Tigers' Prince Fielder singles in the seventh inning of the ALDS game 5. Fielder went 1-for-3 with one walk. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
Tonight’s popular storyline from Fenway Park will feature the Red Sox. There will be endless chatter about how Ben Cherington, the Red Sox general manager, paved the way to a Red Sox rebirth when he unloaded $270 million worth of contracts in a Richter scale-rocking trade with the Dodgers 15 months ago.
And the theme will be correct. The Red Sox got away with murder when in 2012 they jettisoned those $270 million of payroll balls and chains and had the new found freedom to remake their roster, which is generally favored to beat the Tigers beginning tonight in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.
The Tigers will, at some point if it hasn’t arrived already, be looking for similar freedom from Prince Fielder’s contract.
And it’s tough to imagine them finding an outlet that would match the good fortune Boston stumbled upon in the summer of 2012.
The Red Sox got their break when the Dodgers were bought. Not only was the purchase price absurdly high — $2 billion — but the new owners’ cash was so flush they could take on a quarter of a billion dollars in extra paychecks when they absorbed the Red Sox’s high-profile, highly paid freight (Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford).
The Dodgers have done fine with their end of the deal, which has helped put them into the National League Championship Series. But in this heist the Red Sox were the short- and long-term winners.
They were able to take their liberated dollars and spend them on multiple players who have given them the best balance of any team in baseball. That’s to Cherington’s credit, of course. But he needed something unfathomable to happen in order to make his grand design work.
And that came in the persons of owners Magic Johnson, Stan Kasten, etc. As they rolled into Chavez Ravine with their new Dodgers team in tow, they had Fort Knox at their disposal in redesigning the roster. They had as much money as was necessary to do anything they wanted. That included taking on three contracts that were about four times more than the entire A’s payroll from 2013.
The Tigers have a lot of money invested in a handful of players, as did the Red Sox in 2012. The difference is this:
The Tigers probably would love to unload only one of those salaries, Prince Fielder’s, although no one from the Tigers hierarchy has said a word in support of that thought, and no one ever will. What has changed from July, 2012, is that there isn’t today a single team in either league that would be enticed to take on the $168 million Fielder will be owed during the final seven years of his Tigers pact (it runs through 2020).
Note a single important word in that last sentence: today.
The Red Sox weren’t looking at any customers for Beckett, Gonzalez, and Crawford in the spring of 2012. An ownership change altered the market. And just such a disturbance, particularly if it happens in a pricey market, could make Fielder’s investment stock soar.
It would help, of course, if he has in 2014 a better year than he had in 2013. Fielder has been just OK this season, driving in 106 runs, but batting only .279, with 25 home runs – numbers the Tigers had every reason to expect would be higher.
He turns 30 next May. He obviously carries immense physical weight. He fields his position with vigor, but with no real deftness. A lot of ground balls that would be handled by good-fielding first basemen shoot past Fielder as he dives, albeit late, to snare them.
This is where the Tigers are confronting reality. His body and his soon-to-expire prime years aren’t likely to be a great timeline match. On the day Fielder signed with the Tigers in January of 2012, Dan Szymborski, a nationally regarded numbers cruncher of ESPN and FanGraphs fame, and inventor of the ZiPS Projections, released his season-by-season predictions for Fielder.
He had him batting .273 this season, with 32 home runs, and 96 RBIs. Fielder hit six points better, had seven fewer home runs, and 10 more RBIs. So, to coin a phrase, Szymborski was in the ballpark.
He has those numbers falling, steadily, during the remaining years of Fielder’s deal with Detroit – all the way to .248 in 202, with 13 homers and 50 RBIs. He pegged Fielder’s deal, in 2012 numbers, as worth $153 million overall compared with the $214 million Fielder will receive long-term.
The Tigers knew this, of course, when they signed him. There was no pretense on the part of Mike Ilitch that this was going to be a deal back-end friendly. Or, perhaps, front-end favorable, when you consider raw dollars versus raw performance, or, even non-performance.
Fielder can reduce all the numbers, of course, to a footnote, or loft them into irrelevancy, if he simply hits up a storm during these next few seasons.
For that matter, he could do it during this series with the Red Sox. But if he doesn’t, and the Red Sox prevail, the Tigers will be pondering what to do with a future financial, and tactical, problem they happily took on that winter day 21 months ago, when the news arrived about Victor Martinez and a workout accident that was about to change Detroit’s baseball team in dramatic ways.