When analyzing player acquisitions an often used model is a WAR per dollars analysis comparing the acquisition to a rate of approximately $5 million per win on the open market. The theory is that if, for example, a team spends an average $20 million per season on a player, they should get approximately 4 wins above replacement in value otherwise they have misallocated their resources by paying over the market rate. Lots of smart people who analyze baseball use this model and it makes a certain amount of sense when you consider that team's have a limited amount of money they can spend and every opportunity to maximize the value they get for their dollars will make their overall team better.
Using that model, the acquisition of Prince Fielder looks like it's probably not an ideal usage of $138 million dollars over 7 years. Prince has accumulated 12.9 bWAR and 14.6 fWAR over the past 4 years for an average of 3.2 and 3.7 per season respectively. Neither of those numbers are the nearly 4 wins a season he'd need for the next 7 years to be worth the $19.7 million average annual value he'll be paid, and as he ages those numbers are only going to go down (assuming he doesn't have Adrian Beltre and David Ortiz anti-aging magic). With a dramatic decline there is a strong potential to not only not achieve the $5 million per WAR over the life of the contract, but not even come remotely close to it.
There are other schools of thought that add nuance to analyzing these types of deals that incorporate additional real-world issues that team's face rather than looking at the resource usage in a vacuum. Russell Carlton AKA pizzacutter of Baseball Prospectus had an article on this topic last week in evaluating free agency contracts that I believe is applicable for consideration in looking at this deal for the Rangers.
Why Do Teams Overpay for Free Agents? by Russell A. Carlton
The article is behind a paywall, but it argues to examine deals in the context of the situation for the team rather than a straight analysis and describes many of the issues with using the standard WAR per dollar model. Additionally it gives a framework for analyzing deals by asking to consider the following items:
- A reasonable projection of the player’s future contributions, as well as for the player he would ostensibly replace. In the near-term, this can be derived from looking at who’s already on the roster or in the minors. For longer-term evaluation, some idea of how often new cost-controlled value is generated and what salaries might do in a few years.
- Where the team is on the win curve (and perhaps what other moves they might make in concert with this one) and where they are in their building/winning cycle.
- An understanding of how this signing affects the team’s chances of making the playoffs, rather than how many marginal wins it creates. Those are different things.
- What the other alternatives are to signing this guy. It’s hard to do a full counter-factual, but it would be nice if we tried.
- An understanding that this is all done in real-time, not with the benefit of the hindsight that makes us all geniuses.
For the first item, Steamer projects a healthy rebound with 3.7 WAR and an .885 OPS, tied for 3rd among 1B projections and the 10th best OPS in baseball for next season. Predicting the future is hard, but a projection system like Steamer or ZiPS certainly falls within the realm of reasonable. There's still concerns about how his body type will age, but those are worries rather than certainties. When you factor that there isn't a solution for elite offense at 1B in the Rangers in the upper levels of the Rangers' farm system, there is no cost-controlled alternative available internally.
The next two items about about the win curve and playoff chances are critical for the Rangers. They've missed the ALDS the past two seasons by the slimmest of margins so every gain is magnified to help them get over the hump and back into the tournament.
On the fourth item regarding alternatives, we already know there isn't a viable solution internally. The high ceiling prospects at the lower levels are still years away and the Rangers 1B production with Mitch Moreland has been atrocious. However there are other potential options such as Mike Napoli on the free agent market that would certainly cost less than the total commitment to Fielder. The argument has been made by Dave Cameron that the Rangers would have been better served finding a different deal for Kinsler and allocating their resources towards potentially more valuable (in terms of WAR) players such as Jacoby Ellsbury or Shin Soo Choo. While I understand that line of thinking, the same thoughts I had when Prince was a free agent still ring true to me: none of those options have the elite offensive potential or power potential of Prince Fielder.
He's been one of the absolute best hitters in baseball for several years. Even in his down 2013 his wRC+ would have been second on the Rangers after Adrian Beltre. He's eclipsed 150 wRC+ 4 times in the past 7 years. That's the kind of rare elite production that is nearly impossible to find. While all elements of value should be considered, for a team seeking balance like the Rangers, the elite offensive skill is the most elusive. There are only a handful of players that you can reasonably project to hit like Prince Fielder, and only very, very rarely are they available.
When elite offensive players are available it's typically as a free agent where massive, crazy overpays occur and especially at the position of 1B. A few years ago FanGraphs did a quick study on the actual WAR per dollar allocation by position and 1B was an average of $6.0 million per WAR and 2B was $3.0 million. The market has established the value for 1B and power as higher than middle infielders and baserunning and defense. That might not be the most efficient or the best way to run a team, but that's what ML front offices are doing and the reality a team faces when trying to acquire talent at that position. If you don't have a cost controlled internal option you're going to pay a premium, and certainly for a player reasonably projected as a top ten offensive talent.
The Rangers had a production deficit at 1B and in overall offensive skill and managed to get someone that is likely the most talented offensive producer that will change teams this offseason. And since they bought used, the Tigers absorbed some of the inflated premium from his free agent contract. There's only 9 spots in the lineup and 25 spots on the roster and the Rangers now have one of them with someone who doesn't have to be platooned who fills a very specific area of need.
On the final item from Russell regarding hindsight, a few analysts have described it as a wait and see and if Prince does well it will be a good deal. Well of course it will look that way after the luxury of hindsight. The Rangers don't have that option when they are constructing their roster. They can only analyze the present and do their best to predict the future. While on a basic WAR per dollar this deal looks sketchy and has the potential to look awful, the Rangers have managed to improve an element of their team that is one of the hardest to improve and without going crazy overboard to do it while, oh by the way, freeing up a positional log jam at the same time.
I don't think you need to wait and see to evaluate this deal. It's one that makes sense but because of the amount of resources allocated, a failure will have a large negative impact. But the potential, reasonable reward is concentrated offensive value that can't really be found anywhere else.