Some team is going to spend a small country's GDP on Prince Fielder(notes) this winter, and it's going to regret it, because that's how this silly sport works. Baseball free agency is the great equalizer, the foible that turns high-revenue teams' inherent advantages into a symphony of sad trombones.
General managers go blind to age, injury histories, declines or, in Fielder's case, corpulence. Owners fall prey to agents with brilliant marketing schemes and serpentine tongues; Fielder's representative, Scott Boras, is the greatest practitioner of the former and wielder of the latter. They ignore red flags and hoist white flags, surrendering every last bit of business sense to chase a vision.
Ah, the free market – as efficient in baseball as the real world.
Prince Fielder (left) hit two home runs in a weekend series against the Cardinals, while Albert Pujols cooled off.
It's on the docket today because Fielder is the hottest player in baseball: eight home runs, 16 RBIs, 10 walks and just four strikeouts over 34 at-bats in June. He is, of course, hitting free agency in November at age 27. The issue with him and the rest of his free-agent brethren is not how much they're worth – on the open market, that's immaterial – but how much they'll get. And were bidding to start today …
1. Prince Fielder, one agent said, "would get more than anyone." It's a bold prediction, though one that, upon examination, makes sense.
Here is the agent's theory: While Albert Pujols(notes) remains a more talented player than Fielder – marginally so, but still enough that he should receive more on the open market – few in baseball see him leaving St. Louis. And should the Cardinals see Pujols' struggles as the first sign of a descent and drop their offer below $200 million, Fielder's willingness to seek the highest bidder could result in the sort of salary spike Boras excels at orchestrating.
The agent's guess: eight years, $200 million, which would make him the second $200 million man, or maybe the third, depending on how the …
2. Albert Pujols negotiations go. Since his five-homers-in-four-games binge last week, Pujols has stagnated with an OPS at .823. Considering where he was a few weeks ago, it's a great recovery. Considering where he has been the past 10 years, it's more on the LeBron side of the Dirk-LeBron Continuum.
Remember, Pujols entered the season in search of $300 million. Only Alex Rodriguez(notes) has received a contract for more than $189 million, and both his $250 million and current $275 million deals were so ill-advised and ill-fated that the Beastie Boys could've licensed them.
One by one, his potential suitors have picked themselves off. The Chicago Cubs' debt issues likely prevent them from dropping a Godfather offer on Pujols. The Los Angeles Dodgers' owner prefers to spend his money on a septuagenarian Russian healer. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox already locked first basemen into long-term deals and wouldn't dare lavish a DH with nine figures. All that's left are the Washington Nationals (linked to Fielder because Boras' psychic sway over owner Ted Lerner) and the Los Angeles Angels (whose owner, Arte Moreno, no matter how desperate, knows not to break the bank for a 31-year-old first baseman).
The agent's guess: seven years, $193.2 million, or $27.6 million a year, which would make him average-annual-value king for a multiyear deal and save some face. While Pujols was busy losing himself $100 million …
3. Jose Reyes might gain himself a nine-figure bump should he can some of his dynamism now and release it come the September stretch run.
Because at the moment, Reyes is among baseball's five most exciting players and a candidate to match Carl Crawford's(notes) seven-year, $142 million deal – which is the latest in a long line of Boston stinkers, from Daisuke Matsuzaka(notes) ($103 million for 4¼ seasons) to John Lackey(notes) (four years left on a five-year, $82.5 million deal) to J.D. Drew(notes) (five years and $70 million worth of above-average, if patently uninspired, baseball).
It's Reyes' magic number because he steals bases the way Crawford used to; plays a more demanding position (shortstop); hits for more power; will be a year younger at free agency (at 28); and produces at an MVP level when he's healthy.
Which is infrequently enough for one of those red flags to wave like it's a Soviet Union rally. But no. Teams trust their trainers and luck, and free agency was made for someone like Jose Reyes, who still hasn't fully realized his greatness.
The agent's guess: seven years, $145 million, around the number that …
4. Carlos Beltran(notes) wanted when he signed with the Mets nearly seven years ago. He settled at $119 million. Statheads will argue he has earned it (Beltran's 29.6 Wins Above Replacement translate to $121 million, according to FanGraphs). Mets fans, meanwhile, will pop bubbly bottles the day it expires. Fred Wilpon will continue to be a schmuck.
Beltran is 34, that curious age where some players thrive and others lose their bearings. He can't run anymore and plays marginal defense in right field. His bat remains enough of a weapon to make up for both issues. His .863 OPS is better than those of Andre Ethier(notes), Carlos Gonzalez(notes), Colby Rasmus(notes) and Jayson Werth(notes), who last offseason signed for $126 million.
The agent's guess: three years, $36 million, the sort of feat only Boras could pull off and the kind of money that …
5. Jimmy Rollins might get, based on his numbers and comparables. The numbers are rather damning: an OPS of .687 this year, 11 percent below the league average, which comes a year after he was 15 percent below and two years after he fell short by 13 percent.
Rollins always was a voracious outmaker, though it was palatable when he was hitting with some pop, stealing bases regularly and playing Gold Glove-caliber defense. Only the steals remain, and that isn't worth much on the open market.
What are: Rollins' name and profile. He means enough to the Phillies that they could try to Jeter him – albeit not at three years and $51 million since Philadelphia's budget crunch could make that tough. That would leave Rollins without a home, but at a position thin enough that there will be no lack of suitors.
The agent's guess: three years, $39 million, and more for who he is than what he is. Shortstops, even ones past their expiration date, still draw suitors. Not as many, of course, as …
6. CC Sabathia(notes) will this offseason. True, technically Sabathia isn't a free agent. He owns an opt-out clause from the rest of his Yankees contract, and unless he is in the business of leaving tens of millions of dollars on the table, he will exercise it.
And why wouldn't he? At 30, he remains baseball's best left-handed workhorse. (Though it is worth tracking his dipping strikeout rate, even if suitors will fully ignore its warning signs.) Currently, the top free-agent pitcher is C.J. Wilson(notes), and he'll get his five years and $75 million from someone. Yu Darvish may arrive from Japan and find himself lowballed. (Arigato gozaimashita, Daisuke.) It leaves Sabathia on his own plateau, miles above the rest, this the contract that could take him to 300 victories.
The agent's guess: eight years, $185 million, because he's oxygen to the Yankees' blood, and perhaps if CC stays away from the Cap'n Crunch he'll surpass …
7. Heath Bell in a weight-loss contest. Bell completes this free-agency class' tripod of heft and is every bit as accomplished at his job as Fielder and Sabathia are at theirs. Since the Mets dumped Bell five years ago, he has grown into the National League's best closer – though, again, there is the matter of a tumbling K rate, down from 11 per nine last season to 7.1 per nine this year.
Bell, too, will be one of the best test cases in the post-K-Rod-contract climate for closers. Francisco Rodriguez's three-year, $37 million deal with the Mets screamed desperation; and if K-Rod manages to finish 55 games this year, they'll get hung with a $17.5 million option next season. No matter how good Bell is, beating K-Rod's deal – which, at the time, the industry regarded as something of a bargain – will take one loon willing to spend.
The agent's guess: three years, $35 million, which fits someone with Bell's mentality but would leave …
8. Jonathan Papelbon(notes) wanting more. Notably, Mariano Rivera(notes) money, $15 million a year, to pitch one inning at a time, probably over 65 games, which means about a quarter-million per appearance, around $83,000 an out and at least $2,500 per breath.
Earlier this season, Papelbon at least was pitching like Rivera. Then came June, during which he yielded as many runs in the first 10 days as he did over the previous two months. He's gotten unlucky with balls in play, and his strikeout and walk rates both bode well for Papelbon's 4.33 ERA.
Still, he's dreaming if he continues to think of Mo money.
The agent's guess: two years, $25 million, a higher per-annum figure than Bell and the same amount …
9. David Ortiz is making this year as Red Sox designated hitter. Both Ortiz and Papelbon present interesting cases for Boston, as the contracts of Kevin Youkilis(notes), Jon Lester(notes) and Dustin Pedroia(notes) start to squeeze their payroll and Lackey's continues its stranglehold: In an offseason potentially full of change, can they afford continuity?
Big Papi is earning his part as much as anyone on this list. At 35, he rediscovered the swing of his prime and ranks near the top of the American League in nearly every hitting category. He's hitting righties and lefties, fireballers and soft-tossers, stars and bums – an equal-opportunity game-snatcher. And now the Red Sox, the same ones who started 2-10, own the American League's best record.
The Red Sox conduct themselves about as sentimentally as a mortician, so if they do allow Ortiz to walk, it's all business. They did it with Manny, with Nomar, with so many of their past stars. Still. This is Papi, Boston's lifeblood.
The agent's guess: one year, $14 million – and from the Red Sox. Not because they're sentimental but because they see some of the indicators, like just 28 strikeouts in 237 at-bats, and see the sort of new hitter …
10. Prince Fielder grew into this season. Fielder's dip in strikeout rate, from 23.9 percent of his at-bats last year to 13.1 percent this year, indicates a maturing hitter, one who has found that power and contact can coexist harmoniously.
It's just that, for $200 million, a team can't go after a player whose defining characteristic isn't his power or his newfound skill but his weight. The media guide lists Fielder at 5-foot-11, 275 pounds. Each number is kind.
Power hitters, especially big ones with no defensive value because of their position, do not age gracefully. And that archetype fits everything about Fielder.
Someone will pay. Teams always do. Free agency works wonders like that. It creates frenzies and turns groups full of the learned into risk-taking gunslingers. It makes rich men of fools and fools of rich men. And it may turn a Prince into this winter's King.