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Prince Fielder's Price Tag

The Mariners are in the running for Prince Fielder, on some level at least. I'd hope they look at him. He is the painfully obvious answer to energize an offense that's a year removed from being the worst in American League history. If money wasn't an object, there would be no debate over signing him.

However, money is an object. More importantly, it's an object that Prince Fielder will demand and receive. The Mariners (in my estimation) are not just Prince Fielder away from being a championship contender. He raises their expected win total considerably, but the M's need to be able to acquire other pieces, even if they secure Prince's services.

So, the real question is not whether Fielder is worth going after or not. What needs to be asked is how much is Fielder worth going after?

Let's start with how much Prince has been worth. Even though he is only 27 years old, he has already accumulated 6 full MLB seasons, playing every day. In those seasons, he has been worth $100.2 million according to FanGraphs. That averages out to $16.7 million annually. However, Prince obviously has developed since his rookie year, so not surprisingly, he's been worth a little more in recent seasons. He's been worth $66.9 million the past 3 seasons ($22.3 million annually), and was worth $24.6 million this past season alone.

$20 million a year is a fair starting place for Prince Fielder...which the Mariners can swing, by the way. More than $20 million came off the books this offseason (mostly thanks to Milton Bradley/Carlos Silva coming off the books), and Ichiro's $18 million salary is gone after this year (perhaps along with Ichiro too, but that's another post).

However, $20 million is only a good number as long as Prince Fielder keeps performing. Much of his value is wrapped up in superb power numbers, and when power decays, it doesn't come back. The dropoff is can be pretty fast too (look no further than Jack Cust and Ken Griffey Jr., some recent local examples). Furthermore, Fielder's body type has always been a concern. He doesn't look like a guy who will age gracefully.

All in all, Prince Fielder seems like a guy destined to fall off a cliff at some point. If he's still getting $20+ million once he's washed, his contract will be a franchise crippler. So, Fielder begs a couple questions: 1) Is he really the type of player who will fade extremely fast? 2) If so, when is he likely to fade?

My personal favorite tool to get a feel for a player's future is the Baseball-Reference similarity scores. B-R's model isn't built to be a career predictor, but I think there is quite a bit of wisdom in looking at history to tell the future. Similarity scores do a nice job of matching up relevant history.

Prince Fielder just wrapped up his age 27 season. Here are the 10 most similar batters to Prince Fielder through the same age:

  1. Eddie Murray - A Hall-of-Fame switch-hitter with over 500 home runs to his name, it's pleasing that Murray tops the list. He posted a pair of .900 OPS seasons, followed by a trio of .800 OPS seasons, right after his age 27 season. At 33 years old, Murray looked like he might have hit a wall when he dipped to a .743 OPS, but then surged back to a .934 mark at age 34. After that, he pinballed around the .700s through his mid to late 30s, with the notable exception of his age 39 year, when he was part of the potent 1995 Indians. All in all, after age 27, Murray had a couple more great seasons left in him, and many good ones. He would have been worth a long-term deal, though not worth paying elite money all those seasons.
  2. Juan Gonzalez - Injuries ultimately cut Gonzalez's career short (though I always felt he also was a bit of a mercenary; I think he got a bit lazy once he got paid), but he had three seasons with an OPS above .900, along with one above .800, after his age 27 season. After that, injuries took their toll, and he didn't play full seasons. Gonzalez would have been worth a four-year deal, and he would have earned the big checks over those four years.
  3. Jose Canseco - We know Canseco juiced, and presumably Fielder does not, so maybe this comparison should be thrown out. However, Canseco had eight and a half productive seasons at the plate after he was 27 years old, with a few duds thrown in - and the duds were league average, not complete collapses. Canseco's best years were already behind him by the time he was 27, but he was worth good (though not great) money for a long time.
  4. Mark Teixeira - Mark is only 31 years old, so we can't definitively say how his career has turned out. Since his age 27 season, he's enjoyed a couple great years (over .900 OPS), and a couple good ones (over .800 OPS). If the trend continues though, Teixeira's best days are behind him. It's not looking like he was worth massive money long-term.
  5. Greg Luzinski - The long-time Phillies masher from the '70s, Luzinski was great up through his age 27 season. Then, he had back-to-back seasons where his OPS didn't get over .800, which probably helped trigger a trade to the White Sox. That helped him find a mild career resurgence in his early 30s, as he posted 3 good seasons (.841, .837, .854 OPSs, respectively) before being completely washed up, pretty much overnight. Luzinski was never worth big money after turning 27, and in fact only had 5 years left in his career at that point - 2 of which were mediocre, and 3 that were nice.
  6. Darryl Strawberry - Unlike Fielder, Strawberry's age 27 season was disappointing, and he rebounded quite nicely for a couple seasons afterwards, before trailing off in his early 30s. Strawberry also had some significant issues with drug abuse, which presumably/hopefully Fielder does not have. Strawberry found some success as a part-time player in his 30s, but was done earning significant money just two seasons after he turned 27.
  7. Kent Hrbek - A key clog in the two Twins championships (1987 and 1991), Hrbek gently faded into the sunset over a long period of time. His highest OPS came when he was 27 years old, and it slowly declined for 7 seasons running afterwards, before he retired at 34. Hrbek was still an everyday player when he retired though, and his final OPS was .773 - hardly elite, but also quite respectable. He wasn't worth elite money for seven seasons, but would have been worth a long-term deal at 27 years old.
  8. Boog Powell - Although B-R's similarity score algorithm doesn't agree with me, I think Powell is the most comparable player to Fielder. His best season came as a 22-year-old, when he erupted on the scene as a precocious slugger. Afterwards, Powell was rather inconsistent, mixing in mediocre seasons with dazzling ones, though his age 27 season was among his best. This is remarkably similar to how Fielder has performed to date. As it turned out, Boog had another great season in him at age 28, and then 4 more good ones after that, followed by a last blaze of glory at 33 years old, and then he was pretty much done (though he played for two more seasons). Powell wouldn't have been worth elite money at 27. His best days were behind him, as it turns out, but he was a contributor for 6 seasons after the age that Fielder is at.
  9. Jim Rice - Rice had 6 quality seasons after he turned 27, though a couple of them clearly lag behind the rest. He was also a league-average player for two more seasons. His best seasons, save for his age 30 one, were behind him by the time he was 27.
  10. Orlando Cepeda - Unfortunately, Cepeda barely played in his age 27 season, thanks to a major injury. A glance at his numbers suggests that he never was the same player afterwards, though he was still good for the next three seasons, and serviceable for the next six (with a bit of a resurgence late in his career). His best days were also behind him by the time he had turned 27 years old, though he remained a contributor for many years.
With all those players chronicled, it should be noted that the most similar player to Prince Fielder by age has changed every year (although four of the six players are on the above list). This isn't about figuring out whether Fielder is the next Jose Canseco or Boog Powell - it's about trying to get a feel for what Prince Fielder is most likely to do.

In my estimation, there's a good chance that Prince Fielder's best seasons are already behind him. He's also coming off of one of his best years, which will drive up his market value. Historically, there is a very high correlation between the annual value of a player's contract, and how well they performed in the year immediately preceding their free agency. Fielder's particular scenario is one built for overpaying him. If I had to guess right now, it's going to take $25 million annually for 5-6 years to sign Prince Fielder.

Given the context, my gut reaction is that a team under my leadership wouldn't sign him. I'm pretty reluctant to overpay for talent, because it's an inefficient use of salary. I'd be even more likely to be stingy if I'm in control of a team like the Mariners, where I'm still trying to build a long-term core, and they don't have a payroll that allows for an overpaid core (though I don't think a core paid market value is out of the question).

With that said, many players that are similar to Fielder have been productive for a long time after the age that Fielder is right now. Most of them weren't as good as they were before, but still good. Given modern training and medicine, it's reasonable to be optimistic about Fielder's longevity.

Overall, if I were pursuing Prince Fielder, I'd be willing offer him a couple different contracts. He could sign a shorter term deal for more money annually. I'd be willing to give him $20-$25 million a year for 2-4 years. I'd start with something like 4 years and $80 million, and I'd be willing to go higher in negotiations. I'm not sold that Fielder would be worth the money, but he wouldn't be a sunk cost, and I doubt he'd hamstring the franchise with the relatively short deal, along with the production he'd provide.

If Fielder wanted a longer-term contract, I'd start with something in the 6-year, $100 million range, and I'd prefer to frontload it. Based on history, the odds are against Fielder maintaining his high level of production into his 30s. There's a decent chance he will still be a productive player at that point, but additional money would be needed to acquire other players to bolster the offense in the future.

To be clear, both of those numbers I threw out are starting figures. They would open up negotiations, so a final deal would likely be higher. With the shorter deal, I'd walk away at $100 million, if not sooner. For the 6-year model, even $115 million would be pushing it, though the structure of the deal would matter too. I think a front-loaded deal could make sense for both sides, though I've never really seen front-loaded deals struck in free agency.

Would either of these potential deals be enough to lure Prince Fielder to Seattle? I guess that would be up to Fielder to decide. My gut says no, but looking around the free agent market, I wonder who will pay him.