Prince Fielder’s health fails him in MLB career full of personality and power
- Neck surgery has Prince Fielder’s career in doubt. SI looks back at one of MLB’s top power hitters and most colorful personalities.
In baseball, success comes in all shapes and sizes, and for the better part of a decade, Prince Fielder—listed at 5' 11", 275 pounds—ranked not only among the game’s top sluggers, but also as its most durable player. Since being traded to the Texas Rangers in November 2013, however, his body began to betray him, and now his career appears to be over at age 32. Less than two weeks after undergoing his second cervical fusion surgery in a 27-month span, he has been declared medically disabled, according to Fox Sports’s Ken Rosenthal, and can’t get clearance to play.
As Rosenthal explained:
When a player retires, he effectively renounces the rest of his contract. Fielder is not doing that. Again, the money is guaranteed.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) August 9, 2016
Fielder is in the fifth season of a nine-year, $104 million deal that pays him a flat $24 million per year, so he’s still owed roughly $128 million. When he was dealt to the Rangers in November 2013 in exchange for second baseman Ian Kinsler, the Tigers agreed to pay $30 million spread out over the 2016 to '20 period at $6 million per year. According to the Dallas Morning News’s Evan Grant, Texas's financial commitment for the remainder of Fielder’s deal will be $9 million per year, with the other $9 million covered by insurance. But the money aside, this is a devastating blow for one of the game’s most well-liked and respected players, and at his best, one of its most entertaining. Fielder’s one of three players to win more than one Home Run Derby, and according to lore, he once hit a 611-foot homer in batting practice. Here’s a garden-variety 486-footer from 2011:
Here he is hitting a triple:
And here he is with an infamous baserunning gaffe in the 2013 ALCS:
And here he is enjoying some nachos, courtesy of a fan in the expensive seats:
Fielder earned All-Star honors six times while playing 12 years with the Brewers, Tigers and Rangers. His career line is .283/.382/.506, for a 134 OPS+, and his total of 319 home runs is an exact match for what his father, Cecil, hit in a 13-year major league career from 1985 to ’98 with the Blue Jays, Tigers, Yankees, Angels and Indians, with time out for a season in Japan. Even as a child, the younger Fielder showed prodigious power. At 12, he hit a batting practice home run in Tiger Stadium off Detroit third base coach Terry Francona, an event witnessed by legendary broadcaster Ernie Harwell and shortstop Alan Trammell. At 18, he was the seventh overall pick of the 2002 draft by the Brewers, one pick ahead of the Tigers, who had coveted him after he wowed the brass with an even fuller display of his talents.
From the outset of his professional career, Fielder continued to show off his power. In '02 he hit 10 home runs in 41 games in his first minor league stop, Rookie-level Ogden of the Pioneer League, which helped him crack the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects in the spring of '03. After hitting 27 home runs as a 19-year-old at A-level Beloit of the Midwest League, he was the 10th-ranked prospect the following year. He continued to climb the ladder, serving as a symbol of hope for a downtrodden Brewers franchise that finished under .500 every season from 1993 to ’04. When Milwaukee began the interleague portion of its schedule in June 2005, he was called up from Triple A Nashville to serve as DH. He went 0-for-4 in his debut against the Devil Rays on June 13, but he collected a pair of doubles two days later. On June 25, he hit a three-run pinch-hit home run of the Twins’ Jesse Crain that proved to be a game-winner. Though he was returned to the minors after a three-week stint, he was recalled again in mid-August. The Brewers finished 81–81 that year, thanks in part to his contributions in 62 plate appearances.
In December 2005, Milwaukee cleared the way for Fielder to be its starting first baseman by trading away incumbent Lyle Overbay. Fielder hit .271/.347/.483 with 28 homers and 81 RBIs as a rookie, though the Brewers slid to 75 wins. He bopped an NL-high 50 home runs in 2007, one short of his dad’s career high but enough to make them the first father-son combo to reach 50 homers. Fielder hit .288/.395/.618 that season, ranking second in slugging percentage and OPS+ (157) as Milwaukee won 83 games. The next year, he slipped to 34 homers but helped the team to its first postseason berth since 1982. In 2011, his 38 longballs (second in the league) and 164 OPS+ (fourth) helped the Brewers to the postseason again, and his two-run shot off the Diamondbacks’ Ian Kennedy powered them to victory in the Division Series opener. Milwaukee won that series, but while Fielder homered twice in the NLCS against the Cardinals, the Brewers fell in six games.
From 2006 to '11, Fielder hit .282/391/.541 with 228 homers, more than anyone in baseball except Ryan Howard (262) and Albert Pujols (244), and a 141 OPS+, the sixth-highest mark among players with at least 2,000 plate appearances. Despite his portly physique, he missed just 13 games in those six seasons, playing all 162 games twice. Dreadful defense at first base suppressed his value to an average of just 2.8 WAR in that span; via Defensive Runs Saved, he was at least 12 runs below average in four of those six full seasons, bad enough that he should have been DHing full time.
Given his limitations, it was no surprise that when Fielder reached free agency after the 2011 season, he signed with an American League team. What was surprising was that he received such a massive contract, which at the time was the fourth-largest in baseball history, after Alex Rodriguez’s 10-year, $252 million deal with the Rangers, his post opt-out 10-year, $275 million one with the Yankees, and Pujols’s 10-year, $240 million pact with the Angels. Also surprising was that he got it from the Tigers, not only putting him in the shadow of his father, from whom he was estranged, but on the same team as a first baseman with a sizable contract commitment himself in Miguel Cabrera. Even with DH Victor Martinez slated to miss the 2012 season due to a torn ACL—an injury that triggered the Fielder signing—Detroit opted to push Cabrera over to third base, where he hadn’t played regularly since 2007, and to play Fielder at first, a suboptimal arrangement, to say the least.
In the short term, it worked. Cabrera won the Triple Crown in 2012 and played passable defense at the hot corner en route to the first of his two AL MVP awards. Fielder hit .313/.412/.528 for a 151 OPS+ with 30 homers, playing all 162 games, setting a career high in batting average and earning All-Star honors for the fourth time. The Tigers won the AL Central and advanced all the way to the World Series before being swept by the Giants; Fielder wasn’t much help, going 1-for-14 in the Fall Classic and hitting .173 /.232/.231 for the postseason overall. Though he played every game and made the All-Star team again the following year, he slipped to 25 homers and a 122 OPS+, a drop that made a bit more sense when it was revealed that he was going through a divorce during the season.
Still, it was a surprise that Fielder was traded to the Rangers just two years into his megadeal, and an even bigger one when in mid-May 2014, he went on the disabled list for the first time in his career with a herniated disc in his neck. That snapped a streak of 547 consecutive games, and the surgical fusion of his C5-C6 vertebrae ended his 2014 campaign after just 42 games and three home runs. While on the disabled list, he appeared on the cover of ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue—fully nude, but tastefully done. “You don’t have to look like an Under Armour mannequin to be an athlete,” he told ESPN. “A lot of people probably think I’m not athletic or don't even try to work out or whatever, but I do. Just because you’re big doesn't mean you can’t be an athlete.”
Fielder came back strong in 2015, He played 158 games, DHing regularly for the first time in his career, and hit .305/.378/.463 with 23 homers and a 125 OPS+, team highs in both of the two latter categories. That performance helped the Rangers win the AL West, though he went just 3-for-20 as they were beaten by the Blue Jays in a five-game Division Series.
While Texas currently owns the AL's best record at 66–47, Fielder struggled mightily this year, hitting just .212/.292/.334 with eight homers. Thanks to an 11-game hitting streak, he did hit .273/.353/.455 in June, but that success proved fleeting. He landed on the disabled list on July 20 with similar symptoms to what he experienced in 2014, and underwent a second fusion surgery for a herniated disc on July 29, this time to fuse his C4-C5 vertebrae. While it wasn’t a given that it would be a career-ending procedure, it’s not surprising that it was.
It’s a sad end to an impressive career. With better luck, Fielder might have had the staying power of David Ortiz, DHing into his 40s and serving as a mentor to younger teammates—followed, perhaps, by a berth in Cooperstown. Still, for all of highly-touted legacies and first-round picks who don’t live up to the hype, it’s impressive that Fielder accomplished so much before being forced to step away.