By Jason Wojciechowski
Prince Fielder is apparently done in Milwaukee. Everyone and their mother has taken a look at where he might end up signing in 2012, but Google tells me it's mostly been on Bleacher Report (no link -- are you crazy?), so let's take a systematic look at the free agent situation as best I can glean from MLB Depth Charts.
The following table lists each team except for Milwaukee and St. Louis along with who it seems their 2012 first baseman will be. The numbers in the table are the players' 2011 True Average from Baseball Prospectus (the main thing you need to know: it's scaled like batting average with league average at .260). This is just a rough measure -- we can consider whether the existing player is likely to rise or fall more qualitatively.
|Team||2012 First basemen||True Averages||Contract status|
|Texas||Mike Napoli / Mitch Moreland||.362 / .269||arbitration-eligible, made $5.8M / league minimum|
|Detroit||Miguel Cabrera||.350||Signed through 2015, $84M total|
|Chicago Cubs||Bryan LaHair||.338 (AAA)||league minimum|
|Cincinnati||Joey Votto||.333||signed through 2013, over $30M total|
|Boston||Adrian Gonzalez||.330||Signed through 2018, over $20M/year|
|Chicago White Sox||Paul Konerko / Dayan Viciedo||.323 / .282 (AAA)||Signed through 2013, $25.5M total / $3.25M for 2012|
|New York Mets||Ike Davis||.321||league minimum|
|San Diego||Jesus Guzman / Anthony Rizzo||.319 / .222||league minimum / league minimum|
|Washington||Michael Morse / Adam LaRoche||.314 / .205||arbitration-eligible, made $1.05M / $8M for 2012, one mutual option|
|New York Yankees||Mark Teixeira||.299||Signed through 2016, $22.5M/year|
|Tampa Bay||Russ Canzler / Dan Johnson||.295 (AAA) / .128||league minimum / arb-eligible, made $1M in 2011|
|Philadelphia||Ryan Howard||.294||signed through 2016, $115M total|
|Cleveland||Carlos Santana / Matt LaPorta||.289 / .263||league minimum / league minimum|
|Houston||Carlos Lee / Brett Wallace||.288 / .246||$18.5M in 2012 / league minimum|
|Atlanta||Freddie Freeman||.287||league minimum|
|Anaheim||Mark Trumbo||.285||league minimum|
|Colorado||Todd Helton||.285||signed through 2013, just under $10M total|
|Kansas City||Eric Hosmer||.284||league minimum|
|Seattle||Justin Smoak||.279||league minimum|
|Miami||Gaby Sanchez||.279||league minimum|
|Baltimore||Mark Reynolds||.277||$7.5M for 2012, club option for 2013|
|Oakland||Brandon Allen / Daric Barton||.272 / .238||league minimum / arbitration-eligible? Made $425k|
|Arizona||Paul Goldschmidt||.269||league minimum|
|Toronto||Adam Lind||.268||Signed through 2013, $5.15M/year, three club options|
|Los Angeles||James Loney||.258||arbitration-eligible, made $4.875M|
|San Francisco||Aubrey Huff||.255||$10M for 2012 with one club option|
|Minnesota||Justin Morneau||.223||Signed through 2013, $15M/year|
|Pittsburgh||Steve Pearce / Pedro Alvarez||.189 / .188||league minimum / $2.2M for 2012, two club options|
The Prince, for comparison's sake, posted a .318 TAv this season.
I left St. Louis out because they're a bit of a special situation. If Albert Pujols does not re-sign, they're left, presumably, with Mark Hamilton, Professional AAA Slugger, and thus would be a prime destination for the Prince. It seems that everyone assumes Pujols will re-sign, however.
We can break this list into some categories. First are the places where the team just doesn't have room for Fielder because there are better or equivalent players already there: Detroit, Cincinnati, Boston, Chicago (AL), and New York (AL). However hilarious it might be to have Fielder and Miguel Cabrera on the same team, I just don't see it happening.
Then there are the teams where expensive players who aren't as good as Prince are blocking the way: Philadelphia, Houston, Colorado, and San Francisco. The Giants should put Aubrey Huff out to pasture, but do you see Brian Sabean actually taking that step in the off-season? Maybe he'll pull a Rowand come August 30th, 2012, though.
Minnesota also belongs in one of those two categories, but I'm reluctant to make any solid claims about whether Justin Morneau is as good as Fielder. Obviously he hit poorly this year, but his injury situation is so unsettled that I refuse to make any claims one way or the other. Either way, they're not going to shove him aside. (And even if they did want to move him to DH, it'd be so that Joe Mauer could play first, presumably, not Prince Fielder.)
The next group of teams are the ones with cheap hitters with upside and a lot of years of team control left. You can put San Diego, Atlanta, Kansas City, Seattle, Miami (start getting used to calling them this now!), Oakland, and Arizona here. Depending on how you feel about Russ Canzler, Tampa might go here, and they're not going to shell out 30% of their payroll on a single hitter anyway.
In order from top to bottom, then, that leaves us with the following teams:
The table doesn't do justice to Texas's situation because Michael Young potentially stands in the way despite playing just 30 games at first base this season. It would be easy to create a Young / Mike Napoli / Yorvit Torrealba / Prince Fielder rotation at catcher, first base, and DH, with Napoli and Fielder playing every day, Torrealba catching when Napoli doesn't, and Young sliding in at DH on days when Napoli catches. The problem is that Michael Young is very loud, very obnoxious, and probably untradeable, even after the excellent season he's had this year. If the Rangers could trade Young, then Mitch Moreland could play that part-time DH (or 1B, if you want Fielder to DH sometimes while Napoli catches) role just fine.
The Cubs should probably have spent much of the second half of this season seeing if Bryan LaHair could hit major-league pitching. Instead, he hit .331/.405/.664 for Iowa and has 32 plate appearances in the majors. He's 28, so we shouldn't expect huge things, but having more information available to answer the question of whether LaHair can be an above-average hitter for dirt cheap, freeing up first-base money to apply elsewhere, would have been nice. The Cubs are at $68M for just six players in 2012, and if Aramis Ramirez has his $16M option picked up, that's $84M for seven players. The Cubs typically have one of the higher payrolls in baseball, but adding another $15-$20M player to that is asking a lot of whoever their new GM is in terms of filling out the rest of the squad.
The Mets have Ike Davis, whose .321 TAv pushes them farther up the table than they'd be had he stayed healthy and had time to regress to his mean -- he only managed 129 PAs before his season-ending ankle injury. Davis is probably more like a slightly above-average hitter, which at first base means a non-asset, someone the Mets should feel no guilt about pushing aside if they want to make a run at Fielder. As with the Cubs, though, high payroll or no, Johan Santana, David Wright, and Jason Bay are taking up a significant amount of room. Jose Reyes will presumably be Sandy Alderson's first priority, and if he gets a big deal done with the speedy shortstop, the team would probably be looking at something like $80M committed to six players, a figure that makes it hard to add one more huge contract.
Washington can keep Mike Morse playing the outfield, but dumping Adam LaRoche won't be so easy. Even without LaRoche, though, the Nationals have Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth accounting for $25M of a sub-$70M payroll by themselves, so even with a bump to, say, $75M, there's probably not money available for the Round Mound of ... uh, Homerun.
In Cleveland, Matt LaPorta isn't very good, but with Travis Hafner taking up the DH spot (so Carlos Santana can only play first when he's not catching) and a significant percentage of the team's well-below-average payroll, the Indians don't seem like a serious possibility.
I wonder if the Angels feel as uncertain about the Kendrys Morales situation as the rest of us do. Mark Trumbo, power or no, should not be permitted to let his .295 OBP stand as an obstacle to acquiring a better first baseman. Unfortunately for Angels fans, Trumbo isn't the problem; the outfielders are. Lineup-wise, there's no problem: bench Vernon Wells, make your outfield Peter Bourjos, Mike Trout, and Torii Hunter, with Bobby Abreu the DH and Prince at first. Mark Trumbo can be traded to Pittsburgh. Salary-wise, there's a huge problem, which is that the Angels are at $108M already for next year for just nine players. (That figure includes the buyout payment to Scott Kazmir.) With a payroll in the $120M-$150M range, the Angels shouldn't be major free agent players until 2013 at least, and more likely even later than that, especially if they do an extension with Dan Haren (who has a 2013 club option for $15.5M).
Baltimore is interesting, but ultimately needs to stay away from Fielder-type players. They've got iron gloved Mark Reynolds shifted over from third to first, but a Fielder signing would presumably move him back to third, with Chris Davis losing the playing time. How you assess the upgrade from Davis to Fielder depends on whether you think Davis is underappreciated and just needs a clear shot (.294 TAv in 2008) or is a AAA slugger with contact issues (.243 TAv in 2009). If Davis is the former, then there's no reason to go around spending millions of dollars for the relatively small upgrade, especially in Baltimore's divisional situation -- jumping for a .294 TAv third baseman in Davis to a .310 TAv first baseman in Prince isn't going to push the team past Boston, New York, Tampa, or even Toronto. That said, even if the team assesses Davis as terrible and would be willing to spend the money, Baltimore shouldn't be giving up first-round picks for players that will make the team better in 2012-2015.
Toronto could make a real splash if they decide that Adam Lind is never getting back to his 2009 numbers, but they're in the same situation as Baltimore: there's no glory in pushing past Tampa for third place, and the lost draft pick is probably a much bigger deal than the money. That said, Toronto's payroll hasn't been a terribly large one (they're wedged between the Astros and the Nats in the dollar rankings this season), so Fielder might be out of their reach regardless of Alex Anthopolous's wishes.
The Dodgers should be the perfect landing spot: big market team (which helps both in the present and with grabbing signability players who drop in the draft to make up for the lack of a first-round pick), no good first-base options in sight (they can just non-tender James Loney and be rid of him), and a division lacking powerhouses. If it hadn't been for those meddling McCourts! Until the ownership situation clears up, the Dodgers can't be taken seriously as a spender.
Pittsburgh is intriguing because Pedro Alvarez can play third and there's room to move up in the Central, especially by taking one of the best players from a rival squad. Money is apparently an issue (the team's payroll has been floating around half of league average since 2004), but it's unclear if that's elective (with money going into the draft, Latin America, etc.) or a function of revenue issues (park or no, this is still a Rust Belt team).
Though I've surely missed certain details in the above (surveying the state of the league in one essay isn't easy! I would certainly appreciate the help of any of you who notice things I did not catch), it is difficult to find a spot that makes sense for Prince Fielder to settle in to, which makes me wonder if he might not land right back in Milwaukee after all.
EDIT: Grant Brisbee comes to much the same conclusion and additionally points out something I forgot: the Mets' ownership situation sucks, too.