I have been a fairly regular advocate of targeting injured players in keeper and dynasty leagues. To a team competing, they are no better than a prospect, but to a team building for the future, they are far more likely to pan out.
A few weeks ago, Prince Fielder was cut in the original ottoneu league and re-signed for $24. He is a free agent in the FanGraphs ottoneu Experts League. And I am in the midst of trade talks around him in a non-ottoneu dynasty league. And I am really not sure what to make of the Ranger 1B.
2013 was, by all accounts, a “down” year for Fielder. I put down in quotes because while it was undeniably not what we expect from Prince (his 125 wRC+ was his lowest since 2008), it was still pretty good. By wRC+, Fielder was 11th among 1B in 2013. For fantasy purposes, he was even better, as four of the 1B eligible players ahead of him (Brandon Moss, Allen Craig, Mike Napoli and Edwin Encarnacion) were likely used at other positions – only six guys you would have used at 1B ranked higher.
Yeah, this is a drop from a 153 wRC+ (ranked 1st among 1B) in 2012, but it isn’t bad at all.
This year, besides being a lost year, was ugly. He managed to stay on the field for 42 games, posting an 85 wRC+. He was actually walking more and striking out less than last year, but his LD and FB rates were way down, and Fielder isn’t the kind of guy you want beating the ball into the ground repeatedly.
But even if we are willing to write off 2014 due to injury, there are reasons to be concerned. Fielder will turn 31 early in the 2015 season, and while that isn’t ancient, it is not young either. It is not unreasonable to think that his 2013 performance was the start of a legitimate decline phase.
Let’s check out a couple other “bad body” first basemen from the past. The man from whom Fielder gets his genetics, Cecil Fielder, was never the hitter his son is, but his wRC+ from age 27-34 looked like this: 132, 116, 119, 111, 108, 106, 105, 89.
Mo Vaughn does not share any genes with the Fielders (at least that I know of), but here was his career starting at age 27: 139, 145, 150, 151, 115, 114, 115, 74.
Both of these guys were at their peaks around 27-29 years old and crumbled pretty fast. The elder Fielder had a slower decline but was not much better than a league average hitter pretty quickly after 30. Vaughn went from MVP thief (he was no where near the best candidate in 1995, and the Indians fan in me will never forgive him) to good-but-certainly-not-great almost overnight. Neither’s career lasted past age 35.
Of course, I cherry-picked those examples somewhat (although to be fair, they were the first two comps that came to my head). So let’s take another approach – according to the similarity scores at Baseball-Reference.com, Fielder’s most similar hitters through his age 29 season were Eddie Murray and Mark Teixeira.
Teixeira put up three straight years of 140+ wRC+ from ages 27-29, then went 128, 124, 116. He is at 120 this year. Murray went 153, 150, 145 from 27-29, then dropped, but had a very up and down end to his career – 136, 119, 134, 111, 156, 101, 114, 109, 81, 128, 85, 56.
Teixeira is still playing (and playing relatively well, when healthy) at age 34; Murray played through his age 41 season and was effective through 39.
None of this, however, accounts for Fielder’s injury. Having vertebrae fused is no small matter, and while Peyton Manning seems to have recovered well, Fielder is facing a relatively unique situation. The problem is, that could be good or bad.
Fielder’s body has always concerned scouts, and while he has always been durable, a 31 year old 1B with his body type could, now having missed practically a full season and dealing with a unique neck injury could be a recipe for disaster.
On the other hand, the recovery from this particular surgery shouldn’t be too problematic and the injury was causing pain and weakness in his shoulder – the type of thing that could easily impact line drive rates, power numbers, and more.
All of which is to say, if you target Fielder, you may be getting a rejuvenated, mashing 1B capable of hitting 50 HR in his new bandbox of a home stadium…or you might be getting damaged goods on his last legs.
My advice is to acquire him, cautiously. If you can pick him up as a waiver acquisition at a discounted price, go for it. The cost is only a roster spot (maybe not even that – he is on the 60-day DL so he won’t impact your roster in ottoneu leagues) and dropping your least valuable player.
But if he is rostered, be careful how much you give up in a trade. Fielder owners will likely point to his top-30 hitter rankings before the season, his monster numbers in the past, and want “fair” compensation for that. But even if Fielder does bounce back in 2015, you are still picking up his decline years. And considering the Vaughn and Cecil Fielder stories, that decline could be quick.
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