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Will Prince Fielder's Contract Rank Among Worst Ever?

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Nine years is a long time and $214 is a lot of millions. Will Prince Fielder's new contract with the Tigers someday take its place among other great financial disasters?

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A few years ago, I wrote a book about baseball mistakes.*

* It was a bestseller on the New York Times' "extended list of books given by Rob Neyer to friends, family members, and random Twitter followers".

It's a decently sized book and mentions many dozens of blunders, but I discussed at length only three or four contracts:

* In 1983, the Braves traded Rick Behenna, Brook Jacoby, Brett Butler and $150,000 to the Indians for power pitcher Len Barker. That was bad enough -- Butler, of course, would become a minor star -- but shortly afterward Barker was signed to a five-year contract extension, for $4 million. Which was a lot of money in 1983. For their $4 million, the Braves got 11 wins, 18 losses, and a 4.88 ERA in three injury-plagued seasons (he didn't pitch at all in two more seasons).

* Just after the 1989 season, the Royals signed free-agent reliever Mark Davis and free-agent starter Storm Davis; four years and $13 million for Mark, three years and $6 million for Storm. Yes, I know those figures seem but trifles today, but in 1989, $19 million was a lot of money. Here's something that might blow your mind: In 1990, the Royals' team payroll was $23.2 million ... and was the highest payroll in Major League Baseball. Anyway, the Davis Bros. were both utterly terrible and the Royals finished sixth.

* A decade later, the finances in Major League Baseball had changed quite a lot. In 2000, a big financial mistake wasn't blowing $19 million for seven years of two lousy pitchers; it was $172 million for 13 years of lousy pitchers.

Specifically, Mike Hampton (eight years, $121 million) and Denny Neagle (five years, $51 million) and the Colorado Rockies. I go on at great length about both pitchers in the book, but here's the nut ... Hampton "gave" the Rockies two seasons and a 5.75 ERA before they dumped him, and Neagle lasted just a tad longer but posted a similarly wonderful ERA (5.57). Oh, and there was a drunk-driving charge and a "solicitation" arrest, too. Fortunately, Neagle could afford the best legal representation.

After the fact, it's easy to suggest that Hampton's contract is the worst in major-league history. The others I mentioned really don't look so terrible, particularly compared to what's come since. Those were just the ones I felt like writing about. And of course, the Free Agency Era is littered with disastrous deals, involving -- and this is by no means a comprehensive list -- Barry Zito, Rennie Stennett, Alfonso Soriano, Darren Dreifort, Richie Zisk, A.J. Burnett, Wayne Garland, Carlos Lee, Magglio Ordoñez, Steve Kemp, Bruce Sutter ... the list does go on, doesn't it?

Again, this is easy in retrospect. Some of these deals looked awful at the time they were done; some looked perfectly reasonable but turned to shit anyway. In my book, I list three criteria for a great blunder: "Premeditation. Contemporary questionability. Ill effects."

Well, premeditation is a given when it comes to contracts.

I should define "questionability", because of course anything can (and should) be questioned. The real question is this: Could a reasonable soul, using the readily available tools, have made a case against doing this? When the Giants signed Rennie Stennett for five years and $3 million, he was coming off two straight horrible seasons with the Pirates. A reasonable soul might well have concluded after 1979 that Stennett was ready for pasture; instead the Giants committed $3 million. He played horribly for two seasons, then was paid for three more seasons to not play at all.

Ill effects? We'll get to those later.

First I would like to discuss reasonable souls and the contract that will pay Prince Fielder $214 million over the next nine seasons.

That works out to $23.8 million per season, which is roughly the going rate for top first basemen in their free-agency years. Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez are all in that general range. Per season.

Nine years, though? Yes, but it's important to remember that Prince Fielder is only 27. He turns 28 this spring, so when his new contract expires in 2020 he'll be only 36. Granted, 2011 wasn't a good year for 36-year-old hitters. But Lance Berkman, David Ortiz and Paul Konerko were all 35, and they did pretty well. Great players are typically productive into their middle 30s, if not beyond.

So in the abstract, the length of the contract, while astounding, does not seem ridiculous on its face.

We must yet answer two questions, though:

1. Is Prince Fielder a great player?


2. Will Prince Fielder age typically?

To the first of those, I will answer with a qualified affirmative. According to FanGraphs, over the last three seasons Fielder has been the 17th most valuable non-pitcher in the major leagues. And the seventh most valuable in the National League. Fielder's value, in case you're wondering, derives from two elements: his hitting, and his durability; he's a poor first baseman and one of the least useful baserunners you will find.

So yeah, he's a great player. Or has been one, certainly.

To the second of those ... Well, as I've written, there's never been a player built quite like Prince Fielder, which makes comparisons tricky.

Still, one needn't give up and FanGraphs' Ryan Campbell didn't. Last fall, Campbell collected "a list of 205 players who weigh more than 3.25 lbs per inch of height in order to construct an aging curve. To put that in perspective, a 6’0″ tall player would have to weigh a minimum of 234 lbs in order to be included in the sample."

Parenthetically, I will mention that such lists must be approximations because players typically weigh slightly more than their listed weight, and sometimes are slightly shorter. But a group of 205 players with relatively high weight-to-height ratios would seem to be fairly instructive in this case. While we keep in mind that Prince Fielder probably has a higher weight-to-height ratio than anyone in the actual study.

You should read Campbell's piece. Especially if you're a Tigers fan and like having the bejeezus scared out of you. There's a graph in there that's more terrifying than the first eight Saw movies put together (haven't seen the ninth one yet, can't comment). But here's Campbell's big finish:

While the data isn’t perfect, I think it is safe to say that signing Fielder to a Mark Teixeira contract (8/180) would be an incredibly risky move, especially considering some of the worst case projections have him providing only $122 million in value. While this figure only encompasses seven years of playing time, he will probably have decayed to the point where he would barely be above replacement level in year 8. Only time will tell if he continues to be productive into his 30′s like David Ortiz and Jim Thome, or collapses like Mo Vaughn and Adam Dunn. Either way, it is clear that his best days are behind him. Unless I am running a team that is a serious World Series contender over the next three seasons (flags fly forever), I am extremely reluctant to hand over the contract that Fielder and his agent Scott Boras are going to want.

Mind you, Campbell says an eight-year, $180 million contract for Fielder would be an incredibly risky move ... so what should we make of nine years and $214 million? Incredibly incredibly risky?

There are some tables in the article, in which Campbell projects a couple of good-but-heavy hitters for seven seasons. I made Fielder a 5 Wins Above Replacement player in Year 1, tacked on Years 8 and 9, and came up with a nine-season value of ... $150 million.*

* A few million less, actually, but I'm trying to be kind.

If Fielder gives the Tigers $150 million of value on the field, his contract won't rank among the very worst ever. And it'll be someone else's problem, anyway. Owner Mike Ilitch is 83, and probably won't be around in 2020. General manager Dave Dombrowski has already been running the front office for a decade and probably won't stick around for another nine seasons.

But again, when it comes to weight-to-height ratio, Prince Fielder is off the charts. He might age worse than the group that's available for study. He might age significantly worse than those other players did. If so, it probably won't happen because he doesn't work hard enough, or doesn't care enough.

Prince Fielder was born with the ability to develop into one of the most devastating hitters on the planet. He was also born with a body that's quite probably not designed for a long and productive baseball career.