Hey Big Spender, Buy Prince Fielder

In just about every conversation about the 2012 Dodgers recently, the topic of “needing a big bat” has come up. Fans say it all the time. Ned Colletti even said it earlier this week. Of course, doing so is easier said than done; aside from the big two of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, the list of available free-agent bats this winter is sparse, full of past-their-prime guys who may be decent additions to a good lineup, yet are hardly “the big acquisition”.

I say “aside from Pujols and Fielder” because, despite the visions of sugarplums and fairies Dodger fans get in their heads when they think of non-tendering the infuriating James Loney – and believe me, I hear from the “let’s get Pujols/Fielder!” crowd a lot – and pairing superstar Matt Kemp and a healthy Andre Ethier with their new first base toy, the ownership mess makes that all but impossible.

Or does it? ESPN’s Jayson Stark argues today that it might make such a splash even more likely:

They’re headed for a 17.5 percent attendance plummet, the largest of any team in this sport. And you don’t need to be a descendant of Walter O’Malley to understand why.

These people are appalled by the owner. That’s essentially why. So to lure them back, the Dodgers realistically have two choices:

A) Frank McCourt can take the hint and give up his surreal battle to keep hanging out in the owner’s box, or B), the Dodgers need to do Something Big to show what’s left of their fan base that, contrary to popular belief, they’re still trying — and, whatever that is, it had better lead to a whole lot of winning on the field, in a hurry.

Well, it’s clear by now that McCourt never got that “it’s-time-to-get-out” memo. So that leaves Plan B. If Frank McCourt really intends to hang onto his team and make this work, what other choice does he have?

Now, it probably comes as very little surprise to you that I don’t really buy this. If they had money, they’d best be throwing gobs of it at Kemp and Clayton Kershaw. Still, it’s a fun thought exercise – and in the midst of a four-game set against Pittsburgh, this is what we have right now – and recent hot streak aside, if you’re serious about upgrading the offense, you can’t possibly be entertaining the idea of giving Loney $6-$7m next year.

So let’s tackle the two major issues: #1, can they afford a Pujols or Fielder? #2, and infinitely more interesting, should they, even if they can?

1. Can they actually afford either?

As the great Reverend Lovejoy once said, “short answer, yes with an if, long answer, no with a but.” Both first basemen will be shooting for something in the $25m annual value range, with Fielder likely getting something under and Pujols perhaps at or more, if only because of his historical stature. The fact that traditional big spenders like the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, Tigers, Angels, and others are largely set at first base might help keep bidding wars down.

For all the fun we had with the bi-weekly “hey, you think McCourt will make payroll” game earlier this season, the Dodgers still had a payroll of roughly $100m this year, plus another $15m or so in dead money to guys like Manny Ramirez, Juan Pierre, Jason Schmidt, and Andruw Jones. (Those figures aren’t 100% exact, but I’m painting in broad strokes here – for the purposes of this conversation, close enough.) That’s not as high as it should be for a team in Los Angeles, but nor is it the level of Tampa Bay or Kansas City. Given that the MLB loan McCourt secured is supposedly enough to last at least into next season, and that MLB claimed it would be as close to business as usual as possible, there may be some room to make moves.

Now, the Dodgers do have some money coming off the books. Casey Blake, Jonathan Broxton, Vicente Padilla, Jon Garland, Rafael Furcal,and Jamey Carroll combined to make $32m this season. (Most of this information is coming from TBLA‘s great payroll sheet, by the way.) None are expected to return, though the group does have about $6m in option buyouts and deferrals to deal with, for a savings of about $26m. Assuming you’re not bringing Loney back and factoring in both hefty arbitration bumps for Kemp, Kershaw, & Ethier and back-loaded increases for Juan Uribe, Matt Guerrier, Chad Billingsley, and Ted Lilly, the 2012 commitment is currently at something like $78m, plus $14m in continued dead money. (Upside: no more Schmidt!)

Assuming that any large contract the Dodgers would sign would almost certainly be back-loaded, it’s in theory possible. Figuring that low-salary 0-3 types like Javy Guerra, Tim Federowicz, Dee GordonKenley Jansen and others would play larger roles next year, you could start the first year of a contract off with, say, $16m, allowing you an extremely small amount of breathing room to fill out the roster. You could also attempt to sign long-term deals with Kemp, Kershaw, or Ethier that lowered the 2012 commitment while extending them more guaranteed money over the length of the deal. That’s both unlikely – imagine the Dodgers signing two big deals this winter – and not always the best strategy, as we’ll see. Or you could look into trading Ethier for prospects, which is again unlikely, particularly as his value is at its lowest as he rehabs from knee surgery. Besides, spending from a team in bankruptcy isn’t completely unprecedented; just look at the Rangers acquiring Cliff Lee and others last year.

So is it possible? If you skimp in a bunch of other areas, if Pujols or Fielder is willing to take a somewhat lower salary in the first year, if the bankruptcy and court messes don’t end with a drastic reduction of payroll, and if McCourt goes with Stark’s plan of “I have to do something to win the fans back”, sure, why not. As the good Reverend says, “yes with an if”. Lots and lots of “ifs”.

2) If they can, should they?

Here’s where it gets fun, and here’s where I think my opinion will differ from a lot of casual fans. You ask the average Dodger fan on the street, “do you want to see Prince Fielder next year?” and you can imagine that the response would be mildly positive. And I have to admit, the thought of Kemp & Fielder/Pujols hitting 3-4 on a team that has Kershaw leading the staff is pretty tasty. That trio alone gets you pretty far.

But as you saw in the first part, that’s about all you get. Say goodbye to another year of Hiroki Kuroda. You probably can’t afford to chance several million on tendering Hong-Chih Kuo. Unless Juan Rivera and Rod Barajas are willing to play for the minimum, they’re gone too. That means you’re filling out the roster with a lot of youth, and while that’s not necessarily bad, it’s very risky because it leaves you with very little depth. It means that Gordon and Justin Sellers are probably your double-play combination. It means that Uribe has to be healthy and contribute at third base, and Jerry Sands has to nail down left field. With all of those guys in the lineup, that makes your bench Russ Mitchell and friends. It means that beyond Kershaw, you have to pray that Lilly and Chad Billingsley regain consistency, and beyond them? The back of your rotation is filled by untested youngsters like Nathan Eovaldi & Allen Webster and the Dana Eveland/John Ely retreads of the world. The one place where this isn’t a problem is in the bullpen, which was already largely staffed by youth like Guerra, Jansen, and Josh Lindblom, has Guerrier returning, always seems to pick up at least one Mike MacDougal-type, and has reinforcements on the way in Shawn Tolleson, Steven Ames, and more.

Is that worth it? I don’t know that it is; investing such a big chunk of your payroll into one player rarely ends well. Look at the Twins, who gave Joe Mauer $184m starting this season; injured, he’s hit just .287/.360/.368 with three homers as Minnesota has sunk to last place.

Look at Cot’s list of the 27 $100m+ contracts. If you eliminate the ones that are less than halfway through (not enough time to judge, fortunately for Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford) and the ones signed by the Yankees (who are playing a completely different sport), you’re left with thirteen deals:

Alex Rodriguez, $252,000,000 (2001-10)
Manny Ramirez, $160,000,000 (2001-08)
Todd Helton, $141,500,000 (2003-11)
Johan Santana, $137,500,000 (2008-13)
Alfonso Soriano, $136,000,000 (2007-14)
Vernon Wells, $126,000,000 (2008-14)
Barry Zito, $126,000,000 (2007-13)
Mike Hampton, $121,000,000 (2001-08)
Carlos Beltran, $119,000,000 (2005-11)
Ken Griffey Jr., $116,500,000 (2000-08)
Kevin Brown, $105,000,000 (1999-2005)
Carlos Lee, $100,000,000 (2007-12)
Albert Pujols, $100,000,000 (2004-10)

Five of the thirteen can be termed as outright disasters – Soriano, Wells, Zito, Hampton, and Lee. (That’s not to suggest that the players never provided any value to their teams, just that it was in no way commensurate to the value of their contracts.) Griffey, Brown, and Santana had their moments after signing but their return on investment was largely ruined by injuries. (Yes, this is more “subjective” than “scientific” – I could equate WAR to dollars – but I think these are pretty accurate categories). That leaves us with Rodriguez, Manny, Beltran, and Pujols. All four performed at a high level over the length of their deals, though Rodriguez’ contract was such a crushing weight that the Rangers were forced to trade him after just three seasons.

That’s not exactly a great rate of return, and the risk is magnified even further when discussing Pujols and Fielder. Pujols is unquestionably one of the all-time greats; in addition to his feats at the plate, he is an excellent fielder and baserunner, two attributes which should not go unnoticed. He’s also turning 32 in January, and you’ll find more than a few people in and around baseball who still believe that he’s actually a year or two older than that, as so many Latin prospects turn out to be. He’s also having one of the worst years of his career while dealing with his first serious injury. To be fair, I could hardly type that last line with a straight face, since “the worst year of his career” still has him leading the NL in homers and has an OPS over .900  after a miraculous return from an injured wrist. Still, he’s likely going to end up at around 5 WAR, the first time he’s been under 7.5 since 2002. Even the great Pujols is not immune from the passage of time, and it’s hard to argue that giving him a massive contract that mostly encompasses his mid- and late-30s isn’t terrifying.

Fielder’s problem is not age, since he only turned 27 in May. A long-term deal for him would be something like his 28-35 seasons, which sounds much better. However, unlike Pujols, he offers little beyond the bat, as he’s a poor runner and mediocre fielder, giving back much of the value he provides at the plate. He’s your typical “bad body” player, conservatively listed at 268 pounds, and so whomever he signs with probably needs to have the DH option available down the road, because when he slows down, it’s going to be ugly. His youth helps me look past that to a certain extent, since you’re buying a player who is about to enter his prime, and he doesn’t even have the crippling platoon splits that so many lefties do.

For me, it all comes down to flexibility. Signing either – and if pressed, I suppose I’d have to go with Fielder’s youth and lack of secondary skills over Pujols’ all-around game but advancing age – really ties you up in other areas. It kills the overall depth of your team. It makes it difficult to find the cash to sign the guys you already have to big deals. If it works, it can really work, but if not – and the history isn’t great – it can really hamstring your team for years. We should all know by now that attempting to buy wins on the free agent market is the most inefficient way to do so, and especially when we’re talking about dollar figures this high.

That’s all if there’s actually money for such a move. Which, come on. The fantasy I laid out above is one thing, but seeing this happen in reality? Not until the McCourts move on.