Last Thursday, FOX Sports’ Jon Paul Morosi’s article on why the Blue Jays should sign Prince Fielder went viral. The Fielder craziness continued over the weekend, as CBS Cleveland “reported” yesterday that Fielder had narrowed his list of teams down to three — the Rangers, Brewers, and Blue Jays. That article, however, omitted a link to a published report and even the mere mention of a source, not to mention it was authored by an Indians beat reporter for a radio station.
Then, after touching down at the site of the winter meetings in Dallas late last night, Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos indirectly addressed the Fielder speculation to reporters by saying that if something leaks in the media, then it’s probably inaccurate. Add that to his previous comments with Paul Beeston regarding free-agent spending, and it’s safe to say that Fielder signing with the Jays is a pipe dream at best.
As unlikely as it is, though, given the offensive upgrade Fielder would bring, the Jays’ organizational depth at first base, and, outside of Joey Votto, the lack of elite first basemen on the free agent market in the years to come, taking a run at Fielder makes sense.
There’s not much that really needs to be said about Fielder’s ability at the plate; he’s one of the premier hitters in baseball, possessing both power and impeccable plate discipline. He’s averaged 32 doubles, 40 home runs, 101 walks, and a .951 OPS per season in the last five years, while getting on base 40 percent of the time over that span. Any way you put it, Fielder is an elite bat.
In Morosi’s article, he mentions roster construction as one of the main reasons the Jays should sign Fielder, and he’s absolutely right. Jose Bautista tied for second in MLB with 24 intentional walks last season, and having Fielder right behind him in the batting order would obviously change the way pitchers threw to the reigning home run leader. Fielder would be an upgrade over Adam Lind in practically every offensive category, with his splits being far superior as well — whether it’s hitting against left-handers, with runners in scoring position, or with two outs — but one area where Fielder would be most noticeable is in clutch scenarios.
In late and close situations (7th inning or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck), Fielder owns a career .310 average and 1.020 OPS in 611 plate appearances, including a .437 on-base percentage. In Lind’s 391 late and close plate appearances over his career, he’s hit just .229 with a .696 OPS, including a .275 on-base percentage. Plus, Fielder has been consistently better than Lind in high leverage situations. No more would we see Bautista draw a walk from an 0-2 count to keep a late-inning rally alive, only to see Lind swing at the first pitch or strike out swinging at an offering outside the zone.
It’s a crazy thought, but with Fielder in the lineup, Jays fans could actually be optimistic about the outcome when their cleanup hitter steps into the batter’s box during a clutch situation.
There’s probably not one Jays fan that wouldn’t want Fielder’s bat in the lineup. However, even though the Jays have the luxury of a deep-pocketed owner in Rogers, Fielder’s desired contract length is the main area of concern.
After rejecting a five-year, $100 million contract extension from the Brewers in the spring, Fielder is rumored to be seeking a free agent contract between eight and ten years. The market for his services, though, seems to be progressing a lot slower than initially anticipated, and there are only a handful of teams that could afford to offer him a lucrative long-term deal at roughly $20 million per year. ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted last week that the Brewers were open to stretching their initial offer to six years and $120 million, but that was shot down by Milwaukee’s GM Doug Melvin shortly after. With the Brewers unwilling to go past five (or six) years in their offer, one has to wonder if any of the other rumored clubs interested in Fielder — the Cubs, Mariners, Rangers, and Nationals have all been mentioned — would even be willing to put a seven, eight, or nine-year offer on the table.
Could the Jays, a team against offering seven-or eight-year free agent contracts according to Anthopoulos last night, somehow snag Fielder on a five-or six-year deal this offseason at a higher annual salary? Doing so would, as some people have already mentioned, allow Fielder to hit free agency once again in his early 30s. It would be a gamble on Fielder’s part, but if Mark Teixeira‘s contract with the Yankees is any indication, Fielder might not actually get the eight to ten-year deal that he’s looking for.
When Teixeira signed his mammoth eight-year, $180 million deal with the Yankees in December 2008, he was 28; one year older than Fielder is right now. Much like Fielder, Teixeira, represented by mega-agent Scott Boras, was a powerful first baseman with great plate discipline hitting the free agent market at a great time. In addition to his offensive ability, though, Teixeira was a switch-hitter that played Gold Glove defense at first and figured to age well given his athletic frame — all things that can’t be said about Fielder. On top of that, Boras was able to drive Teixeira’s price through the roof by organizing a bidding war between the Red Sox and Yankees for his client’s services, something that won’t occur as much this winter with Fielder not being a realistic option for either of those clubs. Fielder could very well get a lengthier contract offer this offseason, though it’s unlikely.
But back to the Blue Jays.
As an organization, the Jays aren’t exactly deep at first base in terms of prospects. David Cooper had a fantastic year with Triple-A Las Vegas, somewhat establishing his value and cracking the Jays’ roster twice in 2011, and Mike McDade matured at Double-A New Hampshire, putting together a solid campaign as a 22-year-old. However, if neither Cooper or McDade are considered to be the Jays’ first baseman of the future — and right now that seems to be the case — there isn’t one waiting in the lower levels of the Jays’ minor league system right now, either.
Dunedin’s Jon Talley broke out with 20 home runs this past season, but continued to struggle from average and on-base percentage standpoints. Lansing’s K.C. Hobson managed to hit 24 doubles, but lacked the power normally associated with first basemen, compiling a .333 slugging percentage in 128 games. Kevin Patterson fashioned a nice debut season between the GCL and Vancouver and could very well play for Lansing in 2012, but he just turned 23 years old. Art Charles drew 39 walks in 68 games for Bluefield while increasing his doubles and home runs over the year before, but he’s still has a long way to go up the minor league ladder.
Needless to say, if Fielder signed with the Jays, he wouldn’t exactly be blocking a prospect at his position.
Although a free-agent signing of Fielder’s magnitude certainly contradicts the game plan that Anthopoulos has established since becoming GM, there’s also the factor that there won’t be another first baseman of Fielder’s caliber at his age guaranteed to be on the open market in the near future.
If the Jays decided to keep Lind in the fold through 2013 and have him play out the final two guaranteed years of his deal, a few first basemen could be available via free agency that year, including Votto. Assuming that Votto even hits free agency at that point and does not re-sign ahead of time with the Reds, he would be 30 years old and probably the Jays’ best free agent option at that point.
Justin Morneau could also be available at 32 years of age, while Paul Konerko would be 37 and Todd Helton would be 40. After that, Miguel Cabrera would be 32 years old and possibly a free agent at the end of the 2015 season, along with a 29-year-old potential free agent Billy Butler, assuming his 2015 club option is exercised.
Fielder is the type of player that doesn’t come around too often on the free agent market, and likely won’t in the future. He would instantly upgrade and solidify a position that has been inconsistent and lacking power for the Blue Jays since the Carlos Delgado era, even if questions remained about his physical longevity at the position. Plus, Fielder has further cut down his strikeout rate while increasing his contact rate to an all-time high, implying that he could very well be tougher on opposing pitchers for years to come.