Monday, January 30, 2012

The Royals And A Prince.

The State of the Royals as a franchise has oscillated over the last two weeks, through no fault of their own. Twelve days ago Victor Martinez blew out his knee, costing the Detroit Tigers the services of their second-best hitter (and third-most highly paid player) for probably all of 2012. Then five days ago the Tigers responded to their one-year problem with a nine-year solution, guaranteeing Prince Fielder $214 million to bash home runs and take out some justifiable anger at his father by usurping his status as the best Fielder in Tigers history. Or something like that.

It’s best to evaluate these two events together, because in tandem the impact of each event is muted. Martinez’s injury immediately improved the Royals’ odds of winning the division in 2012; Fielder’s contract returned the Royals back to square one and then some.

Given a few days to ponder the implications of Fielder signing in Detroit, I hold a pair of contradictory but not mutually exclusive opinions. I think – as most people do – that Fielder’s contract is a bad thing for the Tigers in the long term. But I also think it’s a bad thing for the Royals in the short term. But maybe not as bad as it looks on the surface.

Prince Fielder is a fantastic hitter, one of the best in baseball. He hit .299/.415/.566 last season, and he’s averaged .285/.399/.553 over the last five years. Much as he and Ryan Braun made up arguably the best 3-4 duo in the game last season, pairing Fielder up with Miguel Cabrera gives the Tigers the most imposing pair of hitters in any team’s lineup to start the season.

But…that kind of sums up Fielder’s contributions. He’s terrible defensively, even by the remedial standards of first baseman – he cost the Brewers something like 8 runs a season with his glove. (Per Baseball Info Solutions, Fielder ranks as the worst defensive first baseman in baseball over the last five years.) He’s an incredibly slow runner, enough to cost the Brewers about 5 runs a season with his legs. If he mashes the way he did last year, he’s still an elite player – but if he has a season like he did in 2010, when he hit .261/.401/.471, he’s not nearly as valuable as his reputation suggests. Last year was just the second season of his career when he was worth at least 4 bWAR, which is the standard for a well-above-average player.

For $23.8 million a season, Fielder has to be more than an above-average player; he needs to be a star. And he probably will, at least in 2012, and probably in 2013. Despite his physique, he’s an incredibly durable player – Fielder has missed 13 games in the last six seasons combined. He doesn’t turn 28 until May, so he’s still squarely in the peak age range for the typical hitter.

Only Fielder is not your typical hitter. His skill set – heavy on home runs, walks, and strikeouts, light on balls in play – is a prime exhibit of what Bill James called “old player’s skills”, because that hitting approach is something you see from veterans, and when you see it in a young player, you worry that if he’s already hitting like a much older player, he might age like a much older player as well. James used Alvin Davis as his poster child for this concept – Davis was the AL Rookie of the Year in 1984, and was one of the league’s better hitters through 1990, when he hit .283/.387/.429 at the age of 29. But Davis, like Fielder, was a bad first baseman with no speed, and whose approach consisted of waiting for a good pitch to drive. In 1991, Davis hit .221/.299/.335. In 1992, Davis played 40 games for the Angels, and his career was finished.

Consider Ben Grieve. The #2 overall pick in the 1994 draft. Ranked by Baseball America as the #1 prospect in all the land in 1998. Rookie of the Year and an All-Star the same year, at the age of 22. Two years later, after three quality seasons with the A’s, they cashed out, sending him to Tampa Bay in the infamous three-way trade that sent Johnny Damon to Oakland and left the Royals with Roberto Hernandez. (And also gave us Angel Berroa, but also cost us Mark Ellis.) Maybe Billy Beane knew something the rest of us didn’t, because it seemed strange that he would part with a classic Moneyball-type player years before the book even came out. Grieve had two mediocre seasons as the Devil Rays’ starting right fielder, then completely collapsed, losing the everyday job by the time he was 27. He was out of the majors by the time he was 29.

Fielder’s a better hitter than Davis ever was, and has sustained his performance for longer than Grieve ever did. There are others, of course – Travis Hafner, Brad Wilkerson, Jason Bay. But the most illustrative example might be the player who personified “old players’ skills” as much as anyone who ever played the game, until suddenly he didn’t have any skills at all. From 2004 to 2009, Adam Dunn walked over 100 times every season. He hit at least 38 homers every year from 2004 to 2010. He also struck out at least 164 times in each of those seven seasons, which goes a long way towards explaining why Dunn has never batted .270 in any major league season. Dunn is on the Mount Rushmore of Three True Outcomes hitters.

In 2010, at the age of 30, Dunn hit .260/.356/.536, essentially what he had done since he entered the majors. His walk rate was a little down, but nothing serious. The White Sox signed him to a 4-year, $56 million deal.

In 2011, at the age of 31, Dunn suffered through one of the worst seasons in major league history. He hit .159, which would have broken the all-time worst batting average (.179, by Rob Deer in 1989) by 20 points had manager Ozzie Guillen not benched Dunn in September, keeping Dunn six plate appearances away from qualifying for the batting title. He hit 11 homers. He still took some walks, but when your DH hits .159 and slugs .277, you’re in trouble. When that DH is still under contract for three more years at $14 million per, you’re in massive trouble.

Dunn is a particularly illustrative example for Fielder because, like Fielder, despite his skill set he was a very durable player. From 2004 to 2010, Dunn missed 26 games total. Even in 2011, he was healthy. He just lost it.

Obviously, not every player with patience and power at a young age is destined to age worse than “The English Patient”. Jim Thome had one of his best seasons, at-bat for at-bat, at the age of 39. But there’s certainly risk that Fielder will fall off a cliff in the not-too-distant future. That risk is heavily exacerbated by his physique, which can only be described as…unique. As Rob Neyer has pointed out, Fielder is listed at 5’11” and 275 pounds, and no other player in major league history is listed as being that short and that heavy. This article at Fangraphs takes a look at the track record of particularly hefty ballplayers, and finds that they peak earlier and decline faster than their slimmer teammates.

There are other factors that conspire to make this deal worse. Fielder is moving from the NL to the AL, and his numbers will dip even if his talent level does not. His arrival in Detroit either means there will be a 1B/DH logjam when Martinez returns next year, or – and I still refuse to believe this is going to happen – Miguel Cabrera is going to move to third base, where he will probably cost the Tigers 30 runs a season with his glove. Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar ought to be practicing their bunting skills as I type this, and the Royals ought to consider bringing up every speedster in the organization for each Tigers series, including Jarrod Dyson, Derrick Robinson, and Willie Wilson.

My personal feeling is that Fielder will probably hit at close to his established level for 2012, and probably 2013 and 2014 as well…but as soon as 2015, when Fielder turns 31, he might quickly decline to the point where he isn’t worth $24 million or anywhere close to it. Tigers’ owner Mike Illitch is 83 years old, and has made it pretty clear that he wants a title now, and if Fielder’s contract is killing the Tigers when Illitch is 91 years old, so be it.

I go by my instinct, like everybody else does," said owner Mike Ilitch, who signed off on the massive deal after what had been a quiet offseason for the Tigers. "My instincts told me that this is going to work out fine."

Instinct is such a…quaint term in baseball. As Rick Peterson said, “In God We Trust; all other must bring data.” Pledging $214 million to a fat, slow, maladroit first baseman on the basis of instinct is the sort of 20th-century thinking that enabled data-driven teams like the A’s and Red Sox to beat up on their competition in the first place. This move reminds me of the moves the Royals made in Ewing Kauffman’s final years to win him another title before he died, culminating in the trade of prospects Jon Lieber, who would win 131 games in the majors, and Dan Miceli, who spent 14 years in the majors, for a second-tier closer in Stan Belinda, literally the day before Kauffman passed away.

Twelve years ago, the Tigers traded six players to get 30-year-old Juan Gonzalez, then offered Gonzalez an 8-year, $140 million contract extension. Gonzalez, showing the same wisdom that characterized his other career choices, declined the offer, saving the Tigers from having to eat literally half the contract four years later. I don’t think the Fielder contract will turn out as badly as the Gonzalez contract would have, but it could be close.

But if the contract goes rancid for the Tigers in 2015 or 2016, they still stand to benefit from it over the next three or four years. Which means that the Fielder contract will likely hurt the Royals more than it will 28 other teams. The Royals’ window to contend – and this is a gross oversimplification – seems to extend from now through 2017, when Eric Hosmer gains free agency. A hapless 2018 Tigers team might help the White Sox or Indians or Twins more than the Royals. But the Tigers have Fielder, Cabrera, and Verlander under contract for the next three years, and a competitive Tigers team from 2012 through 2014 stands to hurt the Royals more than any other AL Central team.

The Tigers don’t have much to surround that trio. Martinez, who will be 34 years old when he returns, coming off a year missed to injury, and possibly without a position, is making $13 million a season. Those four players alone will earn a shade over $77 million this year and next. The Tigers already have over $127 million committed in payroll for this season, and that’s with only 18 players under contract. The Tigers already have one of the majors’ weaker farm systems, and they just gave up their first-round pick. Even Mike Illitch has his limits, and the Tigers face an uphill battle to surround Cabrera, Fielder, and Verlander with enough talent to win 90+ games, given their financial constraints.

Only, as the signing of Fielder shows, it’s not clear that Illitch has any limits, or that the Tigers have any financial constraints. It’ll hurt them in the long run, but for now, Tigers fans have to be pleased that they have an owner who’s willing to prioritize winning over profits. Meanwhile, the Royals still haven’t completed a contract extension for Alex Gordon. That kind of sucks.

In the end, I think that the Fielder contract diminishes the Royals’ playoff hopes, at least in 2012. But it’s hardly a game-changer, even in 2012. Given the amount of youth on the roster, the Royals’ best-case scenario still trumps the Tigers’ best-case scenario. Verlander can hardly be better than he was last year, and might be substantially worse even if he’s really good. Victor Martinez hit .330/.380/.470 last season; the Tigers will miss his bat almost as much as they’ll appreciate Fielder’s. If they really play Cabrera at third base, a Cabrera/Peralta/Raburn/Fielder infield might earn the distinction of being the worst defensive alignment ever put forth by a contending ballclub. (Mind you, it didn’t hurt the Brewers when they tried the same thing last year, but this defense looks even worse.)

I’m a little less optimistic about the Royals for this season than I was before, but then in the minds of most people, 2012 wasn’t the year the Royals were supposed to start contending anyway. As soon as next year, when the Tigers have to figure out what to do with Victor Martinez, and Fielder is a year closer to the end of his reign as one of the game’s great sluggers, the impact of this contract on the Royals’ playoff hopes may be insignificant. It will certainly be far less significant than the Royals’ own efforts to find an impact starting pitcher or two, whether that be from outside the organization or from the development of someone inside the organization.

So basically, I wouldn’t lose a ton of sleep over this deal. It might come back to haunt the Royals if they win 88 games this season and the Tigers win 90. But if the Royals win 88 games this season, they’ll be almost certain to improve on that total from 2013 onward, and be poised to dominate the AL Central for several years, Prince Fielder or not. The Tigers took care of business last week, a very expensive piece of business at that. But as long as the Royals take care of their own business, not even a Prince will stand in their way for long.