Prince Fielder still doesn't have a team, but already he is almost assuredly about to set a record this year. No free agent ever has signed a nine-figure contract this late in the offseason.
There have been 19 contracts signed by free agents worth $100 million or more. Only two of them were signed as late as January: by Matt Holliday (Jan. 6, 2010) and by the current record holder of the longest wait, Carlos Beltran (Jan. 9, 2005). Holliday, Beltran and Fielder have at least one thing in common: all have been represented by Scott Boras in such protracted negotiations.
The waiting game did not appear to hurt Holliday or Beltran but Fielder is pushing it to new limits with camps set to open a month from today. His market value is probably at least eight years and $184 million, given that he is a year younger and has put up slightly better numbers than Mark Teixeira when Teixeira signed with the Yankees for eight years and $180 million after the 2008 season.
Unless a stealth team comes to the fore, Fielder's best options look like Texas and Washington. The Rangers' $111 million commitment to Yu Darvish may or may not close them out of Fielder. (Rangers GM Jon Daniels called such another big investment "very unlikely.") But both clubs may be in position to extract a compromise.
The Rangers look like the best baseball fit for Fielder, given that they are two-time defending AL champions, play in a great ballpark for slugging and can give Fielder the opportunity to DH occasionally to keep him fresh. The Rangers have been so occupied with Darvish that it made sense for Fielder to wait for their full attention.
But Texas' concern about Fielder never was just about Darvish money, or even the extension they hope to work out with Josh Hamilton. The club is risk-averse to paying huge sums of money to too many players as they age through their mid-30s, particularly after contracts for Jayson Werth, Joe Mauer, Carl Crawford and others look like bad deals at the start, not even the finish. Texas already is paying Adrian Beltre at least through age 36 and might be doing the same with Hamilton, 31 in May, who is in line for a Ryan Braun-sized five-year, $100 million extension.
The Rangers want to minimize the risk of getting too old and expensive. Fielder always interested Texas, but at five or six guaranteed years. That idea, which seemed impossible in November, now may be in play. It also makes possible the ultimate trifecta for Texas: contracts for Darvish, Hamilton and Fielder.
Yes, maybe the Rangers can find a way to afford them all. Remember, everything in baseball today is about new local TV deals. The one in Texas kicks in for the 2015 season at about $80 million or more, according to various reports. Darvish, without the posting fee, goes on the books as a $10 million a year pitcher. Hamilton, already at $15 million, is a $5 million annual add-on.
The Rangers' payroll, which was $92 million last year, stands at about $125 million. How much higher can it go? Plenty, especially by 2015. For comparison, the Phillies went from $98 million to $165 million in three years.
Here's one idea for Texas: offer him Teixeira money over six years ($135 million), which respects the player in terms of annual value and respects team philosophy in terms of risk exposure. But structure it this way: the first three years at $18 million per year, followed by an opt-out for Fielder. If Fielder wants another crack at free agency at age 30, he has that choice. And if he does leave, Texas would have enjoyed the benefit of having Fielder under a three-year, $54 million deal in his prime.
If Fielder opts to remain, he comes back to a three-year, $81 million balloon payment that begins exactly when Texas' TV windfall kicks in. The Rangers could also consider an extension at that point, when the risk and team structure are more defined than they are today.
(Look how the Angels structured Albert Pujols' contract. He is on the payroll for just $12 million and $16 million in the first two years, before the Angels' TV bonanza kicks in.)
Can Fielder do better than that? Not in terms of a baseball fit. But he can probably get more years from Washington. Why? The Nationals need him more than Texas and (you knew this was coming) because of local TV money. Washington is in the midst of "re-setting" its local TV package to get current market value, which could mean an additional $30 million or more. The Nationals' TV ratings are abysmal. But if you add Fielder to Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, two of the biggest drawing cards in baseball, Washington becomes not just an instant contender but also a meaningful draw. A star like Fielder could help that market value.
The Nationals are paying Werth $18 million a year through age 38. Is paying Fielder $22 million a year through age 35 out of line with that thinking? One caveat: an opt-out clause makes less sense for Washington, which needs to build stability rather than provide a way station.
For this late in the game, those are two good scenarios from which to choose, though each takes advantage of the calendar to come with a compromise. Texas offers the better playing experience and flexibility, but compromises length. Washington offers more money but compromises on playing experience and flexibility.
The Yankees briefly considered a very familiar name in their preliminary search for a designated hitter: 17-year Yankee veteran Jorge Posada.
Posada, 40, was expected to announce his retirement this month when the trade of Jesus Montero by New York to Seattle opened up a need for someone who can do exactly what Posada does best: mash righthanded pitching. The Yankees gave consideration to Posada, according to a team source, though they did have concerns with the potential awkwardness of cutting him if he didn't produce. Any such thoughts were moot, however, because Posada told reporters Wednesday that he's done playing.
Montero was expected to get the majority of the at-bats as the Yankees' designated hitter. Now New York plans to use Andruw Jones as its primary DH against lefthanded pitchers and has drawn up a preliminary list of possibilities as the DH against righthanded pitchers. On that list, according to the source, are two former Yankees - Johnny Damon, 38, and Hideki Matsui, 37 -- as well as Raul Ibañez, 39. The Yankees also considered Jack Cust, 33, who signed Tuesday with Houston, and Carlos Peña, who reportedly reached a deal on Friday with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Jones, 34, crushed lefthanded pitching last year (.923 OPS), even while battling knee problems that limited his work. Jones' knees have improved this winter and he has lost 15 pounds.
Among the Yankees' candidates to platoon with Jones, Posada was considered because his OPS against righthanders (.814) was significantly better than those of Ibañez (.747), Damon (.715) and Matsui (.654).
Damon, according to the source, "is dying to come back to New York," and, because of his platoon splits, is considered a good option if the Yankees prefer more of an everyday DH than a platoon situation.
Meanwhile, the Yankees could still give some at-bats at DH to Alex Rodriguez to help him through a full season. Rodriguez last month underwent an experimental procedure in Germany on his left shoulder and right knee. After complaining that he still felt only "50 percent" when he came back after in-season knee surgery last year, Rodriguez told team officials he feels like "a new man" after the cutting-edge procedures in Germany.
What kind of hitters were Craig Counsell and Orlando Cabrera? They came to bat 13,731 combined times in the big leagues and never hit an opposite field home run.
Despite arriving in the majors just as The Steroid Era exploded in the late '90s, they carved out extraordinarily long careers and made huge sums of money - $21 million for Counsell and $51.7 million for Cabrera -- without great offensive production.
When the two middle infielders retired this week, their careers stood as a testament to the value of intangibles in any era. Both players were considered superb defenders, but more so they were considered smart players who made those around them better. It might not be sheer coincidence that both Counsell (1997 Marlins) and Cabrera (2004 Red Sox) were stabilizing mid-season middle infield trade acquisitions for teams that went on to win the World Series.
Counsell retired straight to the Brewers' front office, where he will serve GM Doug Melvin as an assistant. Said Melvin, "You know when you sign a free agent you present him with a jersey at a press conference? We joked about presenting him with a suit. He's one of the suits now."
Counsell may coach or manage someday but for now is exploring the GM track. Like John Farrell, Terry Francona and Bud Black, he is smart enough to succeed on the field or off. "I told him if he does want to manage, his front office experience will make him a better manager," Melvin said.
As a player, Counsell is best known for being in the middle of two of the greatest World Series Game 7 rallies ever. As a 1997 Marlin, he scored the championship-winning run on an 11th inning walk-off single by Edgar Renteria, and as a 2001 Diamondback he was a hit by a Mariano Rivera pitch just before the game-ending single by Luis Gonzalez.
Counsell posted a career OPS+ of 79. Among all players with 5,000 plate appearances in the wild card era (since 1995), only Neifi Perez, Tony Womack, Brad Ausmus, Jack Wilson and Royce Clayton ranked worse.
Often in demand nonetheless, Counsell played on five teams and, likewise, Cabrera played on nine. Cabrera posted a career OPS+ of 84. Among all players with 2,000 hits, only Larry Bowa (71), Omar Vizquel (82), Luis Aparacio (82) and Rabbit Maranville (82) were worse.
But Cabrera, too, was valued for his defense and smarts. Always considered a de facto on-field coach, Cabrera is regarded as a potential big league manager. The Red Sox broke their 86-year world championship drought by replacing Nomar Garciaparra at shortstop with Cabrera.
In fact, just as Garciaparra, Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Miguel Tejeda were bringing power and glamour to the shortstop position -- and just as steroid testing came into baseball -- an odd six-year streak occurred in which world championships were won with shortstops that were heavy on intangibles but light on hitting. Beginning in 2002, the World Series-winning shortstops were David Eckstein, Alex Gonzalez, Cabrera, Juan Uribe, Eckstein again and Julio Lugo.
Counsell and Cabrera deserve a place on the 2017 Hall of Fame ballot (if only because Womack was on this year). Depending on how the job market works out, they might be joined by Posada, Tejada, Manny Ramirez, Vladimir Guerrero, Omar Vizquel, Pudge Rodriguez, Edgar Renteria, Jason Varitek, Magglio Ordoñez, Livan Hernandez, Javier Vazquez and Tim Wakefield -- all of whom are still looking for work.
Of course, Counsell and Cabrera don't have Hall of Fame numbers. But in this age when players can be defined in hair-splitting statistical terms, Counsell and Cabrera were defined by how long they played and how much their teams trusted them. Combined, they played for 10 playoff teams over 31 seasons and won three world championships.