We learned the awful news yesterday that Prince Fielder’s playing career is probably over. After 12 seasons and 319 home runs (the same number his father had, amazingly enough), the 32 year old will have to find a new direction for his life. It’s sad on both a baseball and a personal level, and certainly I hope that Fielder can live a normal healthy life unencumbered by his neck problems.
If there is any good news in this scenario, it’s that Fielder will be landing on one hell of a cushion. Thanks to the dogged work of Marvin Miller, Donald Fehr, Michael Weiner, and the strength of the MLB Players Association, MLB contracts are guaranteed. All Major League players owe them a debt of gratitude. So even though he will not be able to play for the next four years, Fielder will not officially retire. He will presumably remain on the 60 day DL for the next four years. And he will still collect all of the $96 million owed to him.
That contract, of course, was born of desperation. When Victor Martinez tore his ACL near the end of the 2012 offseason, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch panicked. Fielder was still on the market, unable to command the kind of massive deal that a guy who had averaged 40 homers over the previous five seasons would normally garner. Teams were (as it turned out, rightfully) worried about Fielder’s aging curve and were shying away from longer than a five-year deal.
But Ilitch, ever in pursuit of his elusive world championship, negotiated directly with Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras. Boras, perhaps the best agent of all time, got his client nine years and $214 million. Waiting to sign was a calculated risk that wound up paying massive dividends for Fielder (and Boras). For the Tigers, it was helpful in the short term, but with Martinez and Miguel Cabrera both back in 2013, it created a huge 1B/DH crunch that moved Cabrera briefly to third base.
That’s when Dave Dombrowski pretty much saved the Tigers’ bacon by sending Fielder to the Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler (seriously, whatever he was making before he was fired, it wasn’t enough). Kinsler has since been worth around 14 wins for the Tigers and has actually out-hit Prince, while Fielder has been below replacement level due to his injuries and bad defense. The Tigers agreed to pay $6 million a year to subsidize Fielder, meaning that they are still on the hook for $24 million themselves. The Rangers owe Fielder the rest, $72 million, much of which will presumably be covered by insurance.
The lessons of Prince Fielder are myriad (and are similar to those that the Yankees are demonstrating with Alex Rodriguez). First, it’s a bad idea for an owner to negotiate contracts on his own. Second, players get paid in free agency based on their past performance, not their future performance (and rightfully so, given how underpaid they are in years one through six). And, finally, there are no take-backs. Once a team agrees to pay a player a certain money over a certain number of years, they will be on the hook for all of it. So be careful with these long and expensive deals.