Column: Fielder, not Pujols, real ‘Prince’ of 2012 free agent class

By Ed Edens

On Dec. 10, news broke that shook the baseball world to its core: Albert Pujols had signed a 10-year contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Speculation had run wild that the newly relocated Miami Marlins were the front-runners for Pujols’ services, and baseball purists believed he would stay in St. Louis for the duration of his career. No one saw this coming.

The other superstar first baseman on the market this winter, Prince Fielder, has experienced a much less exciting offseason. Interest in him appears lukewarm, and even though pitchers and catchers start reporting to spring training in 25 days, he seems to have no idea where he will play in 2012.

It’s all a fluke. Teams refuse to express interest because they don’t want to drive the price up like middle aged men at a silent auction for charity. Every front office employee wearing his best poker face right now knows he has the chance to land the best free agent available this winter. No, not Prince Albert. Prince Fielder.

On the surface, anyone can see that Pujols and Fielder are two of the best baseball players of our day. Over the past four years, Pujols has hit .323/.421/.611 (BA/OBP/SLG) while Fielder has put up a comparable .284/.400/.537 line. During that time, Fielder has 150 home runs and 446 RBI’s, while Pujols has 163 and 468. The most important stats might just be 32 and 28: the ages of Pujols and Fielder, respectively, for the 2012 season.

The Angels’ signing of 32-year-old Pujols to a 10-year, $240 million contract is a high-risk, medium-reward situation at best and does not hold a truly significant impact. While his statistics speak for themselves and he just might be the best baseball player of the last half century, statistics also point to significant declines in performance once a player enters his early to mid 30s.

No one can assume he can maintain his current level of production over even half of his new deal. Pujols will be paid $30 million in 2021, when he is into his 40s. What are the chances he puts up numbers warranting that salary?

Regardless, the Angels can be excited that their potent offense is now coupled with one of the best pitching rotations in baseball, featuring Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, C.J. Wilson and Ervin Santana.
The Rangers, who also reside in the AL West, will be the only hurdle for the Angels to clear on their way to being perennial division champions.

On the flipside, the Cardinals’ loss of Pujols is not as devastating as the public makes it out to be. St. Louis will welcome the return of ace pitcher Adam Wainwright back from elbow surgery, and Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman figure to anchor the offense. The NL Central will also be weaker than normal this season, with only the Reds figuring to be legitimate title contenders. The bottom line: The movement of Pujols from the Cards to the Angels might seem drastic, but does not actually hold significant impact.

Let’s consider the case of Prince Fielder. The 28-year-old entering his prime is unlikely to command the same mammoth contract as his fellow slugger. He also has four fewer years of baseball mileage on his body and brings a left-handed bat. For his price, he will end up being much more valuable than Pujols, and will undoubtedly have a bigger impact on his future and former team.

For his entire career, he has played alongside Ryan Braun as a face of the Milwaukee Brewers franchise. With the news being leaked that Braun may serve a 50-game suspension for a performance enhancing drugs violation, the Brew Crew is now facing a dire situation. The loss of two of baseball’s best players, including the reigning NL MVP, is enough to cripple a team’s spirits and playoff chances.
Conversely, Fielder’s addition to the right team is enough to alter the landscape of the sport for the next decade.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Fielder signs with the Washington Nationals. A lineup that includes Fielder, Ryan Zimmerman and uber-prospects Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon would be terrifying to any opposing pitcher. Speaking of pitching, the Nats also have three of the best young arms in the game in Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez. With the Phillies continuing to age and the Marlins’ experiment of Reyes and Zambrano set up to fail, Washington could be looking at a close race with the Braves for the NL East title for years to come. Not bad for a team that has been a basement dweller for most of the last decade.

Other than the Nationals, the Texas Rangers are favorites to sign Fielder at this point. Unfortunately, that might be difficult after the signing of Japanese star Yu Darvish. The Rangers’ shiny new $60 million man might be the cornerstone of their rotation over the next half decade, but also has the potential to destroy payroll flexibility down the road. Add in the likelihood of signing Josh Hamilton to an extension, and suddenly the Rangers are strapped for cash. If they can squeeze out enough dough to lock up Fielder for eight years or more, Texas will keep pace with the Angels in the AL West and can expect to compete for World Series titles for the foreseeable future.

Just like in the case of Pujols, we cannot ignore the chance that another team becomes a bidder at the 11th hour. In this case, two teams come to mind. The first is the Toronto Blue Jays, who are stuck in the gauntlet that is the AL East and could be looking to make a splash and compete for a playoff spot after years of being overshadowed by the Yankees and Red Sox. With slugger Jose Bautista and Brett Lawrie ready to support Fielder in the lineup and flame-thrower Ricky Romero on the verge of a Cy Young-level breakout year, the Blue Jays could finally shift the balance of power in the division and take a run at a title.

The dark horse in this scenario is the Seattle Mariners. A team that hasn’t truly been competitive since the turn of the century, they are ready to go all-in. With Felix Hernandez, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton forming an above-average rotation and newly acquired catching prospect Jesus Montero ready to jumpstart the offense for Fielder, Seattle could be a scary team to face. It could lock up a few division titles down the road if the Pujols, Wilson, Darvish and Hamilton signings don’t produce the desired results for the Angels and Rangers.

Plenty can happen between now and opening day that will affect how people perceive each team’s chances this coming season. When the dominoes start to fall and Fielder picks an employer, however, perceptions will be utterly and completely altered. Who knows? Maybe the Brewers, Orioles or Dodgers could make a late push. Only one thing is certain at this point: The imminent signing of Prince Fielder will bring seismic changes to the landscape of major league baseball.

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