Prince Fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers walks back to the dugout after he struck out in the top of the eighth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals during Game Five of the National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Prince Fielder has his suitors, but which team does he make the most sense for?
Prince Fielder is the biggest remaining free agent out there, an intentional tactic from agent Scott Boras to maximize Fielder's new contract value. Fielder will likely sign wherever the most significant contract offer comes from, but who should be the team making this offer? The kind of massive commitment, in terms of both dollars and contract length, that will be required to sign Fielder isn't something just any team should dive into.
The Texas Rangers were rumored to be interested in Fielder early on, but not much has been said since, especially post-Yu Darvish bidding. Texas wanting Fielder is understandable, though, given their current situation in the AL West. Mitch Moreland played the most games for them at first base last year with 99, but he's not the kind of player who stands in the way of Fielder. He has hit all of .258/.331/.427 in his 685 plate appearances with Texas, a line that isn't good for a first baseman, and even worse for one hailing from hitter-friendly Arlington. He'll be 26 in 2012, but it's not like his Triple-A numbers portend a dominating future at the plate, either.
Moreland is a replaceable piece, even when options less appealing than Fielder are the alternatives. The Rangers could also stand to add another bat, given the Angels added Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson this winter. The Halos finished 10 games back in 2011 (and 134 back via run differential), so the Rangers don't need to panic-sign anyone, but Fielder would certainly widen the gap once more. As with Pujols, should Fielder's defense eventually become unbearable -- and he lacks both the body and defensive ability of Pujols already -- a move to DH would also be possible in the AL.
The problem is whether Fielder fits into the budget. Darvish negotiations are ongoing, and while he won't pull in a Fielder-sized contract, it won't be cheap. The Rangers aren't in a dire financial situation anymore, but budgets still exist, and Fielder only works if Texas is willing to more than double their payroll from 2010. Their new TV contract will make them very rich for a long time, though, so the money will be there to spend once that pays out.
The Cubs are stuck in a spot where they can make the decision to build around an aging roster while waiting for prospects to develop and contracts to expire, or they can sell off any major league assets to bring in as many lottery tickets as possible. The National League Central isn't anyone's idea of a difficult division -- especially with Fielder's exit weakening Milwaukee -- so either is a viable plan. Should the Cubs choose Door Number One, Fielder would make plenty of sense.
Fielder is a left-handed power hitter, and Wrigley is one of the best parks in the majors for lefties, much like Miller Park was. He would also give the Cubs an expensive free agent they could build around, and one who wouldn't be old until the contract was nearly over. He's young enough that, depending on how long the reloading process would take for the Cubs, that he would theoretically play for some pretty competitive Chicago clubs, even if they didn't play that way earlier on in the deal. Just Bryan LaHair stands in his way, too, and while LaHair would be an intriguing success story (and an inexpensive one, too) as a guy who mashes in the majors after killing the minors for nearly a decade, you know what you're getting in Fielder.
There are interesting hitters the Mariners' lineup -- sophomore second baseman Dustin Ackley, DH/OF Mike Carp, and the potential of first baseman Justin Smoak -- but that's just a polite way of saying the team can't hit. Fielder would bump Smoak from first or Carp from DH, but he would also give them the left-handed power bat they sorely need.
Safeco is a severe pitcher's park, but it's also much more tolerable of lefties than righties. Fielder's numbers would suffer a bit, but he has the muscle to hit it out of just about anywhere regularly. The Mariners aren't ready to contend, especially with the Rangers and Angels loading up, but, like with the Cubs, Fielder is young enough where that's not a reason to avoid signing him.
The Mariners can pitch, and more pitching is on the way from the farm in the form of Danny Hultzen (possibly 2012) and Taijuan Walker (another few years). Everyone else in the AL West can pitch too, though, meaning the Mariners are going to need to add hitting. It'll take lots of hitting, but you don't need a 73-page binder from Scott Boras to know that Fielder is a good start.
The Washington Nationals are interested, as they have been in seemingly ever major free agent the past few seasons. The team has money to spend, and a willingness to do so, but they just need someone to agree to their terms like Jayson Werth did a year ago.
They are already spending $8 million on Adam LaRoche in 2012, but that's not an impediment. In LaRoche's best years, he was considered the epitome of an average first baseman. He's now 32, has hit just .242/.313/.423 over the last two seasons, and is returning from shoulder surgery to fix a labrum tear. The $8 million is spent whether the Nationals use, keep, or cut LaRoche, so the one remaining year on his deal will not keep them from Fielder if he will realistically sign in Washington.
Fielder also means a lot to the Nationals in terms of improving their playoff odds. While the Rangers are already a great team, and both the Cubs and Mariners are more in a rebuilding phase, the Nationals are on the cusp. They finished 80-81 with a -19 run differential, despite missing almost an entire season of Stephen Strasburg and getting a 97 OPS+ out of their $21 million for Werth. Combine an expected rebound from Werth -- who struggled against the lefties he typically crushes -- with a full season of Strasburg and Prince Fielder, and the Nationals are suddenly in this thing. Especially in a future with a two Wild Card format, and with a glut of talented prospects like Bryce Harper in the pipeline.
A win acquired via free agency means more to a team on the bubble than it does someone already established enough to get to October. In Baseball Between the Numbers, Nate Silver discussed this as the "marginal economic value" of a win (a concept Neil deMause later updated). Assuming the returns and bounce backs described for the Nats give them a few more Ws in the standings, they are right there in terms of making huge gains from a Prince Fielder signing:
Washington makes the most sense for Fielder when you combine budget, who he would replace, and how much he matters to the team. Whether or not he ends up there might depend on whether they offer the most, but it's clear they have reason to do so.