The Rangers appear to have re-entered the Prince Fielder sweepstakes. The free agent first baseman met with the front office yesterday, where he impressed them with his “trim and fit” figure. They engaged in what have been cited as “preliminary talks”, although Jeff Wilson of the Forth Worth Star-Telegram claims that Fielder is more of a back-up option in case the Rangers are unable to come to terms with Yu Darvish. However, there is little doubt that if the Rangers add Fielder this offseason, they will be unable to retain Hamilton when he hits free agency after next season.
Unfortunately for the Rangers, recent contract negotiations for corner outfielders like Hamilton have not been particularly team friendly. Jayson Werth signed a massive 7 year, $126 million contract last offseason, after three straight 5+ WAR seasons. At the time, the contract was widely considered to be an overpay for a 32-year old outfielder in a league with no DH. In 2011, the first season of his contract, Werth was worth 2.5 WAR, walked less (12.6% to 11.4%), struck out more (22.5% to 24.7%) and hit for significantly less power (.236 ISO to .157 ISO). Admittedly Werth got unlucky with a .286 BABIP (.324 career); however, if the decline in his peripherals continues, he will probably not remain an above average major leaguer.
Carl Crawford, the other major outfielder signing of last offseason, signed a 7-year, $142 million contract. Carl Crawford’s 2009 and 2010 seasons were excellent, producing 5.9 and 7.6 WAR, respectively. Crawford’s contract was also criticized as an over-invesment, considering much of Crawford’s worth was tied to his speed. Crawford’ excellent running made him a top defender, a prolific base-stealer, and allowed him to frequently extend hits for extra bases. Sure enough, a hamstring injury contributed to a slower Crawford, which completely demolished his value, down to only .2 WAR on the season. He went from a 18 UZR (fielding rating) to a -2.2 UZR, and his BSR (baserunning) score dropped from 7.6 to .2. In essence, he lost 2.6 WAR from declining speed alone. Perhaps frustrated with his newfound limitations, Carl Crawford also lost much of his plate discipline. His walk rate fell from 6.9% to 4.3%, and his K rate increased from 15.7% to 19.3%. Although some of the drop-off was BABIP-driven (fell from.342 to .299), some of that can be attributed to a loss of speed.
Like Werth, Crawford is unlikely to return to being a dominant outfielder; indeed, both players will need to work hard to remain above average. These two underwhelming signings might affect future outfielder contracts by making teams wary of making the same mistake, driving down the price for Hamilton significantly. B.J. Upton, Andre Ethier, Michael Bourn will also be a part of the free agent outfielder pool, and may serve to reduce the overall price of outfielders, much the way this year’s crop of closers served to cut Madson’s eventual contract down significantly. Even with these potential savings however, Hamilton’s aggressive fielding and hitting style could plummet in effectiveness if he is struggling with recurring injuries, the way his performance declined during the end of last season and in the postseason.
I’ve already written about Fielder’s best-case scenario projection here, so I won’t repeat myself save to say that I think he has the potential to earn something in the neighborhood of what he is paid. Obviously that isn’t taking into account his family history, and the profiles of other heavy hitters like him. Since I wrote that, Fielder’s contract demands have changed significantly: he is now seeking something in the neighborhood of 7 years, $25 million per year. The falling pricetag is largely due to Fielder’s market disappearing: the Cubs acquired Anthony Rizzo, and now only the Nationals, Rangers, and Mariners appear to be seriously in on Fielder, with the Nationals being the clear front-runner. Fielder has a better chance than ever of living up to his contract.
On balance, Fielder is likely to produce more than Hamilton over the length of their respective contracts, but will cost more. However, I think the Rangers will have an easier time finding a replacement for Hamilton’s outfield production, either by moving a prospect like Mike Olt to the outfield, moving Moreland to the outfield, or even signing a free agent alternative for less money.