As Jim Breen discussed earlier, the news that the Texas Rangers have had talks with Prince Fielder raises all sorts of interesting possibilities. For 2012, a Rangers team with Fielder at first base would pose a formidable offensive threat, given that first was one of their few holes when they were batting in 2011. A Rangers batting order featuring Fielder batting behind Josh Hamilton would be frightening for opposing pitchers, indeed. This much is obvious, but such speculation raises further questions.
Hamilton himself is currently set to become a free agent after the 2012 season, after all, and has recently given a Pujols-esque condition that he will not enter negotiations for an extension once Spring Training begins. Hamilton has had a very good run with the Rangers, of course, winning the MVP with a monster season in 2010 and leading the Rangers to their first of two straight World Series appearances. It is hard to say what sort of payroll the Rangers are budgeting for given all the new cable money coming in. The team seems determined to sign Yu Darvish, too. Perhaps they could afford long-term extensions for both Fielder and Hamilton on top of Darvish. But to engage in a bit of (non-unique) speculation, if they can only afford to either sign Fielder to extend Hamilton, which should they choose?
Both Hamilton and Fielder are excellent players, but both have questions about the level of risk a team would assume with a long-term contract. Jim wrote this morning that Fielder is a legitimate five or six WAR player, and while that struck me as a bit on the high side, it is not far off. Oliver (I would also look at ZiPS, but a ZiPS projections for Hamilton is not out yet, and I prefer to use the same projection system for both players) projects Fielder, who will be 28 in May( for a context-neutral .426 wOBA (.319/.419/.578) in 2012, which is about 55 runs above average over a full season. Given Fielder’s defensive and base running limitations, he is the sort of player for whom his offensive runs above average is the same as his runs above replacement, so even accounting for a bit of attrition, five or six wins seems about right.
Oliver projects Hamilton, who will be 31 in May, for a .375 wOBA (.306/.357/.523), which would be about 30 runs above average over a full season. Unlike Fielder, Hamilton is generally thought to play above-average defense, at least when he is in left field rather than center. He also is above-average at taking the extra base. So while Fielder has a big advantage with the bat, once position, defense, and base running are taken into account, Hamilton also projects at five or more wins over a full season.
Projections, especially of total value involving stuff like fielding, are not meant to be so precise as to make hard-and-fast distinctions on the order of half of a win. So how to decide between the two, if forced? (I will not dwell on the Rangers’ positional needs — in any case, with Mitch Moreland not posing a significant obstacle and Michael Young [Young's potential reaction to the Rangers signing Fielder might be enough to make it worth it if Young's playing time is at all threatened] being a free agent in a couple of years, that will not be a problem for Fielder, and the Rangers are not exactly rife with outfielders, either.)
A simple way of choosing might be to say that given everything else being basically equal, the Rangers should go with the younger player in Fielder. As usual, things are not that simple. Fielder is looking for a long-term contract — Scott Boras is said to want something rivaling Albert Pujols‘ deal with Rangers’ rival in the American League West, the Angels. Let’s leave that possibility aside and simply note that Fielder is going to want at least seven years. Even on a conservative estimate of dollars-per-marginal win and the growth in that number over the life of the contract, for seven years such a market would call for a $160 million contract for Fielder assuming he is a five-to-six win player at the moment. (I realize that all reports have Fielder and Boras aiming much higher, but I would simply say that is at least in part a negotiating ploy, and also that sticking with the “Pujols number” makes this post much less interesting. Hey, I’m a selfish guy. In any case, you can plug a slightly higher number if you want, say, eight years, $180 million.)
That would take Fielder through age 35, and such calculations also take into account an average rate of decline for veteran players. As has been noted, however, similar players to Fielder often drop off more quickly than usual after 30. While I personally think that the “old player skills” theory is sometimes overdrawn in general and with respect to Prince in particular (see the relevant remarks on Fielder here), there is a danger lurking here. It is typical for most teams to take a hit in the later years of a big, long-term contract, the question is whether a team would do worse with Fielder.
Hamilton is clearly the more “athletic” player, but before he gets crowned, there is an obvious question here, too: even if Hamilton is roughly of equivalent value to Fielder over a full season, when is the last time Hamilton played a full season of around 150 games? It was 2008, when he played 156. By way of contrast, since becoming a full-timer in 2006, Fielder has never played less than 157 games, playing 162, 161, and 162 the last three seasons, respectively. During those same seasons, Hamilton has played 89, 133, and 121. It should be acknowledged that he managed his great 8.5 win season while only playing those 133 games, but while that is a great season and Hamilton is an excellent hitter, that .447 wOBA performance was far above his true talent level due to a .390 BABIP.
Moreover, it is not just that injuries cause Hamilton to miss time and thus reduce his value, but at some point (and probably already) they are likely to cause a more rapid decline in his skills than a more healthy player of the same age. To be glib: Hamilton’s trips to the disabled list are at least as much of a concern as Fielder’s trips through the buffet line. If Hamilton projects the same (5.5 wins) for a full season as Fielder, once we adjust for more realistic playing time estimate for Hamilton, he is more of a four win player than a five-to-six win player.
So given equal size and length of a contract, I would say that Fielder is the better choice. While Fielder’s thirties may not be pretty, a team can be reasonably confident (at least as far as these things go) that they would get some prime performances up from Fielder. On the other hand, Hamilton’s body already breaking down, and while Hamilton could also DH, that would take away from his defensive value, something which an all-bat player like Fielder does not have to worry about.
But what about a possibility that I will leave as more of a question than an answer: what if Hamilton is willing to sign a shorter contract than Fielder? As I have stated above, given the same length and value of the contract, I would prefer to have Fielder. While Hamilton appears to be desirous of a contract comparable to, say, Jayson Werth‘s, he and his representatives may also be aware that his injuries and age (and, of course, how the Werth’s and Carl Crawford‘s contracts have played out in their first season) may scare some teams off (and that is without getting into the even-more-difficult-to-estimate risk stemming from Hamilton’s addiction issues) from that sort of large commitment.
Simply for the sake of argument: if Hamilton were willing to, say, replace this season of his contract with a five-year, $110 million contract, would that be a better commitment from the Ranger’s perspective than a longer deal with Fielder? I can see both sides of it — on one hand, the smaller commitment in general makes it a bit easier to exhale. On the other, Hamilton’s more advanced age and injury issues are already present, even the smaller deal is still paying him like a five-win player, and as noted above, that might be a bit much to expect given how many games his typically plays in a season.
All of this leaves aside the quite viable possibility that none of the contracts discussed above for Hamilton and Fielder are good ideas for the Rangers. But that would be boring.