Expected to rebound from a career-worst season in terms of power output, Prince Fielder has struggled mightily since being traded to the Rangers, but an explanation for his problems has finally emerged. The 30-year-old first baseman has a herniated disc in his neck, a problem that has apparently bothered him since last season but has worsened lately. On Saturday, he underwent a nerve-root injection that forced him to the bench, ending the majors' longest active consecutive game streak at 547.
Acquired from the Tigers last November in a swap for Ian Kinsler and $30 million cash, Fielder is coming off a .279/.362/.457 season with 25 homers. Those numbers represented the lowest slugging percentage, isolated power and home run total of his nine-year major league career, while his on-base percentage and 120 OPS+ were his worst marks since 2006. Even so, his 2013 performance dwarfs his .247/.360/.360 performance thus far this year; he has just three homers in 178 plate appearances for a Rangers team that is stumbling along at 20-22 while managing a mere 3.97 runs per game.
According to general manager Jon Daniels, while Detroit and Texas swapped medical information, Fielder didn't undergo a physical at the time of the trade, and didn't have one as a member of the Rangers until spring training. He underwent a standard physical at that time, but since he didn't mention any neck issue, he received neither MRIs nor cervical x-rays. Last month, he finally informed the Rangers that he had been dealing with the problem — which has caused pain and stiffness in his neck and weakness in his left arm — since last season. It may at least partially explain his woes to date, as Daniels told reporters. Via MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan:
"It's hard to say exactly, but it makes some sense," Daniels said. "If you put two and two together, it stands to reason it affected him some. He said there was a lack of strength in his left arm that may have impacted his ability to hit for power."
Oral anti-inflammatory medication didn't quell the problem, and so he underwent the nerve-blocking injection on Saturday. The Rangers are hopeful that he will be able to avoid the disabled list and could be back in the lineup as early as Tuesday. If he doesn't respond to the treatment, the DL and surgery loom as options.
That would be a huge blow to the reeling Rangers, who just lost starting pitchers Martin Perez to Tommy John surgery and Matt Harrison to spondylolisthesis, a lower back problem that may require career-threatening spinal fusion surgery. Those two joined 11 other Rangers on the disabled list, a MASH unit that includes starters Derek Holland, Joe Saunders and Tanner Scheppers, reliever Pedro Figueroa, catcher Geovany Soto, second baseman Jurickson Profar, third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff and infielder Donnie Murphy. Figueroa underwent Tommy John surgery on April 30, while Kouzmanoff underwent surgery to repair a herniated disc on May 6.
Fielder's injury has to be even more unsettling for the Rangers in the long term, given that the team is on the hook for around $132 million between now and the end of the 2020 season. Signed to a nine-year, $214 million deal with the Tigers in January 2012, he played just two seasons in Detroit before being sent — along with $30 million — to Texas for Kinsler. Despite his rotund physique (he's listed at 5-foot-11, 275 pounds), he has a long track record for durability, missing just one game since the start of the 2009 season (September 13, 2010, when he was still with the Brewers) and averaging 160 games a year from 2006-2013. A back or neck injury requiring surgery could be a sign that his body is starting to break down. The Rangers, who came into Saturday night's game having lost three in a row and 13 of 18, will cross their fingers and hope they can avoid such a scenario. For the moment, Mitch Moreland will fill in at first base. Moreland served as the team's regular first baseman from 2011-2013 but hit so poorly last year (.232/.299/.437) that Daniels sought a big bat to replace him. He's hitting .286/.330/.407 with one homer thus far as the team's primary designated hitter. Fielder, for all of his physical woes, has been on the upswing lately, hitting .333/.421/.458 in May. The Rangers can only hope they get him back soon enough to continue that resurgence.