Authored by Jason Follain - 9th November, 2011 - 1:06 pm
In any other offseason, determining potential landing spots for the big ticket free agents is a much simpler task. However, in an offseason that is still in its infancy, circumstances well beyond Prince Fielder's control will likely depress the overall value of the free agent contract he signs. You see, the usual suspects are undoubtedly out of play when it comes to the first baseman that has put up the numbers to match his massive frame.
While any team would love to have an opportunity to acquire a player who has posted a career OPS of .930 at the tender age 27, baseball's big spenders all seem to have their own version of Fielder. There are three teams that first come to mind when a marquee, elite-level talent becomes available in free agency: New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies. Mark Teixiera and the Yankees have committed themselves to each other through the 2016 season. Adrian Gonzalez and the Red Sox inked a pact that have them attached at the hip through the 2018 season. And Ryan Howard has his detractors, but his average annual salary of $25 million, which trumps both of the aforementioned sluggers', doesn't even kick in until next season and runs through 2016. As you can see, there is a dearth of need in the large markets for pricy first basemen.
Even the second tier of spenders will have a tough time fitting Fielder into their payroll/lineup. The Chicago White Sox already have two high-priced first base/designated hitter types in Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim may have taken themselves out of the $100 million+-type player sweepstakes with their ill-fated acquisition of Vernon Wells last offseason. The New York Mets have a young, cost-controlled first baseman in Ike Davis who they seem committed to. Plus, Davis comes at the bargain basement price of roughly two percent of the estimated rate that Fielder will make.
The Chicago Cubs are an interesting choice, but given their glut of bloated contracts and the scant likelihood that they will be competitive over the next couple years, I'm not sure another cumbersome financial commitment is what they are looking for this offseason. As you continue to look down the list of player payroll rankings, a similar narrative continues to pop up: a lot of clubs already have their first base position covered long-term, and the remaining teams don't typically spend the kind of money Fielder is looking for on one player.
There are a few exceptions to this and I think one team stands above the rest when considering suitors for Fielder's services. Some have predicted that the World Series runner-up Texas Rangers would be a good fit, but I'm not sure if their payroll with be able to support another Texas-sized salary. The Rangers already have three players under contract for 2012 with salaries of at least $15 million. They also increased payroll from 2009 (just under $65 million) to 2010 (just over $92 million) by more than $27 million. Their 2012 payroll doesn't project to be much different than this season, given the current roster with increases and arbitration raises. Will they be able to afford another massive jump in player payroll? I don't think so, personally, especially given their recent focus on pitching in the free agent market.
Predictions generally aren't my thing, but where Fielder lands is a much bigger crapshoot than most free agents. The team that I believe has the need, resources and trajectory towards winning is the Toronto Blue Jays. As recently as 2008, Toronto had a payroll just under $98 million. In 2011, that figure stood at only $70.5 million and given the wealth of the Rogers family, it isn't a stretch to imagine that they have a fair amount of wiggle room there.
While it may be difficult to imagine any team other than the triumvirate that currently dominates the American League East breaking through, the Blue Jays certainly appear to be a team on the rise. No general manager in the game has fostered the kind of confidence that Alex Anthopoulos has in his fan base. In just two short years, he rid his club of one of the worst contracts in professional sports by trading Vernon Wells to the Los Angeles Angels, signed arguably baseball's best hitter, Jose Bautista, to a below-market extension and completed a trade to acquire one of the premier young center fielders in the game in Colby Rasmus. Other than trading away 2011 playoff hero Mike Napoli for an above average-ish reliever in Frank Francisco, the consensus in Toronto is that Anthopoulos can do no wrong. As for the Napoli trade, Anthopoulos even has a built in defense to criticism in that he already had two young catching prospects poised to step in at the major league level.
If a splashy acquisition like Fielder is in the cards, it will undoubtedly signal to the rest of the A.L. East that Toronto has their eyes on competing for a playoff spot in the near future. While they will have offense in spades, the attention would surely turn to the rotation. In fact, whether or not the front office thinks that the starting rotation will be strong enough to compete over the next several seasons will be one of the determining factors when deciding if Fielder is a sound investment. Let's examine it.
While Ricky Romero has had success in the A.L. East in recent years, it is probably not accurate to label him an ace. In a division where rivals will trot out C.C. Sabathia, Jon Lester and David Price on opening day, the Blue Jays would be much better suited to contend with Romero as an incredible number two starter. While there is a possibility that Brandon Morrow could become the ace that this team craves, his inability to actualize his tantalizing peripherals up until this point in his career has been a source of frustration for his employers. Over the past two seasons, Morrow leads all major league starters in strikeout rate with 10.53 whiffs per nine innings, but the question remains if he will be able to harness the lackluster control that has led him to also issue the sixth most walks per nine innings among starters with at least 300 innings pitched. Until then, Morrow will likely remain a number three starter with loads of potential. At age 27, though, he is approaching the point where the line between potential and production is awfully thin.
One of the key determinants in judging the Blue Jays' rotation in the coming years will be how top prospect Kyle Drabek fares, and it hasn't been pretty thus far. The key component received in the Roy Halladay trade, Drabek has gotten worse with every step up the ladder he has made. In fact, no major league starting pitcher walked more batters per nine innings than the young right hander in 2011. For the Jays' sake, he needs to take a major step forward in 2012 if Toronto indeed has its eyes on the playoffs. Another youngster whose path to and initial stint in the majors has gone much smoother than Drabek's is the less-heralded Henderson Alvarez. His first ten starts in the big leagues saw him produce a 3.53 ERA while only walking 1.13 batters per nine innings, a far cry from Drabek's 6.44 figure. At 21 years old, that is no small feat.
The Blue Jays desperately need someone in the group of Jesse Litsch, Brett Cecil, Dustin McGowan and Carlos Villanueva to step forward and put a stranglehold on one of the rotation spots. Either that, or one of the Jays' prospects will have to fill the void in a rotation that is lacking pizzazz. The prospects most likely to make the jump to the majors are led by Nestor Molina and Chad Jenkins, bringing the total of starting pitchers mentioned in this piece to ten. What the Jays lack in quality, they make up for in quantity.
If the Jays' front office thinks they can form a starting rotation worthy of contending in the East in the next couple seasons, there is no reason to believe that they won't make a run at Prince Fielder. This kind of signing would give Toronto explosive power at virtually every position on the diamond, which it would need given the lackluster performance that the rotation provided in 2011. It appears as if they can afford it, they have hole at the position for the foreseeable future and have the young talent to be positioned for successful rise in a daunting division. They also happen to be in the American League, in which the fallback plan in a few years could be to move Fielder to a designated hitter role. Out of all of the teams I see having interest in Fielder, the team that could benefit the most from signing the sizable slugger is the Toronto Blue Jays.