Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes, C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle, Jonathan Papelbon, Aramis Ramirez, Heath Bell, and 67 cruddy players signed by the Dodgers all gone. With apologies to Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Beltran, and a few other quality players still out there, Hot Stove Season is now Prince Fielder Season.
This week, ESPN’s indefatigable Jerry Crasnick wrote about The Book, the 73-page information package in a silver aluminum antimicrobial binder that Scott Boras and his brilliant staff assembled to market Fielder. With the best free agent left on the market (by a mile), you would think that strafing every team with dozens of copies would be a wise move, given the money at stake for both the player and the agent. But Boras picks his spots, in part because he doesn’t want people with bad intentions to put The Book up for bid, but also because he knows that many teams will go the entire offseason without even mentioning Fielder’s name, let alone bidding for his services.
This isn’t a brand-new development per se. There have been have and have-not teams in baseball long before A-Rod signed for a quarter-billion dollars and then another quarter-billion, long before the advent of free agency, even before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. But a host of factors have combined to make this year’s free-agency market unique.
The biggest change is one that’s been long overdue: Teams in major markets are finally starting to rake in revenue, and spend, like teams in major markets. The Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area is the fourth-largest in the country, with nearly 6.4 million people as of the 2010 census. Yet for years, the Texas Rangers took in far less money and spent less than multiple teams in smaller markets. Texas’ $1.6 billion TV deal doesn’t kick in until 2014, but that pending windfall, combined with the team’s on-field success, has the Rangers acting like a big-market club should. The Angels are an even more striking example. In the screwed-up 1990s, the Cleveland Indians paid out revenue-sharing funds and the Angels received funds, because the Indians won and invested in their products and the Angels did not. An Arte Moreno buy-in, potential $3 billion TV deal, Albert Pujols signing and now the Angels are a member of baseball’s elite in terms of pure dollars. New, publicly financed ballparks have always offered a big initial windfall for teams lucky enough to beat them out of taxpayers, but the Marlins’ efforts in South Florida have transformed the team in the nation’s eighth-largest market from penny-pinchers to the guy in the bar buying everyone shots all night.
Meanwhile, clubs already stocked at first base haven’t bothered pursuing this offseason’s two biggest free agents: Pujols and Fielder. The result is a weird disconnect between the teams most able to sign Fielder, the teams most likely to sign Fielder, and the teams that stand to benefit most from signing Fielder.
In Baseball Between the Numbers, Nate Silver notes that teams at a certain point on the win curve derive more benefit from signing a big free agent than do teams projected for more or fewer wins.1 It might seem obvious that a terrible team would gain less from signing Prince Fielder than would a playoff contender. But Silver adds that there’s a diminishing return on a free agent like Fielder for a team projected to win 95-100 games too; that team probably plays into October with or without another big bat, so signing him becomes less useful. In Silver’s model, teams projected to win 86 to 93 games are the best fit for nabbing a free agent of Fielder’s caliber, since adding a player of that ilk could mean the difference between a playoff season and a non-playoff season — and all the boosts in revenue and credibility that go with it. Churning out precise, 162-game predictions is incredibly tough to do on Opening Day, let alone in December. But every year, Replacement Level Yankees Weblog takes an early crack at it, using the CAIRO projections system and the projected depth charts found at MLBDepthCharts.com.2
I wrote a chapter in the same book called, “Is Wayne Huizenga a Genius?” In it, I broke down Huizenga’s 1997 spending spree and subsequent World Series title, the teardown that followed, and the huge profits he earned in 1998 while fielding a lousy team, and concluded that the former Marlins owner had achieved both of the primary goals that an owner could have, winning and making money — so he was, in fact, something of a genius. This is probably making Marlins fans wince right now. Sorry about that.
For more on the concept of marginal wins and roster construction, check out Bill Barnwell’s excellent Grantland piece from July.
With all of that in mind, I thought it’d be interesting to rank all 30 clubs based solely on how much benefit they would derive from Fielder given their current rosters, and how that ranking would compare to the actual likelihood of that team actually signing Fielder. For the purpose of this exercise, we’ll avoid making too many assumptions about the off-field value of big-ticket free agents. There’s a proven link between playoff appearances and revenue boosts; making broader claims runs into dubious territory. For instance, Dave Cameron did a quick-and-dirty study of big-name free agents’ supposed ability to attract other notable free agents to join the same team and found nothing to suggest that phenomenon actually exists. It’s entirely possible that a team signing a marquee free agent could add some zeroes to a monster TV deal (and not just the other way around) but we can’t quantify exactly how or how much, so we’ll avoid that analysis for now. Attendance boost? Depends on the player, the city, the ballpark, the state of the team, the state of the economy, and 10,000 other factors. Could Fielder offer residual help to his new team, in the form of kick-ass lineup protection? Studies done on the topic say probably not.
Got all that? OK, let’s go.
30. Los Angeles Angels: Albert Pujols (and Mark Trumbo, and Kendry Morales).
29. Philadelphia Phillies: Ryan Howard, five years, $125 million yet the Phillies start the 2012 season, and that contract, with no reliable first baseman.
28. Detroit Tigers: Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez.
27. Boston Red Sox: Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz.
26. New York Yankees: Mark Teixeira and Jesus Montero.
25. Cincinnati Reds: Joey Votto. Though if the Reds signed Fielder and put Votto on the market, they’d have no trouble landing the front-line starting pitcher they crave. It would never happen. But it would be a ballsy, possibly brilliant move.
24. Houston Astros: Dave Dombrowski gave Pudge Rodriguez a big contract right after the Tigers lost 119 games; three years later, Detroit was in the World Series. The Astros only lost 106 games last year. So, yeah.
23. Minnesota Twins: They owe Justin Morneau $28 million over the next two years, they’re already regretting the megadeal they gave to franchise player Joe Mauer, and they’d need three or four Fielders to make a run at the division title in the next couple years.
22. Oakland Athletics: The Trevor Cahill trade signaled another round of reloading for a team that’s tried to find the right mix of players for the right window of contention for the past half-decade. The A’s also have 30,000 candidates to play first base in 2012. It’s entirely possible that none of them are any good.
21. Kansas City Royals: Eric Hosmer’s a (near)-future star at first base, pitching is a much bigger area of need, and the Royals are rising but not quite ready. It’d be pretty exciting if they goosed the process, chucked the script-and-save approach, and wrote a $200 million check, though, wouldn’t it?
20. Baltimore Orioles: It could take years to build an AL East-worthy rotation, especially if the bad luck/bad scouting/bad coaching/voodoo curse that’s afflicted the team’s top pitching prospects keeps crushing the Orioles’ spirit. Fielder would be nice to have, might even sell some tickets to a criminally empty gem of a stadium. But he’s not nearly enough now, or three years from now, and maybe even five years from now.
19. Pittsburgh Pirates: There’s a whiff of a sleeper here, with a young core of hitters led by Andrew McCutchen, and a deep stable of pitching prospects that could be pretty damn exciting around, say, 2015. The owners’ legendary cheapness aside, there are plenty of worse fits for Fielder than Pittsburgh.
18. Chicago White Sox: That would be a Kenny Williams move, wouldn’t it? Alert the baseball world that every veteran on the team is for sale, trade your fireballing young closer as an apparent step one for your fire sale, then turn around and break the bank for Fielder. It’s not the craziest idea, either: Paul Konerko won’t be around forever, one of the two could DH for now, and the competition isn’t that rough, with the defending champion Tigers, intriguing Indians, painfully young Royals, and swooning Twins all beatable.
17. New York Mets: This is really closer to the Cubs model: mega-market team, big contracts falling off the books in the next two years (Johan Santana’s owed another $55 million for the next two years plus a 2014 option, and he might pitch a total of 12 innings over that span), no star slugger to build around (unless they give David Wright a contract extension, and Wright bounces back to 2007-08 form). Ike Davis returning from injury isn’t much of a roadblock. The Mets need several more players around Fielder to get back into contention. In the real world, the Mets’ crumbling finances and the Wilpons’ woes could be huge hindrances to Sandy Alderson’s efforts to rebuild the team.
16. Seattle Mariners: This would be similar to a Cubs strategy of paying big bucks now and hoping for a payoff later. But let’s not get too optimistic for anything more immediate. The Mariners boast one of the most dynamic starting pitching duos in the game in Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda. Also, Dustin Ackley should be a lineup mainstay for the next five to 15 years. But this team is thin, thin, thin after the big three, bereft of talent after years of bad drafts, bad signings, and bad trades during the previous regime. If the Mariners don’t sign Fielder, it wouldn’t be because they’re too cheap or too scared to make a big move. It would be because you can only buy so many wins. Yes, this could work out three years down the road the way it might with the Cubs. But in both teams’ cases, you’re putting a lot of faith in a quick rebuild.
15. San Diego Padres: It’s the Giants’ situation, albeit smaller. The Padres finished just ahead of San Francisco in runs scored last season, a product of their offense-trampling ballpark but also their lack of productive hitters — Ryan Ludwick led the team with 11 (!!!) homers. Jesus Guzman fared surprisingly well as an undersized first baseman riding a BABIP streak to good numbers, and Anthony Rizzo could develop into a five-tool everyday first baseman, his rough rookie campaign at age 21 notwithstanding. But Fielder would completely change the complexion of the team, and offer the same kind of lift to the decent-but-not-good-enough Padres that he’d deliver for the Dodgers. It’s certainly true that PETCO Park severely hurts left-handed power hitters. But Adrian Gonzalez mashed in that park — Fielder could, too. Chances of this actually happening: maybe lower than with any other team.
14. Colorado Rockies: Prince Fielder-Troy Tulowitzki-Carlos Gonzalez would be pretty fantastic. Jhoulys Chacin could emerge as a viable replacement for Ubaldo Jimenez atop the rotation, and there’s some upside in players like Dexter Fowler and Wilin Rosario, plus present-day help in Ramon Hernandez. Again, we have to consider context, not just team quality. In the AL East, a team like the Rockies doesn’t make much sense for Fielder. In the NL West, there always seems to be room for a sleeper team to emerge.
13. Chicago Cubs: Let’s start with this: According to Ken Rosenthal, the Cubs are now considered the front-runners to actually land Fielder. Is this the most logical destination for him, though? Not now it isn’t, certainly. This is a future play, because no matter how hard Cubs fans wish, they’re not winning anything this year, Fielder or not. But there’s hope for the not too distant future, much of it financial. Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, and Marlon Byrd are off the books after this season, freeing up $39.5 million. Carlos Marmol makes nearly $10 million in 2013, then he’s fair game. Alfonso Soriano’s still owed $57 million, but at least November 2014 isn’t forever. Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein could sign Fielder and fill their huge hole at first with a player who reached free agency at a young age (27). They’d just need to hope their new acquisition, already bereft of any value beyond his bat, retains his peak value for the next few years, while expiring contracts create opportunities to build a strong supporting cast. Heavy sluggers don’t have a great track record of longevity, or sustained production; the Cubs will hope that Fielder bucks those negative trends.
12. Arizona Diamondbacks: We can’t be sure that Paul Goldschmidt will develop into a 30-homer hitter, and Fielder could turn a surprise division title into the first of many for a young, talented DBacks team. On the other hand, the rest of the division is so weak, we might see a mini-dynasty in the desert anyway, with Justin Upton leading the way for a very good ballclub that could get even better.
11. Los Angeles Dodgers: Ted Lilly, Juan Uribe, Matt Guerrier, and Juan Rivera are slated to make $28.4 million next season for the Dodgers. That’s how you get a team that fielded last season’s Cy Young winner and the guy who should have won MVP and finish a hair above .500. The Dodgers are a lousy team outside of Clayton Kershaw, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, and a handful of useful role players, and the back-loaded, let’s-let-the-next-owner-worry-about-it deals GM Ned Colletti gave out to a bunch of stiffs won’t help. But in a weak NL West, Fielder could still propel the Dodgers to relevance, and maybe even a backdoor playoff berth. If McCourtgate hadn’t dragged on so long and a new owner were already in place, the Dodgers could conceivably be the favorites to sign Fielder right now.
10. Washington Nationals: ESPN Rumor Central lists the Cubs, Mariners, Rangers, Blue Jays, and Dodgers as the most likely landing spots for Fielder. The best bet to emerge as Mystery Team could be, and maybe should be, the Nationals. A healthy Stephen Strasburg added to the underrated Jordan Zimmermann would be a dynamic force atop the rotation. In the field, a healthy Ryan Zimmerman is one of the best players in the game and Mike Morse has emerged as a legitimate thumper — you can even squint and see a long-shot Bryce Harper cameo late in the season. Are the Nats one Fielder signing away from winning the NL East in 2012? Eh, probably not. But they’d instantly become wild-card contenders. And in 2013 and beyond, a lineup core of Fielder-Zimmerman-Harper-Morse, with a possible assist from a rebounding Jayson Werth, could be pretty damn great.
9. Atlanta Braves: Why the hell not? I wrote about the Braves’ maddening hara hachi bu tendencies two weeks ago. For the past several years, they’ve never seemed willing to take the big plunge on a free agent (Dan Uggla is an exception, and not an overwhelming one), content to trot out teams that can compete but not necessarily win. The notion that Freddie Freeman might one day become a borderline top-15 first baseman if everything breaks right isn’t a valid reason. Sign Fielder and you’d have multiple suitors for Freeman, who despite being nothing special is still a reasonable option for a first base-needy team at a league-minimum salary. More important, plop Fielder into that Braves lineup and the Phillies start sweating. Sadly, the realities of rigid corporate ownership make this move all but impossible.
8. Toronto Blue Jays: On Wednesday, you’d have put the Jays in the same category as the Nats: Promising team, owners willing to spend, not quite enough talent to hack it in a top division. How quickly things change. The Jays are rumored to be the high bidders for the negotiating rights to Japanese pitching sensation Yu Darvish. Suddenly you look at a rotation that could be fronted by Darvish, Ricky Romero, and Brandon Morrow, combined with an offense that features uber-slugger Jose Bautista and bashing Brett Lawrie, and you start to get excited. The Jays might be the last still-untapped major market revenue stream in baseball, and the Darvish signing would signal a move away from the Canadian princes playing paupers. If the Jays were to pair a $200 million-plus deal for Fielder with low nine figures for Darvish (between his posting rights and multi-year contract), you’d have to call them contenders right now, even in the brutal AL East. The Jays are baseball’s sleeping giant, poised to out-Rays the Rays: The same smarts that Tampa Bay used to topple the Yankees and Red Sox, but with a lot more money on their side to make it work.
7. Texas Rangers: A stacked offensive team with or without Fielder, as they’ve ably demonstrated in bashing their way to the World Series these past two years. But let’s not go too far on the concept of diminishing returns. The Rangers still own a very right-handed heavy lineup, Mitch Moreland is not a championship-caliber starter, and there’s nothing wrong with putting up a bunch of eight-spots for a pitching staff in transition. The Rangers might still be a better bet to win the AL West than the Angels right now, but Fielder would certainly help toward that goal — and the F-you retort to the Angels after the Pujols signing would be tons of fun too.
6. St. Louis Cardinals: My 2012 NL Central favorites, even if they don’t sign anyone else this offseason. Lance Berkman won’t be the ninth-best hitter in baseball in 2012, like he was last season. But he and Matt Holliday are very capable anchors for an offense that should still be solid, with Allen Craig likely claiming an everyday job and Rafael Furcal in tow for Opening Day. The pitching should be improved to much improved, with Adam Wainwright back after Tommy John surgery and Jason Motte, Lance Lynn, and company holding down the pen in lieu of early-2011 disasters Ryan Franklin and Miguel Batista. Still, pencil Fielder into this lineup and you go from some-Canadian-still-thinks-you’re-cool to prohibitive NL Central favorites. If Boras is pushing for Pujols dollars or more based on Fielder’s youth and durability, though, the Cardinals would seem about as likely to sign Fielder as the Indians.
5. Cleveland Indians: I’ve been going around telling everyone I know that the Indians are the team to watch in 2012, and the early projections agree, with CAIRO predicting 87 wins for the team as currently constructed. That’s probably a bit optimistic given the team’s light bats in left field and (assuming they assign Carlos Santana to catcher) first base. Still, the pitching staff is loaded with quality worm-burners, and there’s enough young talent in the lineup to project a big improvement next year, along the lines of their hot start to the 2011 season. But the team that once turned a beautiful, new ballpark and massive attendance into big contracts across the roster (at least to retain its own players) returned to coupon-cutting status years ago. Like the Rays, the Indians would throw a party if they can sign someone like Carlos Pena to fill their first-base hole; Prince Fielder isn’t happening.
4. Miami Marlins: They slapped the full-court press on Pujols, to the point where the Marlins seemed like shoo-ins at one point during last week’s Winter Meetings to land the franchise first baseman. Didn’t happen. But the same reasons that made Pujols make sense in Miami apply to Fielder: If you’re going to spend $191 million for Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and Heath Bell, you might as well go all the way and get the middle-of-the-order star who could potentially push your team over the top. CAIRO pegs the Marlins at just 81 wins, which seems schadenfreudily low, but in a division manned by the loaded Phillies, the very capable Braves, and even the frisky Nationals, it’s fair to say the Fish don’t have enough right now. Signing Fielder and trading Gaby Sanchez for a no. 4 starter could net the Marlins something like eight wins in 2012, a massive boost given where they’ll likely end up on the win curve.
3. San Francisco Giants: OK, here’s a team that would seem a logical fit for Fielder both in terms of roster construction and the ability to sign a big-ticket free agent. That the Giants haven’t been even casually linked to Fielder is a giant mystery, frankly. What, you’re worried about hurting the feelings of your incumbent first baseman, the guy who just put up a .294 Weighed On-Base Average? The Giants do have Brandon Belt ready to take over at first base for the flickering Aubrey Huff. But you could always move Belt back to left field, sign Fielder, and roll with it. The Giants finished 29th in runs scored last season. The trio of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner is preposterously good, so good that the Giants’ pitchers nearly took a Dead Ball Era team to the playoffs by themselves. There’s always the remote possibility that the Giants could emerge as the latest Mystery Team. But if current rumors are any guide, the Giants aren’t anywhere near the top of the list. Mystifying.
2. Milwaukee Brewers: GM Doug Melvin has classified the Brewers’ chances of re-signing their star first baseman as 1993 Pedro Martinez-thin. But with the Cardinals losing Pujols, the Reds still sorting out their pitching, and the rest of the division probably too ridden with holes to compete, Fielder coming back would give the Brewers an excellent chance to repeat as NL Central champs, a possible Ryan Braun suspension be damned.3 I don’t agree with CAIRO’s optimistic projection of 92 wins sans Fielder. But a pitching staff anchored by Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo, an able bullpen, and a lineup that still includes Braun, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks, and now Aramis Ramirez still adds up to a good team. Milwaukee has to find a way to do better than Mat Gamel at first base.
Losing a player of Braun’s caliber for 50 games hurts, no question. But even the best players in the game aren’t likely to deliver more than two, maybe three wins worth of value in just under one-third of the season. The Brewers can at least contend next season if Braun’s PED suspension is upheld, even if Fielder bolts.
1. Tampa Bay Rays: They’ve made the playoffs in three of the past four years despite playing in baseball’s toughest division, but with just one AL pennant and two first-round exits to show for it. They might field the deepest rotation and best defense in baseball in 2012, but gaping holes remain at first base and DH, and the Rays lack the power you’d expect from an elite team. The early CAIRO projection has them at 85 wins, though they’ve significantly outperformed their projections in each of those three playoff years. The Yankees and Red Sox are loaded again, and given Tampa Bay’s perpetual revenue crunch, there probably aren’t more than five teams less likely to actually land Fielder. But if all that mattered were team need and place in the win curve, Fielder would be whacking homers at the Trop for the next seven years. Maybe even a new ballpark by year eight.
Jonah Keri’s new book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, is a national best-seller. Follow him on Twitter at @JonahKeri.
Previously from Jonah Keri:
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