Free agency, like a presidential election, starts its machinations long before the event actually takes place. Between now and the end of the 2011 season, Prince Fielder(notes) will play about 230 games, and yet here he is, a star first baseman bandied about in trade discussion, all because of something that looms in 16 months.
The Milwaukee Brewers are willing to entertain offers for Fielder, one of the game's preeminent power hitters, because the specter of his bolting for greater riches is palpable. His agent, Scott Boras, is throwing out Mark Teixeira(notes) comps – legitimate in production, if not body type and likelihood of aging well – and front-office sorts are still slapping their heads at Philadelphia gifting Ryan Howard(notes) a $125 million extension. If the market for Fielder is between that and Teixeira's $180 million, it's not only too rich for Milwaukee's blood but that of at least 20 other teams.
So Fielder's potential suitors fall into two categories: those who want to curry favor between now and free agency, and those who need a mercenary. The latter encompasses one team particularly: Tampa Bay, which, one source close to the team indicated, "won't go near the guy." Fielder's arbitration next year will take him to around $16 million, far too much for the Rays.
Should the Brewers decide to flip Fielder now, however, two teams make sense: the Chicago White Sox and San Francisco Giants. The White Sox have DH'd, among others, Omar Vizquel(notes), Juan Pierre(notes), Mark Kotsay(notes), Mark Teahen(notes) and Brent Lillibridge(notes). Fielder fits perfectly in an all-right-handed heart of the order. Unfortunately, Jake Peavy's(notes) season-ending injury not only put a damper on the White Sox's long-term prospects, it took the team's most attractive trade candidate, Dan Hudson, and thrust him into the rotation.
The Giants, on the other hand, have the sort of pieces (pitchers Madison Bumgarner(notes) or Jonathan Sanchez(notes) and minor league first baseman Brandon Belt), along with the gaping lineup hole, to facilitate a move for Fielder. Their budget, troublesome because of Barry Zito(notes) and Aaron Rowand's(notes) painful contracts, would need to stretch, though Fielder adds enough value to keep the Giants in contention this year and make them dangerous in 2011.
The Brewers’ options would open up significantly after the season – and it's why Milwaukee may instead hold on to Fielder until then. Boston will need a first baseman if Adrian Beltre(notes) leaves and Kevin Youkilis(notes) shifts to third, or a designated hitter if David Ortiz(notes) departs. Other teams with beaucoup bucks in need of a DH: the Los Angeles Angels, New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers.
All of this could be Milwaukee posturing, of course, sticking its toe in the pool. It's lukewarm right now, though it being July, the sun can beam down and heat it up right quick. Teams get desperate, get crazy, get deluded by the slightest successes or failures …
1. And that's how Prince Fielder ends up in a new uniform. Which is funny, because the way Fielder fills out a uniform colors so much of the opinion about him.
It's still difficult for scouts to get past Fielder's body. He is fat. He is indeed quite fat. Listed at 5-foot-11 (probably an inch shorter in reality) and 270 pounds (probably a few more than that, too), Fielder is an original. No player in Baseball-Reference.com's database dating to 1901 carried so many pounds on such a squat body. Thus, finding a comparable player for aging purposes becomes a particularly trying task.
Perhaps it's best, then, to consider his bloodlines. Now, any comparison to Cecil Fielder surely would enrage Prince, who is estranged from his father after he allegedly gambled away Prince's signing bonus. Still, Cecil's obvious girth dovetails with Prince's, and they share many characteristics statistically as well.
Cecil put up back-to-back MVP runner-up seasons at ages 26 and 27, then continued strong for a couple more years until he turned 30. After that season, he turned in seasons of 11, 8 and 1 percent better than the league-average OPS. At 34, he was terrible. Fielder never played again.
Prince is 26. He will hit free agency before his 28-year-old season. Boras will demand at least six years. And all of this is material, because for all the pop Fielder can provide …
2. Brewers slugger Corey Hart(notes) is drawing significantly more interest than Fielder. Much of that is a function of his position, right field, as well as a boffo first half in which Hart bopped more home runs than Fielder.
While the likelihood of Hart continuing to outmash Fielder is minimal – almost 20 percent of his fly balls are going over the fence, 7 percent more than his career average – his cost next season (about $9 million) makes him more attractive. While Fielder fits San Francisco's needs better, one scout said the team is focusing on Hart.
Milwaukee wants to cash in on Hart's start, too, and its tack with him …
3. Is in diametric opposition to the Washington Nationals' with Adam Dunn(notes). GM Mike Rizzo said publicly he does not want to trade Dunn. Then Dunn said the Nationals haven't been nearly proactive enough on a contract extension. The truth is likely in the middle. The Nationals want to keep Dunn – at a price. And Dunn wants to stick around in Washington – at a price. Those prices are polka dots and plaid.
And so with Dunn ready to test free agency and sign for more than the $20 million deal he took when the market bottomed out two years ago, the onus is on the Nationals. Dunn will leave, and surely they can do better than two draft picks for him. Rizzo has shot high – too high, one scout who has seen Dunn said – in his asking price, and the market for Dunn mimics Fielder's. However beauteous his power – and, my, does he hit balls a long way – Dunn's glove was broken in by an ugly stick.
Only so many teams need a bat-only ballplayer …
4. While every contender could use an outfielder like David DeJesus(notes), whose ability to play all three positions competently, not to mention get on base at a .390 clip, makes him quite desirable.
Kansas City knows that, and its asking price, one interested front-office type said, is "silly." The Royals want a major league-ready prospect, along with at least one midlevel prospect or a pair of lower-level players. Perhaps it's not so silly when considering the options Kansas City holds on DeJesus.
The Royals can pick up an affordable $6 million option and dangle him again in the offseason or next trade deadline. They can decline the option, offer him arbitration and take a couple draft picks. They can pick up the option, hold on to DeJesus and hope their farm system – quickly becoming the best in all of baseball – starts spitting out enough next year to patch together a contender.
Or they can spin him now and let the team that acquires him figure out the best route. Because any player of his caliber with a $6 million contract …
5. Is beloved to teams with budgetary constraints, making Ty Wigginton(notes) and the million or so dollars left on his contract look like AAPL stock in 2003. Never mind that since May 15, Wigginton is hitting .214 with a .301 on-base percentage and .276 slugging percentage. He is cheap. He is versatile. He is on a team in Baltimore …
6. That wants to sell its spare parts while it can, much like the Houston Astros are doing by shopping Brett Myers(notes). He's cheap, too, at about $1 million for the rest of the season with a $2 million buyout on a mutual option for 2011.
Myers has turned into a junkballer as he approaches his 30th birthday, throwing fewer fastballs than all but eight starters. Makes sense, considering it's two miles per hour off from his average velocity in the past, but Myers' mastery of a slider – a pitch he never threw until his fifth season – is what has kept him successful this year.
In 129 innings, Myers has a 3.35 ERA and is giving up a half-home run fewer per nine innings than over his career. He will be en vogue to teams …
7. Too cheap to splurge on Ted Lilly(notes), whose expiring contract and strong outing against Philadelphia rekindled interest that had abated after he gave up 16 runs his two previous outings. How Lilly gets by on his 86-mph fastball is the sort of mystery that only Jamie Moyer(notes) can answer, and Lilly may well be his generation's version of Moyer, a left-hander who found success and stability later in his career and lasted forever because of his ability to outsmart hitters.
Only Moyer, Livan Hernandez(notes), Mark Buehrle(notes) and Barry Zito throw slower fastballs than Lilly's, and yet FanGraphs pegs it the 12th-most effective in baseball this season, which speaks to Lilly's ability to command the pitch and keep hitters off-balance. His appeal stretches all the way to the top of the food chain, where the New York Yankees need another finesse left-hander after Andy Pettitte(notes) strained a groin that will sideline him for a month.
It's either Lilly …
8. Or Roy Oswalt(notes), and the Yankees are about the only team that could fit the $23 million left in his contract for the next year and a half onto their budget. Therein lies the quandary of the 2010 trading deadline: So many teams are so strapped for cash, they would pay a higher price in prospects for Brett Myers and Ted Lilly than they would for Roy Oswalt.
It's a shame. Oswalt hasn't pitched this well in four years. His 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings are higher than they've been since his rookie season. His command remains impeccable. His fastball is back to its proper place among the league's best. And unless Houston owner Drayton McLane swallows a piece of Oswalt's contract or takes a lesser package of prospects – both unlikely – Oswalt will continue …
9. Going through the sort of rebuilding process from which Dan Uggla(notes) may be spared. It's about that time of year, for the Florida Marlins' annual garage sale, and right out front, next to the big wheels and ugly lampshade, is their All-Star second baseman.
Uggla is unabashedly himself: He strikes out a ton, he's a butcher on defense and he hits the seams off the ball. Stick him in Colorado, which Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd should've done a month ago, and not only are they breathing down San Diego's neck, Uggla is turning the humidor into a joke. He was born to play in Denver, or at least the '90s version of the Rockies. Seeing him launch home runs at Coors Field would be …
10. Nearly as much fun as watching Prince Fielder play there every day. Except that won't happen. The Rockies tried the big contract with a first baseman, and Todd Helton's(notes) deal continues to limit any contractual flexibility.
Only a few teams can indulge in an expensive first baseman when the defensive value is negligible and nearly all of the player's contributions come from the bat. It's why the 2012 offseason will be so fascinating. It's not just Fielder. It's Adrian Gonzalez(notes), San Diego's nonpareil first baseman who's every bit the hitter of Fielder, twice the defensive first baseman, a far better leader but two years older. And it's the possibility that St. Louis somehow screws up its negotiations with Albert Pujols(notes) and the generation's best hitter splashes into free agency.
Oh, there are others in that class – Hart and Uggla, Jimmy Rollins(notes) and Rickie Weeks(notes), Jonathan Broxton(notes) and Jonathan Papelbon(notes) and, most interesting, possibly CC Sabathia(notes), who in a miserably weak pitching class can opt out of the last four years and $92 million of his Yankee contract – but it will be the Hot Stove season of the first basemen.
And the first shots are being fired now on behalf of a hitter who never looked quite right in his uniform, who strikes out too much, who may not age well but whose ability to hit home runs – to do the one thing so scarce in baseball today – not only renders such perceived inadequacies moot but could make Prince Fielder the king of 2012.
- Cecil Fielder