Every year at the trade deadline, FanGraphs' Dave Cameron publishes his list of the best trade values in baseball and supplements that list with a few of the least movable players as well. This year, Cameron ranked Prince Fielder as the fifth most difficult player to trade and two days ago Prince Fielder got traded. This isn't at all meant to challenge Cameron's ability to recognize bad contracts, it's more about Dave Dombrowski's ability to move that which appeared immovable.
When something huge like this happens during the dead space between the end of the World Series and the Winter Meetings, everyone has an opinion and everyone writes and talks about it. There's little else to discuss, meaning just about every aspect of this trade has been dissected before you have a chance to really think it over. There were great analyses of the deal up before I went to bed on Wednesday and hundreds of others before dinner time on Thursday. Unfortunately, this kind of media cycle often pushes us to consider the short view. The quick analysis. Whatever we can get out there before people move on to the next story. That's fine and dandy, but sometimes a broader view is interesting.
There's plenty to consider about the $76 million the Tigers saved and the potential bounce backs of Fielder and Kinsler, but you have to also wonder what this trade says about the nature of big contracts and big trades. Two years ago the Red Sox unloaded their huge contracts on the Dodgers and this week the Tigers did the same. Maybe these huge deals aren't as deadly as we once believed.
The sample size is small, so this isn't any sort of grand analysis, but rather an idea about how teams might be able to sign big contracts that don't end up being so big. The Tigers lost Victor Martinez for all of the 2012 season and needed an impact bat to fill his shoes in the short run. You can't just go out and grab Mike Trout on a cheap one year deal, so the Tigers were in a bit of a bind. Those extra four or five wins looked to be critical and at that point in the calendar, there was nowhere to find them but in Prince Fielder.
So the Tigers signed Fielder to a 9 year, $214 million contract mostly because they needed a one year replacement for Victor Martinez. That's not really an exaggeration. The Tigers are desperate to win the World Series and that was the best way to maximize their 2012 odds. It almost worked too. They risked an 8 year, $193 million deal to win in year one.
The idea seems silly given what we know about huge contracts to players with limited positional value, but it actually makes a ton of sense if you can unload the deal two years later without paying full price. As it turns out, the Tigers ended up paying Fielder about $70 million over two seasons and then swapped him for Kinsler who they'll pay $60 million or so over four years. They got two years of Fielder and four of Kinsler for something like $130 million. That's not a terrible return on investment given how extremely valuable those wins were in year number one.
Without Prince Fielder, the Tigers probably miss the 2012 playoffs and despite his faults in 2013 his fWAR was higher than the number of games by which they won the division. That's not a perfect proxy, but it's not outrageous to say he was the difference. They paid a premium, but they offset that cost by finding another team who is equally as desperate to get back to the playoffs to take on the next few years of risk.
If you think about the money flooding into the game right now, it's not unreasonable to think more and more teams will be willing to take these kinds of long term risks if it means big short term gains. Prince Fielder was never going to be worth $214 million, but if he's going to be good enough to earn two-thirds of that, then teams can offset the cost by moving him around as he ages so long as the value in year one is high enough. It's basically contract hot potato. The Fielder contract looks scary in years seven, eight, and nine, but if you trade him once or twice the cost of those years starts to spread out to multiple teams. You can minimize your risk by trading him to a team that needs him bad enough if in the short run that they're willing to overlook the long run.
The Tigers signed him with that mentality. The Rangers traded for him with that mentality. Someone easily could do the same in two more years. As long are you aren't the team stuck holding the contract when it finally does go south, you're happy.
This is a big picture idea I've been kicking around for the last twenty four hours. There's a decent chance this is a one time thing and teams will wise up and avoid Dave Dombrowski's calls, but it's also entirely possible that this might tell us something about why Robinson Cano is holding so firmly to his $300 million price tag. Someone is desperate enough to win that they'll take the risk now while trying to figure out how to get out from under it later.
Maybe this is a story about Dombrowski being a savvy general manager, but it could be about the time value of money. Every season, at least one team is working with a pretty massive discount factor and is willing to mortgage the future for those extra couple of wins now. Maybe big contracts can work as long as you start planning for the day you're going to trade them before the ink is even dry.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Neil Weinberg is a writer and editor at Beyond The Box Score, contributor to Gammons Daily, and can also be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter at @NeilWeinberg44.