When finding out something shocking, it is often the best policy to take a step back and exhale before making any judgments. Unfortunately this is something I have never been able to do when it comes to baseball. I was appalled to learn that the Detroit Tigers are on the verge of signing free agent slugger Prince Fielder to a 9 year, $214 million contract this afternoon. It is a deal that makes little sense and has the potential of burdening the franchise for years to come.
The Tigers took a hit this past week when they learned it was likely that catcher/DH Victor Martinez would be lost for the entire 2012 season with a knee injury. His absence from their lineup was going to be an issue for sure, but the solution they have found may cost them even in the future.
Currently, Fielder is a great hitter and one of the most feared sluggers in baseball. However, in paying him $214 million over the next nine years, the Tigers will not be getting optimal value. Unless something drastically changes, their current first baseman, Miguel Cabrera, who is in the midst of his own 8 year, $152 million deal (that runs through 2015) will relegate Fielder to being the most expensive designated hitter in all of baseball.
Some people have already suggested that Cabrera, having played third base and outfield earlier in his career, could have his position switched, but he has never been a good defensive player at any position he has manned. Fielder is no Gold Glover either, so unless one of them is the fulltime DH, the Tigers would have to subpar defenders in their everyday lineup. You also have to keep in mind that when Martinez returns in 2013, he will give them yet another expensive player (3 years and $38 million remaining on his current deal) who can’t play defense.
It has been hammered to death, but the issue of Fielder’s conditioning has to be considered when evaluating this deal. He already plays at over 300 pounds (what is printed in the team guides is his DMV weight) and will be 36 by the time this contract ends. Jim Bowden of ESPN has reported that there are no opt-out clauses in the deal, so for better or for worse, Fielder is almost certainly going to be in Detroit through the 2020 season. He is still in his prime, but is a better bet to see his decline come sooner and more suddenly than most. His father, Cecil, had a similar body type and suffered his own physical regression by about the time he was 33. The odds of Fielder coming close to justifying the extent of this contract are minuscule.
In the immediate future Fielder makes the Tigers a better team. Pairing him with Cabrera gives the Tigers two mashers in the middle of their lineup, who are as formidable as any one-two punch in either league. However, as time goes by, it is going to be increasingly difficult to justify the amount of money being allocated to their DH position.
The Tigers have ace pitcher Justin Verlander locked upon through 2014, but will certainly want to keep him past that if he continues producing at such a high level. If you add up the current contracts of Verlander, Cabrera, and Fielder, the Tigers have nearly a half a billion dollars committed to just those three players. There are noticeable deficiencies in the rest of their starting rotation and outfield that have yet to be addressed. The money being spent on Fielder would have gone a long way to address several holes in those areas.
Mike Ilitch obviously has a lot of money. He owns both an MLB and an NHL team, in addition to the Little Ceasars’ pizza chain. But he is also a businessman and there has to be a point where the Tigers are reasonably solvent for him to continue to want to spend and improve the team. With the lackluster economy hitting Michigan and the Detroit area especially hard, one can imagine that the Tigers are not the most profitable team in the majors (they finished 6th out of 14 American League teams in attendance in 2011). Even notorious spenders like the Red Sox and Yankees have recently shown there is a limit to how far even they will go when doling out cash.
The 2012 outlook for the Tigers looks bright, but projecting out a little further gives reason for distress. The Fielder deal could turn out to be downright Alfonso Soriano-esque; an albatross the likes of which could handicap the team for years. Detroit fans should hope that their team can make hay while the sun shines- which should be over the next several years. Beyond that is a lot of uncertainty punctuated by dollar signs.
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