Prince Fielder, Free Agent Magnet?
Earlier today, the always-worth-reading Larry Stone weighed in on the subject of Seattle as an attractive destination for free agents. This comes up almost every winter, as some player the team may be interested in signs elsewhere and the reasons given are generally related to geography, weather, and the team’s overall travel schedule. The M’s are in the corner of the country, so getting non-locals to go to an inconvenient place to fly from is seen as a challenge, and when you combine those logistical issues with a bad team, it makes sense that the Mariners would have a hard time luring free agents to sign on the dotted line.
And, as with every discussion about anything this winter, the topic turned to Prince Fielder. An argument often levied in favor of signing him is that he’ll give the team credibility with other players, and the fact that they’d have Fielder under contract would make this a more desirable destination, allowing the team to sign more and better free agents.
It’s a story that makes sense, but one of the things we like to do around here is look at the evidence of things that seem to make sense and see if they actually play out that way in reality. So, to that end, here are the free agents that have signed with the Brewers since 2006, Fielder’s first full year in the Majors.
Honestly, I had to stretch the word significant a bit to include Gagne and Hoffman in there, as the team basically paid a premium for the proven closer label and offered each guy the ninth inning role, which almost certainly had more to do with attracting them to Milwaukee than the idea of being able to play with Prince Fielder. We can probably throw Suppan out of the sample as well, since he signed with the team when Fielder had a whopping 62 plate appearances in the big leagues. Also, I don’t know that “attracts the likes of Jeff Suppan” is something you want to argue as a positive anyway.
Essentially, the only free agent signing of any noteworthiness during Fielder’s career in Milwaukee is Randy Wolf, and they didn’t get any kind of bargain on him either. And remember, the Brewers have been mostly decent and occasionally good during Fielder’s time there, so they didn’t have to overcome the come-play-on-a-bad-team-with-me thing. One somewhat overpaid back end starter in five years… that’s not much in the way of evidence that signing Fielder will attract other free agents to join him in Seattle.
But, hey, maybe there’s something about Milwaukee that makes Fielder’s previous situation a bad example? So, let’s look at the other teams in the Mariners situation who have made big investments to try and gain some respectability.
2010 – Nationals sign Jayson Werth for 7 years/$126 million.
Last year, Washington tried this same tactic in buying respect by outbidding everyone for Jayson Werth. The only other notable free agent they landed last winter was Adam LaRoche, who they had to overpay to sign and is now a player they couldn’t give away. This winter, they’ve signed no one of note, and lost out on Mark Buehrle despite a public and aggressive pursuit.
2009 – Cardinals sign Matt Holliday for 7 years/$120 million.
This move was widely seen as an attempt to convince Albert Pujols of their willingness to do what it takes to put a winning team on the field, and was a big investment for a team that knew they were also going to have to pony up big bucks to keep Pujols around. We know how this story ended. They did manage to land Lance Berkman and Jake Westbrook in free agency last year, but Berkman essentially took the highest offer he got from an NL team since he didn’t want to DH, and like Suppan with Fielder, adding Westbrook is not really a feather in Holliday’s cap.
2008 – Dodgers sign Manny Ramirez to a 2 year/$45 million contract.
The Dodgers went on a big spending spree that winter, with Ramirez as the center of the plan. They also added Rafael Furcal (3/$30), Casey Blake (3/$18), Randy Wolf (1/$5), and Orlando Hudson (1/$4). In year two of the deal, their big addition was Vicente Padilla ($1/5). There’s not much evidence that any of these guys took less than market value to join Manny, or that these are the kinds of contracts you want to be able to sign.
2006 – Giants sign Barry Zito to a 7 year/$126 million contract.
With Barry Bonds at the end of the line, the Giants shelled out big bucks to land the supposed premier pitcher of the winter. They also landed Dave Roberts ($3/19), Bengie Molina (3/$16), Ray Durham (2/$14), and Rich Aurilia (2/$8). The next winter, they were able to land Aaron Rowand (5/$60). The only one of those deals that wasn’t a total bust was Molina, and he wasn’t exactly fantastic.
2006 – Houston Astros sign Carlos Lee to a 6 year/$100 million contract.
This was the big expenditure by the Astros, who were trying to energize their fan base and get back to the World Series, where they’d been just a year prior. Their other free agent that winter was Woody Williams (2/$12), who was a bust just like Lee. The next year, they were able to land Kaz Matsui (3/$16), and then 2008 saw Doug Brocail (1/$3) as the most significant free agent addition. No real significant free agents joined Lee in Houston, and they were pretty smart to avoid the situation, because the team’s massive overpay on an overrated hitter prevented them from actually putting a good team on the field.
I’m not trying to stack the deck against Fielder here, but I simply can’t find any recent evidence of a team signing a big free agent and then reaping the rewards of having other quality players join the team as a result. If there’s an example I’m missing where a player clearly took less than the best overall offer in order to become teammates with a certain player, I’d love to hear it. We do see players choose where to play based on family preferences, league preferences, odds of being on a contender, potential for playing time, geography-related decisions, and of course the most common “they offered me more money than anyone else” factor, but I don’t see much in the way of evidence that having a name value player actually attracts other free agents.
It’s a nice theory, and I get why people buy into it, but right now I don’t think we can say that it’s one that is supported by the facts. After all, the Mariners problem hasn’t really been that they haven’t been able to get free agents to come here – Adrian Beltre, Richie Sexson, Miguel Batista, Carlos Silva, Jarrod Washburn, and Chone Figgins all took the team’s money – but that those free agent signings have generally worked out horribly for the franchise.
Signing Prince Fielder won’t move the team out of the corner of the country, won’t make it rain less, and won’t reduce the amount of time the team spends on airplanes. The only way Fielder will help attract future free agents is if he helps the team win, as we know that contenders attract free agents that losing teams do not. If you believe that Prince Fielder will make this team a winner, then yes, he might help bring other players here. But there’s just no reason to believe that anyone the organization will want to sign is going to join a 75 win team simply because Prince Fielder is on it.
If you want to sign Fielder, do it for baseball reasons. Don’t do it for PR and marketing reasons, because there’s just no evidence that those kinds of ancillary benefits actually follow the player.