Do you remember how good McGriff was, right off the bat? From his second season in 1988 to his departure in 1990, the crime dog managed just under 20 WAR and a 157 wRC+. In 1989, he walked 17.4% of the time. The Blue Jays felt his loss. Their offense had a .155 ISO and 108 wRC+ in 1990, and those numbers fell to .134 and 99 respectively. But some dude named John Olerud came in and gave them above-average work at the position (2.9 WAR and 114 wRC+). Oh and the team went from second place in 1990 to first place in 1991. So maybe it wasn’t so bad.
Speaking of John Olerud, his monster 1993 (8.4 WAR) snuck him on to this list as well. So the Blue Jays are used to losing their first basemen and moving on. Cause Carlos Delgado took those reigns in 1997 and had a 121 wRC+ and 1.9 WAR in his first season as a starter and never looked back. Sure, in the short run the team went from an offense that was 9% worse than average to one that was 19% worse, but again it doesn’t seem like first base was the problem. And the team was about the same – 14 games below even in 1996, 10 games in 1997.
Perhaps there’s no easy narrative to force these instances into, and focusing on a team’s record with and without a player ignores too many other changing variables. But it also doesn’t look like a Prince Fielder departure would be a nail in the Brewer’s coffin. Most of these teams on this list that were competitive with their slugger were competitive without their slugger as well.
After all, most slugging first basemen have already ridden arbitration awards to high salaries by the time they leave their original team. The Brewers had $16 million budgeted towards first base in 2011, and if they use that money shrewdly, they might just be able to play some more October baseball again next year.