This winter has been full of Prince Fielder rumors, and another came out on Thursday. Some hinted at it earlier in the day, but Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times was the first to come out and say it — the Brewers were (are?) interested in bringing Fielder back on a one-year deal, which would allow him to pursue a huge contract again next winter.
It’s potentially exciting news if you’re a Brewers fan, but whenever there are rumors about Scott Boras clients, it’s probably a good idea to take the information with a grain of salt.
Fielder coming back for one more year would be a huge stroke of luck for the Brewers, who have been doing business for the better part of two years under the assumption that he’d be gone after 2011. The team’s payroll would likely shatter the previous high, but Mark Attanasio has said in the past that he’s willing to spend more than he should for a few select players. Giving it another go with virtually the same team (plus Aramis Ramirez and Alex Gonzalez, minus Casey McGehee and Yuniesky Betancourt) would qualify as the “special circumstance” Attanasio’s always talked about.
And at first glance, it might seem like a good idea for Fielder, too. There won’t be an Albert Pujols to contend with in next year’s free agent market, and teams like the Dodgers would have another year to get their finances in order. Play another year in a city you like, make another run at a World Series, and get paid next winter…sounds like a plan, right?
The problem, though, is that the risks for Fielder returning to the Brewers on a one-year deal would likely outweigh those benefits.
What happens if Fielder gets hurt and misses significant time, or is less productive than he was in 2011? Teams are already worried about Fielder’s longevity, and by returning to Milwaukee, Fielder would be “wasting” another year (from another team’s perspective — obviously the Brewers wouldn’t see it that way) of productivity. If you think Fielder only has three or four great seasons left before he starts a rapid decline like his father did, why would you be more willing to pay him next winter than you were this winter?
What happens if the new owner of the Dodgers — whoever it ends up being — hires a new GM that takes the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer-in-Chicago approach to rebuilding that team, avoiding big-name free agents in their first year or two? Before the Epstein/Hoyer duo landed in Chicago, the Cubs were just assumed to be a major player for Fielder, and it took the Cubs landing Anthony Rizzo for those rumors to finally die down. What happens if the Dodgers get smart like the Cubs did, and start focusing on player development while they rebuild? Granted, the Dodgers are closer to contending than the Cubs are and already have a young nucleus, but if the Yankees, Red Sox, and Cubs are scaling back their spending, it might not be crazy to think the Dodgers could hold back, too.
And that brings us to another issue for Fielder — who’s actually going to be looking for a first baseman next winter that wasn’t this year, other than LA? Carlos Lee’s contract is finally up in Houston after this year and it’s possible they give up on Brett Wallace, and they’ll be moving to the AL, but the new stats-conscious front office there may be just as reluctant as the Cubs were to give that kind of money to Fielder. If Seattle, Washington, or any of the other rumored suitors this winter don’t land him, they’ll likely find stopgaps and be back in on the bidding next year. Basically, Fielder would be facing the same limited market again next winter. Not exactly the breeding grounds for a megadeal.
The longevity concerns will follow Fielder until he can prove otherwise. He’s shown incredible durability to this point in his career — he’s missed a total of 11 games since becoming the full-time starter in 2006 — but the only way he’ll be able to fully shake off those worries is to produce well into his thirties. People aren’t going to stop worrying about his weight anytime soon.
Thinking in terms of what would be best for Fielder, returning to Milwaukee on a one-year deal simply doesn’t make much sense. He would be better off taking more guaranteed years, even if it meant taking less money annually than he was expecting. Continuing to produce at an MVP level for three or four more years would prove a lot more to teams than producing at that level for one more year — not to mention he would have a better chance of getting a team like the Yankees involved, since Mark Teixeira’s current deal runs through 2016.
Boras has negotiated one-year “prove yourself” deals in the past (probably most notably Adrian Beltre with Boston), but those were players that were largely coming off poor seasons and needed to prove they still had it. There’s no doubt Fielder still has it — the doubt comes in four or five or six years from now, when many people start to worry he’ll turn into Mo Vaughn.
Boras is billing Fielder as one of the most unique free agents in baseball history, and in a weird way, he may be right. If Fielder had a different body type or somebody else as his father, most teams would be crawling over each other to sign a guy with a career .282/.390/.540 line and 230 home runs in 6+ seasons.