SweetSpot: Kent Hrbek
May, 22, 2014
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com
So you want to be a major league general manager?
Think of the ripple effect of one bad move.
At the trade deadline in 2011, Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, tired or frustrated with the production of perennial tease Chris Davis, traded the slugging first baseman along with pitcher Tommy Hunter to the Baltimore Orioles for reliever Koji Uehara.
Davis had hit a robust .285/.331/.549 in his initial 80-game stint in the majors in 2008. But he had struggled to make consistent contact after that and had hit .230/.285/.407 with a 34 percent strikeout since then. He had even been sent back to Triple-A for 48 games in 2011 -- where he treated PCL pitchers like Babe Ruth treated Charlie Root in the 1932 World Series. Davis hit .368/.405/.824 there with 24 home runs and 66 RBIs in 48 games.
The Rangers still had Mitch Moreland and Michael Young to play first base and DH, plus Mike Napoli could play first when he wasn't catching. The Rangers reached the World Series, although Uehara gave up three home runs in the first two rounds of the playoffs and wasn't even included on the World Series roster.
Meanwhile, Davis blossomed in Baltimore. In 2012, the Rangers lost the AL West on the final day of the season and then the wild-card game. Their first basemen ranked 25th in the majors in wOBA (which doesn't adjust for park factors). Their DHs ranked ninth in the AL. In 2013, as Davis hit 53 home runs, the Rangers lost a tiebreaker game for the wild card. Rangers first basemen ranked 26th in the majors in wOBA and their DHs ranked 10th.
The decision to go with Moreland over Davis proved disastrous.
So that gets us here, to the bad news that Prince Fielder will have season-ending surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck. With poor production from first base and needing left-handed power, Daniels traded Ian Kinsler for Fielder, assuming most of Fielder's huge contract and taking on a player coming off his worst power season in the majors. We're here because of the Chris Davis trade three years ago. If the Rangers don't give up on Davis, they not only don't need Fielder, they may have gone deeper into the postseason the past two years.
But you can't cry over spilt milk or lost ballplayers. Daniels needed a slugger and was willing to make a risky trade to get one.
To be fair, despite his big-boned physique Fielder had been the most durable player in the majors. Earlier in his career many wondered about his long-term durability, but the fact that he had now played in over 500 consecutive games entering the 2014 season made him at least seem like a safe bet to stay on the field. Is the herniated disk a fluke injury or in some fashion related to his weight? I'll let the medical experts answer that one.
Aside from all that, what was Fielder's long-term prognosis? Here's a chart comparing the aging patterns of five other similarly built players, good hitters like Fielder -- Mo Vaughn, Prince's dad Cecil Fielder, Kent Hrbek, Greg Luzinski and Boog Powell. Luzinski primarily played left field, although not very well, while the others were first basemen. We used OPS+ from Baseball-Reference.com (100 is a league average hitter, above 100 is good).
Was there reason to believe Prince still had the potential for a couple more big seasons, at least using these players as a guideline? Not necessarily. Prince was in his age-30 season, the last big year for Vaughn. Cecil was never really quite as good as these guys, save for his monster 51-homer season in 1990. Hrbek peaked in his 20s and had some minor injury issues as his weight ballooned in his 30s. Luzinski peaked from 24 to 27. Powell's last 30-homer season came at 28.
So it's very possible that Fielder's downturn in 2013 wasn't just a bad season. He certainly hadn't shown signs of improving this season, although who knows how much of his struggles were related to the neck problem.
While the Tigers will pay $30 million of Fielder's contract in upcoming seasons, he's signed through 2020, when he'll be 36. None of these guys made it to that age.
As for the Rangers, can they win without Fielder, on top of all the other injuries? Well, Fielder hadn't actually been contributing so far. His -0.3 WAR means he was basically a replacement-level first baseman. Of course, the Rangers would have expected better production moving forward.
Moreland, a better glove, will move back to first base on a regular basis. He's hitting .275 but has just two home runs. Michael Choice was the DH in Thursday's 9-2 win over the Tigers. The Rangers are just a game under .500 and in the wide-open AL, they may not need to win 90-plus this year to reach the postseason. Do they have enough without Prince? It seems unlikely, but Shin-Soo Choo has been terrific, Adrian Beltre may get going, they'll get Jurickson Profar back at some point and they have one of the best starters in baseball.
You never know.