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Prince Fielder and the challenge of building through free agency

01.24.12 at 8:21 pm ET
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Slugger Prince Fielder's nine-year, $214 million deal with the Tigers underscored the unpredictable nature of free agency. (AP)

As the Red Sox prepared to reload after missing the playoffs in 2010, they faced something of a dilemma. They could part with three of their top prospects in an effort to acquire a superstar first baseman, or they could wait until after the 2011 season when there would be a potential once-in-a-generation ensemble of first basemen on the market.

The Red Sox, of course, chose the former route. Though it hurt to part with pitcher Casey Kelly, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and centerfielder Reymond Fuentes, the Sox were willing to do so to acquire Adrian Gonzalez on the condition that they were able to define the parameters for a long-term extension. The team chose that path not just because of its longstanding love affair with Gonzalez, but also because they were happy to avoid the murky terrain of free agency, a process that at times resembles a descent into dark underworld of Dagobah in which one never knows what one will encounter.

As one Sox official pointed out last spring, you simply never know who will jump in the bidding in free agency for a player and take him out of a reasonable price range. Moreover, the fact that the free market is not transparent further complicates the bidding process.

It’s become popular sport to ridicule the notion of the so-called mystery team, but suffice it to say that at the start of the offseason, no one anticipated that Prince Fielder would end up signing a nine-year, $214 million deal with the Tigers. Few thought that Albert Pujols would leave St. Louis in order to sign a 10-year, $254 million deal with the Angels.

Would the Red Sox have been able to afford either Fielder or Pujols on the sorts of deals that they signed, or Gonzalez for whatever he might have commanded on the open market? Maybe, maybe not. But what the Sox knew was that they could take the three-prospect needed to trade for Gonzalez and that they could afford his $6.3 million salary in 2011 as well as the seven-year, $154 million extension that will kick in next year and run through the 2018 campaign.

The Sox knew that they had a comfort level adding Gonzalez for his age 29-36 seasons at the value they established in negotiations with him. Whether they would have been similarly confident in the return on investment if they had to sign him through, say, his age 38 season, or if they had to pay Pujols through his age 42 season or Fielder through his age 36 season (given the likelihood that erosion of his somewhat limited defensive skills will turn him into a DH at some point in his deal) is not as clear.

All of that serves as something of a reminder about how difficult it is to plan to build through free agency. Unlike the trade market, which offers cost certainty, free agency inherently features guesswork that either can lead teams to bid against themselves or that forces them to blow past commitments with which they could expect performance to remain in line with contract size.

While Pujols and Fielder received the third and fourth contracts of $200 million or more in major league history, the Sox remained comfortably on the sidelines as the bidding process unfolded. It is hard to imagine that they were unhappy with that vantage point.

A look at the three first basemen:

PRINCE FIELDER

27 years old (turns 28 in May)
9-year, $214 million contract with the Tigers ($23.8 million per year)
2011: .299 average, .415 OBP, .566 slugging, .981 OPS, 38 homers, 120 RBI, 162 games
2006-11 average: .282 average, .391 OBP, .541 slugging, .932 OPS, 38 homers/year, 108 RBI/year, 160 games/year

Fielder is the youngest of the bunch, at an age that suggests he is just entering his prime, and that he’s likely to be the healthiest of the players over the coming few years (despite concerns that his massive frame will make it difficult for him to remain hold up for the long haul). He also put up huge numbers in 2011.

He’s been somewhat less consistent than Gonzalez and Pujols, having alternated MVP-caliber numbers with star (rather than superstar) level production in the last six years. His year-by-year OPS since his rookie year of 2006: .831, 1.013, .879, 1.014, .871, .981. His defense is also a notable step down from that of past Gold Glovers Pujols and Gonzalez, and the likelihood that he spends the life of his next contract as a first baseman (rather than a DH) is low.

Moreover, he has benefited from his home park, with a .965 career OPS at Miller Park and an .896 road mark. Still, his power is extraordinary, and his ability to impact a baseball while unloading with a monster swing bears resemblance to David Ortiz.

ADRIAN GONZALEZ

29 years old (turns 30 in May)
7-year, $154 million contract with the Red Sox ($22 million per year)
2011: .338 average, .410 OBP, .548 slugging, .957 OPS, 27 homers, 117 RBI, 159 games
2006-11: .297 average, .380 OBP, .520 slugging, .900 OPS, 31 homers/year, 103 RBI/year, 160 games/year

Gonzalez had his fewest homers since 2006, a development that was at least partly the result of the fact that he lost strength in his surgically repaired shoulder over the course of the year and that he suffered a mid-year neck injury that hindered his ability to drive the ball.

However, removed from the offense-smothering environment of PETCO Park in San Diego, he also performed near an MVP level, with the highest average and OBP of his career, along with the second highest slugging mark. Moreover, Gonzalez is in the middle of his prime.

With a healthy offseason of workouts in front of him, there is reason to believe that he is capable of sustaining or improving upon his 2011 performance in the coming couple of seasons, so long as he remains relatively healthy.

ALBERT PUJOLS

32 years old (turned 32 on Jan. 16)
10-year, $254 million contract with the Angels ($25.4 million per year)
2011: .299 average, .366 OBP, .541 slugging, .906 OPS, 37 homers, 99 RBI, 147 games
2006-11: .325 average, .424 OBP, .613 slugging, 1.037 OPS, 41 homers/year, 118 RBI/year, 152 games/year

Pujols is the oldest of the three, and he is at the end of what is typically a player’s prime offseason seasons, at a point where decline typically sets in. His career-low average, OBP, slugging percentage, OPS and RBI total suggest as much.

That said, his production was still remarkable, particularly given that he shook off a poor start and that he missed just two weeks after suffering a wrist fracture in the middle of the year. And he still assaults baseball’s with nearly unmatched force.

With Pujols, it is nearly impossible that anyone else can match his peak years. The question is whether the coming peak years of Fielder and Gonzalez might prove superior to the early years of his decline from his historic heights.

Which first baseman would you most want to build around given his contract?

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