Nobody in baseball, with the possible exception of Roger Clemens, has had a better week than Prince Fielder. He was the captain of the National League’s Home Run Derby team, his round, beaming face a fixture of the ESPN telecast. He was the most valuable player of the All-Star Game. And minutes after the game’s completion, his Milwaukee Brewers announced they had acquired reliever Francisco Rodriguez in a trade, a major roster-addition as the Brewers prepare for a second-half race with St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati for the NL Central title.
In an indirect way, Fielder himself was behind the Rodriguez deal. The Brewers aren’t a rich team, and their farm system is mostly depleted by some aggressive trades made by their front office over the past 24 months. But with Fielder set to reach free agency after the season, and with the Brewers holding little hope of re-signing him, the team understood its window of opportunity for a World Series title may have been down to its final few months. To their credit, the Brewers went all-in for this stretch run.
Fielder’s free agent value may not have been bolstered by one swing of the bat in the All-Star Game – it was his three-run homer that gave the NL the winning runs in its 5-1 victory – but it certainly didn’t hurt. Nor did his slick fielding at first base – he handled four grounders flawlessly, highlighting the fact that despite his size (he is listed at 5-11, 275 pounds) he is a graceful defender.
Even before the all-star performance, Fielder, with a first half that included 22 homers and a league-leading 72 RBI, may have positioned himself as the top free agent of this coming off-season – a subjective honor that, prior to opening day, was mostly reserved for Albert Pujols.
Even if Pujols’s career track record is better – in fact, it’s unparalleled among active players – and even though pundits were tossing around figures like $200 million or even $300 million in estimating his market value before the season, the more pertinent number these days is 31. That’s Pujols’s age. A significant drop-off in his numbers this season (his .857 OPS in the first half is nearly 200 points below his career mark) underscores the notion that whoever signs Pujols to his next deal will be getting a great player who nonetheless will be heading into the decline phase of his career – if he hasn’t arrived there already.
Fielder, on the other hand, just turned 27 in May, and four years after becoming the youngest member of the 50-home-run club in history, he is still growing as a hitter – as evidenced by the career-high .415 on-base percentage he is putting up this season. He is also durable, having played in at least 157 games in every full season he has spent in the majors. And as with Pujols, his effort and dedication are rarely questioned.
“One of the most impressive things [about Fielder] is he plays every day and he always plays hard,” said Brewers teammate and fellow all-star Ryan Braun. “A lot of guys claim to play hard. [But] a lot of great players don’t run balls out. Prince runs every single ball out. He plays every single day. He competes every day.”
If the primary drawback for Pujols, in terms of his pending free agency, is his age, for Fielder it is clearly his body. Historically, players with Fielder’s body-type suffer steep drop-offs in their 30s. The list would include Mo Vaughn and Fielder’s own father, Cecil, both of whom were essentially done as productive hitters by age 33.
Fielder’s size “drives him,” said Braun. “I really believe that. There’s a perception he can never escape because of his body type. [His size] is not for a lack of effort. It probably has more to do with genetics than anything else. It’s something he’ll always have to fight [and] it’s something that motivates him all the time, to prove to people how athletic he really is, how much he cares, how much pride he takes in proving he can have success with the build he has.”
Even if Fielder follows the career trajectories of his father and Vaughn, that leaves five more productive years before his age-33 season. A five-year deal is unlikely to be enough to sign Fielder this winter, but there is a common understanding in baseball in deals such as this that a team accepts the risk of having to swallow a couple of unproductive seasons at the back end of a deal in order to gain the talents of an elite player during his prime.
It will be interesting to watch agent Scott Boras work his magic this winter for Fielder. Typically, Boras uses the Yankees and/or Red Sox to drive up the market for his top free agents, but both AL East teams appear set at first base for years to come. But there will be no shortage of well-heeled suitors for Fielder, including potentially the Cubs, Angels, Dodgers and (if Pujols leaves) Cardinals.
And let’s throw the Nationals in there as well. As proven by the $100 million offer to Zack Greinke last winter – on top of the $126 million they gave Jayson Werth – the Nationals are looking for elite players who will take their money.
Imagine Fielder hitting cleanup between Ryan Zimmerman and Werth in 2012. There might not be a better heart of the order in the league.
And try not to imagine Fielder and Werth in 2017, at ages 33 and 38, respectively, and pulling in something close to $50 million between them. With Fielder, as with all top free agents, the dream works better when reality is pushed aside.