Prince Fielder has reportedly agreed to a $214 million, nine-year deal with the Tigers, making him just the third player in major league history to receive a contract worth $200 million or more. He joins Alex Rodriguez, who has done so twice, and Albert Pujols, who signed with the Angels for $240 million over 10 years in early December.
Rodriguez and Pujols are routinely listed among the greatest players of all time. Fielder is undoubtedly one of the best hitters in the game today, but his place in baseball history is far from certain. More important for the time being is the fact that his ability to give the Tigers their money's worth over the next nine years is equally uncertain.
Fielder, who turns 28 in May, has only been a major league starter for six years, but over that span he has averaged 38 home runs and 108 RBIs per season, and boasts a career .282/.390/.540 batting line, good for a 143 OPS+. Given that, one can argue that he is indeed one of the game's true elites and deserving of a contract that reflects that position.
However, when you factor in defense, both the quality of Prince's play in the field and his position, first base, which has a higher offensive standard than any other on the field given that it tends to be a place for teams to stash unathletic sluggers such as him, the picture changes dramatically. By Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement, which factors in runs saved or lost on defense and adjusts for position, Fielder ranks just 23rd in baseball over the last five years, just barely ahead of the Reds' Joey Votto, who played just 24 games in the first of those five seasons, and far behind four other first basemen: Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, new teammate Miguel Cabrera, and Mark Teixeira. Swap out the declining Teixeira for Votto, and Fielder looks like the fifth-best player at his own position, never mind among all hitters. That does not suggest that he's worth the fourth-largest commitment in total dollars ever given to a major league player.
Digging deeper, FanGraphs has a statistic called Dollars that attempts to calculate how much a player's performance in a given season would have been worth on the open market. In short, it attempts to figure out how much he was actually worth in payroll dollars. Fielder's new contract has an average annual value of $23.8 million. Dollars had him worth more than $20 million in the 2007, 2009 and 2011 seasons and worth more than $24 million in both '09 and '11. Over the last three seasons, his age 25-27 seasons, he was worth an average of $22.3 million per FanGraphs. That might seem close enough, given the inexact nature of such statistics, to validate Fielder's salary, but it's worth pointing out two things: first, Dollars tends to overestimate players' value and second, Fielder, in three of his prime years, still fell short of earning the average annual salary the Tigers will be paying him until he's 36.
That doesn't bode well for Detroit's chances of getting their money's worth from this deal, which, per FoxSports' Ken Rosenthal, does not contain an opt-out clause that might have allowed the Tigers to escape what is sure to become an untradeable contract long before its expiration in 2020.
That bleak outlook is based solely on Fielder's statistical profile. There is another factor that makes this contract look even worse, and it might be the most significant: his size. Fielder is listed, perhaps kindly, at 5-foot-11 and 275 pounds, and heavy-set, slow-footed, unathletic first baseman don't tend to age well. The most obvious comparison for Prince is his father, Cecil, who is 6-foot-3 and played at well north of the 230 pounds Baseball-Reference has him listed at (in a 1991 SI story on father and son, Cecil, who was nicknamed "Big Daddy," was listed at "about 260 pounds"). Cecil averaged 37 home runs from his age 26-32 seasons from 1990-96 but was a league-average part-timer at 33, below average at 34, and retired at 35. The comparison is a bit unfair to Prince, as Fielder is a better hitter than his old man, but Cecil isn't the only problematic comp.
Player heights and weights are fudged so much that it's difficult to do a proper search. Only 37 players in baseball history have official weights of 260 or more per Baseball-Reference, and all of them, including Prince, played in the past decade. Still, in that limited group, only Adam Dunn and Carlos Lee have higher career Wins Above Replacement totals than Fielder, and neither would have made a good $200 million investment at age 28. When you think of the portly hitters of past decades, you think of Boog Powell, the former Orioles first baseman whose last above-average season came at age 33, Phillies leftfielder Greg Luzinski, who retired after his age 33 season, Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek, whose last above average-season was at 33, Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn, who ceased to be an MVP-level hitter after his age 30 season and suffered a career-ending injury at 35, and the aforementioned Cecil.
On the other hand, one could point to a few thick-bodied Hall of Famers who did age fairly well. Setting aside Babe Ruth, who is an inappropriate comparison for any player save perhaps the 21st century Barry Bonds, Willie Stargell, Harmon Killerew, Willie McCovey and future Hall of Famers Frank Thomas and Jim Thome all remained productive into their late thirties or beyond despite expanding waistlines. However, none of those players was particularly heavy-set in their primes. The biggest men in that group, Thomas, Thome and McCovey, were always huge, but when they were Fielder's age that bulk was mostly muscle.
Those all-time greats had room to add weight as they aged. Fielder, like the group that included his father, does not. As a result of that difference, when Fielder begins to add weight in his thirties, as most athletes (and non-athletes) do, it could slow him down to such a degree that he's simply unable to compete at the major league level. That is the trend for players his size. They don't have declines, they just vanish because there's no room for them to get bigger or slower and continue to compete at the highest level. The gap between being a star player and out of baseball is tiny for players like Fielder compared to more athletic players who can age more gracefully.
All of which makes a nine-year investment in Prince Fielder problematic at any dollar amount. At $214 million, Fielder's new contract could prove to be a disaster for Detroit. Of course, if Fielder helps lead the team to its first World Series title since 1984 in the next couple of years, some Tigers fans may feel it was a price worth paying.