Albert Pujols will turn 32 next month. It’s very possible that his best seasons are behind him. He just signed a 10-year, $254 million contract with the Angels.
Prince Fielder, 27, is entering his prime. He had the better 2011 regular season. Scott Boras can argue that Fielder will outperform Pujols over the next decade — and is therefore entitled to a larger contract.
Frankly, I agree with that point of view. But it has a pretty significant flaw: If a team was willing to bid that high, Fielder would have a 10-year, $255 million contract in hand. For now, he doesn’t.
That could change. But perhaps Boras and Fielder have found that it’s one thing to state a logical case and quite another to find a team willing to spend, on average, $25.5 million per year for a first baseman.
Fielder isn’t the problem. Boras isn’t the problem. The marketplace is the problem.
Most prudent teams avoid allocating more than one-fifth of their payrolls to any one player. In order to pay a first baseman $25 million while maintaining a credible supporting cast, a club must carry a payroll of $125 million or more.
As of Opening Day 2011, only six clubs had payrolls of at least $125 million, according to USA Today. Five of them — the Yankees, Phillies, Red Sox, Angels and White Sox — have established first basemen. The sixth is the Chicago Cubs, who not surprisingly are viewed by some as the favorites to sign Fielder.
When a superstar client hits free agency during the optimal offseason, Boras can set records (see Rodriguez, Alex). That is not the case here. But rest assured: Fielder will be paid a fortune to play first base for someone in 2012.
Something to watch: Fielder could sign a four-year, $120 million contract, which would beat Pujols’ average annual value, allowing Boras to claim victory while preserving the right to re-enter free agency at the age Pujols is now.
Here’s a look at where the Fielder market stands, with 11 shopping days left before Christmas.
WE KNOW THEY’RE IN
Cubs: Almost by accident, the Cubs are Fielder’s most plausible suitor. Fielder wouldn’t need to switch leagues or divisions. He would be a force at Wrigley Field, where he owns a career 1.003 OPS. Fielder, who lives in the Orlando area, would prefer to play east of the Mississippi. The Cubs have a big payroll and must reinvigorate their fan base. There are no guarantees that a marriage will happen. But it would make a ton of sense.
Mariners: If Fielder signed with the team that wanted him the most, he would become a Mariner tomorrow. The franchise must reassert its relevancy after consecutive last-place finishes and an accompanying sag in attendance. Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik drafted Fielder in Milwaukee. But there are three strikes against Seattle: No big league city is farther from Orlando; the team lacks an obvious candidate to offer lineup protection; and the Mariners are more than a few players away from becoming a playoff team.
Orioles: In some ways, the Orioles are an eastern version of the Mariners. They have a yawning need for a big bat, but their chances of contending in the American League East are so slim that Fielder may be reluctant to sign there. But if owner Peter Angelos decides to make a statement by offering Pujols-type money, Fielder could stun the baseball world and go to Baltimore.
WE CAN’T RULE THEM OUT
Blue Jays: The last time a well-known Prince came to Canada, William and Kate visited Ottawa and Yellowknife on holiday. Fielder is an ideal fit for the Blue Jays, for a number of reasons I outlined last month. All at once, he would make Toronto’s lineup one of the best in baseball, while adding star power for the Blue Jays’ national television presence and giving fans reason to expect a postseason berth.
Rangers: Much to Boras’ dismay, the Rangers don’t appear to be as serious about Fielder as some observers forecasted. Sources told FOXSports.com this week that the Rangers are more focused on acquired a cost-controlled starting pitcher than a high-priced slugger such as Fielder. The Rangers’ payroll flexibility has tightened, at a time when it is becoming more expensive to keep the existing core together.
Nationals: The Nationals don’t need a first baseman. Adam LaRoche should be back after missing most of last season, and cleanup man Mike Morse has shown he can handle the job. Then again, the Marlins didn’t need a shortstop, and look what they did. General manager Mike Rizzo believes he has a team to compete with the Phillies and Braves; so while pitching is the team’s greatest need, signing Fielder would be entirely in character.
STRANGER THINGS HAVE HAPPENED
Yankees: This is a longshot — sort of like acquiring A-Rod from the Rangers during the epic offseason of ’03-04. What if the Yankees signed Fielder to play first base and then dealt Mark Teixeira for a starting pitcher — like, say, Matt Garza? Teixeira is younger than Pujols but half as expensive (five years, $112.5 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts). One major roadblock: Teixeira has a full no-trade clause. So, file this under Fun to think about but probably won’t happen. A decade ago, the Yankees might have signed Fielder to be their designated hitter instead of giving Jesus Montero the opportunity. But the franchise is different now.
Cardinals: Well, we know the Cardinals were willing to pay about $200 million for a fine first baseman not too long ago. Was that a one-time, Albert-only offer? Probably, but we can’t be completely certain. Because of Allen Craig’s injury, the notion of Fielder to St. Louis has been upgraded from “very doubtful” to “just plain unlikely.”
THEY’RE OUT … WE THINK
Marlins: The winter meetings champs are (apparently) done hiring away big talent from other teams, now that Pujols spurned them for the Angels. One team official said the Marlins have not been pursuing Fielder and have no plans to do so. Their next big target may be Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.
Red Sox: Ironically, the logic behind a Boston pursuit of Fielder would mirror that of the Yankees. They could sign Fielder and flip Adrian Gonzalez for pitching. But one Red Sox official said the team is not considering that possibility. Gonzalez’s seven-year, $154 million extension won’t even kick in until 2012, so the move would be particularly unwieldy.
Giants: Unless they move big contracts off the books, the not-long-ago champions just don’t have the money. The San Francisco ownership is keeping an airtight payroll.