The big news today (aside from the State of the Union or Mitt Romney’s release of tax returns) was the blockbuster signing of Prince Fielder by the Detroit Tigers for $214M over 9 years. In terms of contract value, Fielder bests all except Alex Rodriguez (twice) and the contract Albert Pujols recently signed with the Angels.
There is little doubt this is a horrible contract from a financial perspective – barring something the game of baseball has never seen, Fielder will deliver value far below the $214M price tag, and far better writers than I will explain why in great detail, and I’m sure somewhere there is a reasonable explanation of with Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Victor Martinez under contract for 3 more years, trying to get over the top and not worrying about 2016 makes sense.
Here is my question – what are the odds that the contract is profitable in even one of the years? I have yet to see a year by year breakdown of the salary, so perhaps the contract is back loaded. Nonetheless, the money is guaranteed and averages out to approximately $24M annually. On the free agent market, the marginal cost of wins has tended to come in around $4.5 – $5M per win. Fielder’s contract makes his average salary $23.78M per season, which would average out to 4.75-5.25 WAR, depending on which number we use.
Looking at Fielder’s career, 2012 will he his age-28 season. Prior to this year, Prince has played 6 full seasons. While many point to his somewhat generous proportions as indicative of a lack of durability, over the past 6 seasons Fielder has played 959 games out of a possible 972, the most in major league baseball (1 ahead of Adrian Gonzalez and 6 ahead of Ichiro). Of course, in Milwaukee he has played almost all of those at 1B (rather than DH). In three of those seasons he posted 5+ WAR (2007, 2009 and 2011) and in three seasons he didn’t (1.7, 1.3 and 3.4). Fielder is a remarkably consistent player – his walk and strikeout rates are consistent over the 6 year window, while his defense and baserunning are consistently terrible.
What fluctuates for Fielder is his HR rates. Attached shows Fielder’s year by year HR rates and WAR:
It should also be noted that Fielder moves from Miller Park – which favors HRs to the tune of 12 percent above average, to Comerica Park in Detroit, which produces HRs at a rate of four percent below average. WE also have some insight into players’ aging curves, and that data would indicate that Fielder is about to begin the downside of his career, perhaps losing roughly half a win per year. Finally, it seems safe to assume that even if Fielder doesn’t miss a game, he will get some time at DH, which further limits his value.
Coming off a 5.5 WAR season where he played 162 games at 1B (and none at DH) in a park that favored HRs significantly more than his soon to be Detroit home, I cannot see any chance that Fielder puts up a 5 Win season in 2012, which would mean that unlike most contracts that go bad toward the end of the deal, Fielder’s will be unprofitable from the start.
Of course, when Detroit rolls out its lineup in October that features Miguel Cabrera and Fielder back to back, with Justin Verlander on the hill and three fireballers coming out of the pen, perhaps it won’t matter.