Prince Fielder and Buying Wins
This afternoon, Jon Heyman sent out the following message on Twitter:
#Mariners are hoping to be in on Prince (but not Pujols). Unsure if there’s room in budget though. But will give it a run.
As Jeff noted in more depth than I’ll get into, this is basically not news – it’s pretty clear that there are a lot of prices up to which the M’s would happily sign Prince Fielder. $1 million a year? Obviously. $10 million a year? They couldn’t sign fast enough. $15 million a year? Yeah, they’d do that.
Of course, none of that matters, because Fielder’s actual price is going to be far above any of those numbers. He turned down a 5 year, $100 million contract a year ago (and reportedly didn’t even bother countering), and that was before he had the best year of his career and became a free agent. If he thought he was worth more than $20 million per season as an arbitration eligible guy coming off an okay year, he’s not going to settle for anything close to that as a free agent coming off a really good year. The reality is that Fielder’s probably going to get $25+ million per year, and the only real question is how many years he’ll get at that price.
That brings us back to Heyman’s statement that the M’s are not sure they can fit him into the budget. I know for a lot of you, the answer is as simple as “increase the budget”, but let’s look at the reality of that kind of roster construction plan.
As we’ve noted, a team full of league minimum replacement level players would be expected to win about 43 games, so to be a legitimate contender, a team needs 45-50 WAR. Tampa Bay had the lowest WAR total (+46) of any of last year’s playoff teams, so reality bears this out. The going rate for a win in the free agent market is about +5 million per win, give or take a bit depending on position and skillset. If a team attempted to buy their entire roster through free agency with a goal of accumulating +50 WAR, they’d need a $250 million payroll in order to make the strategy work. If they were really clever and took advantage of market inefficiencies, getting lower cost relievers and finding value with good defensive players, they might be able to buy +50 WAR for $225 million. Regardless, you’d need some kind of monstrous payroll to build a good team exclusively through free agency.
That’s why no one does it, and every team uses free agency as a way to add supplementary talent to cost-controlled players who were developed internally – even the Yankees. Teams can afford to pay $5 million per win for a few players on the roster, but the more market-rate players you add, the more it forces you to come up with quality low-cost performers elsewhere in order to make that kind of roster construction work.
A payroll of about $100 million means that your entire roster needs to be producing at an average of $2 million per win. That’s about where the Mariners are now, and that $2 million per win total has to be the goal. If they signed Fielder to go along with Felix, they’d essentially have two guys returning an expected +11 wins for about $45 million, or right around $4 million per win for the pair. That would leave the team with about $50 million to get the other 39 wins, which is simply not a reasonable request. Unfortunately, a team with a payroll under $100 million simply can’t pay the going market rate for wins to two superstar players unless they have an absolutely crazy amount of cheap young quality talent already in place.
You know how many teams in baseball had two players making $20+ million per year in salary last year? Two – the Yankees (Rodriguez, Sabathia, and Teixeira) and the Phillies (Howard and Halladay). The Yankees had a team payroll of $207 million, while the Phillies came in at $166 million. This year, the Red Sox (Crawford and Gonzalez) will join the club, and their payroll is expected to be in the $165 million range as well.
Even if the Mariners added $30 million to their payroll and came in at $125 million, they’d still be far below the spending threshold that other teams have achieved before they’ve committed market rate salaries to multiple star players. If you have the kind of revenues that the Yankees and Red Sox have, there’s enough left over to fill out the roster with good players even after spending $5 million per win on a few spots, but for 90% of the teams in baseball, that’s simply not the case.
This isn’t an issue of the M’s ownership just needing to kick a bit more into the pot so the team can afford a player like Prince Fielder. The M’s already have a player like Prince Fielder – he’s from Venezuela and he’s pretty good at that whole pitching thing. They’re getting Felix at a discount over his market rate, but he’s still getting paid at the level of a star quality player.
You want a roster with both Felix and Fielder making the kind of money the market has set for their services? Well, then, you either need a $150+ million payroll, or you need the rest of the roster to be made up of amazing players developed through the farm system who are making a fraction of what they’re really worth.
The reality is the Mariners don’t have either of those things. There aren’t enough low-cost kids producing at high quality levels to allow the team the ability to pay the market rate for two premium talents, and the Mariners simply aren’t in a position to have a large enough payroll to justify setting aside $45 million of their budget towards paying the market rate for wins. There just wouldn’t be enough left over to put together a realistic contender around those two, even if you decided that you weren’t re-signing Ichiro after the season and were going to allocate all of his money to Fielder’s future salary.
If the M’s have $25 million to spend this winter, they can’t simply just buy five wins, which is about what you’d hope for from bringing in Fielder. This is a team that needs to get something more like 12 wins for every $25 million it spends, and while Ackley and Pineda give them enough wiggle room to make allowances for extra spending in places, the M’s simply don’t have enough Ackleys and Pinedas to give them the room to have both Felix and Fielder and a roster around them that can be a viable contender.
At $15 million, the M’s could make it work. If you really stretched it and found value elsewhere this winter, you could maybe make $20 million work. $25 million, though? Sorry, but it just doesn’t make sense. Fielder will get his money, but he shouldn’t get it from the Mariners.