Will Tigers Win AL Central Thanks to Prince Fielder?


News broke Tuesday afternoon that the Detroit Tigers had inked free agent first baseman Prince Fielder to a nine-year deal worth $214 million.

As Indians fans digest the news that their biggest rivals for the foreseeable future will now feature two of the best hitters in baseball (facing just Miguel Cabrera 18 games a year was bad enough), it’s worth asking: How much of an impact will Fielder have on the AL Central race this year?

There’s no question Fielder was a huge get for the Tigers. The 27-year-old first baseman was the second-best free agent on the market this year (after only Albert Pujols) and by far the top unsigned player still available. He hit .299/.415/.566 (162 wRC+) with 38 homers, 120 RBI, and 5.5 fWAR en route to an All-Star appearance, a Silver Slugger, and a top-three NL MVP finish.

In the wake of Victor Martinez‘ season-ending injury, the Tigers looked like they’d have a big hole at DH in 2012. Assuming they weren’t going to add a bit bat from elsewhere—an assumption that turned out to be false—there were no clear options to replace him, either. Instead of Raul Ibanez or Juan Pierre (who, seemingly fortunately for Tribe fans, Detroit had been rumored to be considering), the Tigers can now plug one of the best hitters in baseball into their lineup.

Now, the Tigers have Fielder. Regardless of what you may think of the contract or how Fielder will hold up long-term, there’s no doubt he’ll be head and shoulders above whoever else Detroit would have used in his place.

FanGraphs’ fan projections currently have Fielder pencilled in to be worth 5.6 wins above replacement in 2012. Plugging Bill James’ projections into the Simple WAR Calculator, he’d be worth 4.0 WAR, and even using normally conservative RotoChamp’s input numbers put Fielder him at 4.6 WAR for next year.

In other words, given the dearth of other (realistic) quality replacements for Martinez, the Tigers will probably win at least four more games with Fielder than they would have without him and could conceivably gain as many as six extra victories for 2012.

Using the latest CAIRO projections for the 2012 standings (which predated both the Martinez injury and the Fielder signing) and Martinez’ recent track record, the Tigers were projected to beat the Indians in the AL Central by about one game before they inked Fielder. In other words, the division looked like a complete toss-up between Cleveland and Detroit.

With Fielder now in the lineup instead of Martinez, the Tigers probably project to have about a five- or six-game lead on the Indians. Given the uncertainty surrounding any predictions like these, that’s well within the margin of error, and the AL Central definitely isn’t all sewn up. But there’s still a difference between the two teams being in a virtual dead heat and the Tigers having a small but significant advantage.

In other words, there’s a pretty decent chance that Prince Fielder will make the difference in the AL Central and give the Tigers a playoff berth that otherwise would have gone to the Indians. Again, these are all just educated guesses, and the defining moments of an actual MLB season are usually unpredictable. But there’s no question that Fielder tips the balance in the division pretty far towards Detroit.

This isn’t to say that the deal was worth it for the Tigers. Given the inconsistency Fielder has struggled with in his career—the “every other year” thing shouldn’t be seen as having much predictive value as a pattern, but the big fluctuations in his skills are troubling—and that players of his size don’t age well, this contract will probably come back to bite the team. But looking solely at 2012, there’s a pretty good chance Fielder will make the difference in the division.

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