The Detroit Tigers made the second-biggest splash of the offseason this week when they signed free agent first baseman Prince Fielder to a nine-year contract worth $214 million.
Reaction from Indians fans seems to be one of overwhelming despair—and with good reason. As if Miguel Cabrera wasn’t bad enough, the Tigers’ lineup will now feature two of the best hitters in baseball. Detroit’s presumptive lead in the AL Central this year looked vulnerable after Victor Martinez‘ injury, but now the Tigers look like clear favorites to take the division. Fielder could very well make the difference in the division in 2012.
But that’s just one year of the nine in Fielder’s deal. Looking beyond 2012, what exactly does this mean for the Indians?
If Fielder helps the Tigers in 2012, things should be pretty much the same in 2013. Rumor has it that Cabrera might be moving to third base rather than pushing Fielder to designated hitter. If that doesn’t work out—and it probably won’t—Cabrera can move back to first and Fielder to DH. In that case, Detroit’s logical move would be to trade Victor Martinez.
Fielder will probably be worth two or three wins more than Martinez in 2013. Same goes for 2014. In other words, depending on how quickly Fielder begins to age (players his size tend to decline much earlier than their peers) this move means the Tigers will win about three extra games a year for the next three seasons.
This is bad news for the Indians. Looking at the Tribe’s core players’ arbitration clocks (Asdrubal Cabrera, Ubaldo Jimenez, Justin Masterson, Shin-Soo Choo, Chris Perez), the next two or three years represent the best chance we have of a seeing a championship in Cleveland for quite some time. The best remaining of years of Fielder’s career will come at the exact time when the Indians won’t want Detroit to be even a marginally better team. So just looking at the final standings for the next few years, the Fielder deal is definitely bad news for the Tribe.
But there’s more to it than that. Even if we assume Fielder would really be worth three more WAR than Martinez—it’s definitely a reasonable projection, but it’s somewhat optimistic—that’s not much of an improvement for the almost $24 million the Tigers are giving him per annum. At a price of $8 million per marginal win, Detroit is paying Fielder at nearly double the current market value for player production. There were much more efficient ways for the Tigers to have spent the money they just committed to their new first baseman.
Nor are they likely to end up getting much return on their investment for Martinez. In addition to paying him $13 million in 2012 to miss the whole season, Detroit owes him $25 million for 2013 and 2014—his contract isn’t exactly an albatross, but at that price not many teams would be lining up to take it on. Getting anything more than a marginal prospect or another bad contract in return for Martinez would be a huge coup for the Tigers.
Speaking of bad contracts, the Tigers will be paying Fielder almost $24 million a year until 2020. Fielder probably won’t give Detroit much surplus value even in what’s left of his prime, so what happens as he ages? Even assuming he’s a 6.0-WAR player for 2012—again, it’s plausible but optimistic—a half-win regression each year would mean he’d already be a bad investment by 2014 and would be just a league-average player by 2020.
Using the same aging curve and a more conservative projection of Fielder’s current talent—let’s put him down for 5.0 WAR in 2012—the Tigers could get buyer’s remorse about this deal as soon as 2013. And using Bill James’ projections for Fielder and the Simple WAR Calculator, he comes in at 4.0 WAR for 2012. In that case, he’d fail to earn his salary even in the first year of this deal, he’d be a below-average player by 2017, and he’d have fallen to replacement level by the end of his contract in 2020.
The reigning AL Central champions now have $24 million per annum locked up in a player who will be unworthy of his salary for at least five or six years, maybe more. The Indians will almost certainly have started to rebuild by the time Fielder’s contract becomes an albatross, but by the end of the deal they should be—they’d better be—in the midst of a new contention cycle. From Cleveland’s standpoint, then, it will be great to see the Tigers handicapped by a big investment gone wrong.
Playing against Fielder for the next couple years might be painful, but the Indians will benefit from the zero-sum game when a declining Fielder eats up Detroit’s payroll for the better part of the next decade. There’s no telling whether or not it will end up being a net gain for the Tribe in the end; if Fielder gives the Tigers a division title now and doesn’t end up costing them a playoff berth later there won’t be any silver lining for Cleveland. But in the long run there’s a pretty good chance the Fielder signing will end up being beneficial for the Indians.