Seattle Mariners Free Agent Candidates: Prince Fielder

Prince Fielder, 1B/DH

Bats: Left, Throws: Right

5-11, 275 lbs

28 years old

 

What we like

Power hitter from the left side

Still in his 20s

Professional bloodlines, father Cecil was among league’s best sluggers at one time

 

What we don’t like

Bad body, and bloodlines don’t lend themselves to prolonged success

Will be expensive

 

It seems like déjà vu as the Mariners enter another offseason with the majority of the fanbase clamoring for a “bat” and the sabermetric community sifting through the values and trends of potential candidates. The top candidate of interest, it seems, is Prince Fielder.

Fielder is a seemingly prototypical hitter for Safeco Field. He has the kind of power that transcends even the deepest fences and toughest hitting environments, he hits from the left side, and he plays a position the Mariners have had problems filling consistently basically since their inception. That being said, there is a pretty serious groundswell of Fielder detractors.

Normally a player with a prolific slugger for a father would engender nothing but praise, but the Fielders: both Prince and Cecil, share some potentially damning characteristics. Like his father, Prince is a large man, and many are worried that he’ll have a steep decline like his old man. Cecil was one of the best sluggers of the early 90s, but at age 32 he had his last season with more than 10 runs above replacement. Three years later he was retired, after falling off a cliff in terms of production.

But the younger Fielder has been extraordinarily healthy throughout his career, having played no less than 157 games since becoming the Brewers full-time first baseman in 2006. He’s hit 30 or more home runs in five of the six seasons he’s played in the majors, he’s struck out only a slightly-above-average rate, while walking at an above-average rate, and has posted an ISO over .200 in every season he’s played, and posted an ISO of .300 or higher twice.

Are we unfairly biased against plus-sized sluggers? Well maybe not. The sample size may be tremendously small, but considering what the general public knows about the health complications of being overweight, there is probable some credence to the number crunching community’s reservation to crown Prince the King of all things slugging for the next half decade or more. Only two of the guys who weigh more than 260 lbs have had significant careers before their 27th birthday: Adam Dunn and Carlos Lee. There may be no better middle point between Lee and Dunn than Fielder in terms of peripherals used to project future performance. Lee is a contact guy who strikes out very little, hits for some power, but doesn’t walk a ton. Dunn on the other hand, is all power, walks, and strikeouts, and may be the best example of a “three true outcomes” guy in the history of baseball.

Fielder hits for some contact, strikes out some, walks some, and hits for more power than Lee and less than Dunn.

But one common thread between Dunn and Lee—at least early in their careers—is that both of them played outfield. Lee remains in the outfield part time, though like Dunn he’s made at least a part time move to first base. Both of them are way better at first base than they are in the outfield, as they were each really bad in the outfield defensively, and they’ve both been about average at first base (Dunn a little below, Lee a little above).

Though Lee has remained productive, he’s seen some drop off in power, and we saw Dunn’s production drop precipitously this year.

A pretty good argument could be made that Dunn and Lee were both more athletically gifted than Fielder at the beginning of their careers, and perhaps that doesn’t bode well for Fielder’s future. You see, Fielder is already a below-average defensive first baseman, and will probably only get worse, though he’s played nearly three times as many innings as Dunn and Lee at first base combined, so his stats have had time to stabilize.

The other consideration, is that the Mariners presently have two of their top young hitters at first base and DH, two of Fielder’s likely destinations, and as such, his value can’t be weighed against nothing, but rather must be compared to marginal gains over Mike Carp and Justin Smoak, and also, presumably, a left fielder, as Carp could figure to be a large part of the Mariners 2012 left field plans if the team acquires a top-level hitter at the first base or DH positions.

Despite being arguably the best hitter on the roster in the second half of the season, Carp was only worth a half win last season, and may be due for a negative regression. Carp’s .343 BABIP is unsustainable, in all likelyhood, considering Carp’s skill profile, and his 24.8 percent line drive rate would rank sixth best in the majors if he’d done it over a full season. Though his 17.6 percent HR/FB rate isn’t on top of the league, it does rank him among some of the league’s best power hitters. Chances are, Carp is going to be worth between one and three WAR next year, as his offense will probably regress negatively, while his defense figures to be better statistically.

By contrast, Justin Smoak has been a big time tough luck hitter. He’s had a lower BABIP than he’ll probably carry for his whole career, and a lower HR/FB rate than expected. Chances are though, his biggest regression will be in terms of line drives. He saw a 10 percent drop in line drive percentage this year, and should be a lot better next season. Maybe he’ll never be a .300 BABIB guy, but chances are he will hit for more power and line drives this year than he did last. I really think that Smoak has five-win potential, but I’ll put a conservative projection for next year at two wins.

Considering that Fielder has bounce between essentially four and six win seasons, if the Mariners signed Fielder to a contract worth $20 million per season, they’d be paying about market value for Fielder in terms of marginal gain. Paying market value for wins is a quick recipe for mediocrity, the Mariners are likely a couple years away from contending. The team would have to pay upwards of $40 million before they’d get relevant contributions from Fielder, and at that point he’d be entering his 30s, and considering the strikes against him physically, he may be due for a steep decline when that time rolls around.

Unless the Mariners can sign Prince Fielder to a team friendly deal (highly unlikely), it seems like he’s not a great candidate for the team.