The already-slim chance that Prince Fielder would find his way back to the only team he's ever known, the Milwaukee Brewers, almost certainly ended yesterday when the Brewers signed Aramis Ramirez to a three-year contract. With the money they're paying Ramirez, the decision by Francisco Rodriguez to accept arbitration, and a handful of in-house options for first base it seems certain now that Fielder will be moving to a new town.
Fielder, who turns 28 in May and is the rare free agent who will hit the market with most of his peak still to come, would be a great fit in any number of lineups. As with Jell-O, there's always room for a hitter who averages 37 homers and a .282/.390/.540 slash line, even if he doesn't quite come with a great glove or speed. The usual suspects for a top-of-the-line free agent, the Yankees and Red Sox, haven't pursued Fielder, because of their roster crunches and heavy investments in first basemen of their own. The Angels, of course, just signed Albert Pujols. The Mets and Dodgers would love to have Fielder if he'd work for scale and maybe chip in on the custodial staff or do some light typing -- both teams are being run like the 2001 Expos these days. The Cubs, long considered a prime destination for Fielder, may be more focused on jettisoning their big contracts than adding a new one.
There is, however, one exceptional fit for Fielder, a team that has roster, lineup and payroll space for him; that expects to contend right now; that plays in a ballpark he could tear up. The Texas Rangers should make bringing in Fielder their primary goal over the next couple of weeks -- he's the perfect fit for a team that has just about everything else it could want coming off two straight AL pennants.
The Rangers have a hard team to improve. They're set at just about every position, and in many spots, for years to come. Three of their four infielders -- plus DH/UT Michael Young -- are under team control through at least 2013. Nelson Cruz and Cuban import Leonys Martin, 2/3 of the outfield, are locked in through then as well. The team's projected 2012 starting rotation includes just one pitcher, Colby Lewis, who can leave before 2015. Only catcher Mike Napoli and outfielder Josh Hamilton can become free agents after 2012, and the team has shown interest in locking up both players beyond that. While the Rangers would like to add a top-tier starting pitcher, they seem to be looking to do that in trade market rather than trying to sign Edwin Jackson, who -- despite my case for him -- isn't seen as front-of-the-rotation material. The Rangers also have a good farm system that is particularly deep in pitching backing up the major league roster.
At first base, though, the team has Mitch Moreland splitting time with the veteran Young. Young is primarily a DH now, and his inexperience at first was a key part of the Rangers' Game 6 loss in the World Series. Moreland is 26 and in a bit over a season's worth of games has hit .258/.331/.427 in the majors, basically league-average performance. He recently underwent surgery on his right wrist that may limit his performance or availability at the start of 2012. Healthy, Moreland may be an average first baseman; he will never hit in the middle of the order for this team. He's not someone who blocks Prince Fielder, who would make the Rangers three wins a year better, at minimum, over the next few years.
The gain could be larger than that for tactical reasons. As we saw in the postseason, the Rangers' righty-heavy lineup was prone to dissection by hard-throwing right-handed relievers with big platoon splits. The Rangers sometimes played just two left-handed batters, and their core, from Young in the cleanup spot through Napoli in the No. 7 hole, was all right-handed. That caused them to give away tactical value late in games. Signing Fielder wouldn't change the overall balance -- he'd be replacing the lefty-hitting Moreland -- but by batting in the middle of the order, he would provide more balance where it is most needed. A 3-4-5-6 of Fielder/Beltre/Hamilton/Napoli is hard to manage around from the opposing dugout.
The Rangers should certainly be able to afford Fielder. Their ballpark revenues should be at or near franchise peaks as they come into 2012 off two straight World Series appearances. They are a couple of years away from the start of their new cable contract, which will generate $80 million a season starting in 2015, but knowing that's out there enables them to take on a long-term commitment -- and gives them an option to backload. The Rangers' roster largely consists of pre-free-agency players, so their payroll isn't particularly high. They had an Opening Day payroll of $92 million last year and eventually spent a bit more than that through trade acquisitions. Their current projected payroll, per baseball-reference.com, is between $112 and $116 million. Signing Fielder to an eight-year, $200-million contract -- which seems like his market value given what Pujols received -- sends that to around $140 million, or less with some backloading. That should be within their range.
(As I was finishing this article this morning, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported that the Rangers may not actually have enough money on hand to be a player on the market. There are some cash obligations they have coming up that could tie their hands. It seems unlikely that the Rangers, who drew 2.9 million people to Arlington last year, couldn't support a $140 million payroll in 2012. Remember -- player salaries are an investment that produces wins and greater revenue because of those wins. Rosenthal's information has to be part of the discussion, however.)
There's one other reason why the Rangers' signing of Fielder makes sense. Josh Hamilton, 2010 AL MVP, is a free agent after 2012. Hamilton's performance in four years with the Rangers, as well as his back story of overcoming drug addiction, makes him a very popular Ranger. The team, which signed Hamilton to a two-year contract through the upcoming season, will be under considerable pressure to re-sign Hamilton to a long-term deal that keeps the player in Texas. Hamilton, however, could be a very poor investment. Although he has played well when on the field -- .308/.366/.543 in five MLB seasons -- he's been off the field for a disturbing amount of time. Hamilton has missed more than a quarter of his teams' games due to injury, and the one time he played a full season, 2008, he was awful in the second half. It's never been one thing, but an ongoing array of maladies that have limited his playing time. Even in winning the MVP award in 2009, Hamilton missed almost all of September.
Hamilton turns 32 early in the 2013 season. While there's no doubt about his talent, there has to be doubt about his ability to get that talent onto the field consistently as he goes through his thirties. There's never been anyone like him, and a team looking to invest $100 million or more in Hamilton has to ask whether the damage Hamilton did to himself in his early twenties has had a lasting effect long after he beat his demons. Players with normal career paths don't tend to get more healthy, more reliable, more durable as they get older; it would be silly to expect Hamilton to snap that trend.
The Rangers can get out in front of the problem by signing Fielder, almost three full years younger than Hamilton, for Fielder's age-28 through age-35 seasons, rather than committing to Hamilton from 32 through 37 or longer. The team would have an in-house replacement for Hamilton's great left-handed bat and a counterargument to any charges of being too cheap to sign the team's most visible star. Retaining Hamilton would still be an option for the Rangers, but they wouldn't be over a barrel in either a baseball or a public-relations sense, and could negotiate with Hamilton having more leverage.
Prince Fielder is the one free agent the Rangers should target. He fills their position of greatest need; he is young enough that they would be buying his peak; he balances their lineup; and he provides a solution to the vexing problem of how to handle Josh Hamilton's upcoming free agency. Even if it means stretching the budget a bit, the Rangers should make this move -- it would swing the AL West back in their favor for now and years to come.