Tigers offer 'lifeboat' to Prince Fielder
Slugger and his agent, Scott Boras, get their big payday from a surprising source
Scott Boras refused to let anybody see him sweat when New Year's Day passed and Prince Fielder -- a crown jewel of this winter's free-agent class -- remained unsigned. During a Jan. 5 interview, Boras observed that teams routinely assess their rosters in January and get a splash of cold reality when they find holes desperately in need of filling.
"The January free-agent lifeboat is a welcome addition to prevent next season's Titanic," Boras said.
Boras was referring to the lifeboat that mercifully appears on the horizon and rescues teams in need of roster upgrades. But in this case, the plot changed course and the phrase quickly assumed a whole new meaning.
Everything changed that fateful day when Detroit's Victor Martinez blew out his knee during his offseason conditioning program and the Tigers suddenly found themselves with a gaping hole in their lineup. Within a week, the boat arrived at Fielder's offseason home in Florida -- complete with towels, complimentary sandwiches, and owner Mike Ilitch wearing a skipper's cap and holding a "Welcome to Comerica Park" sign.
Baseball sources confirmed Tuesday that Fielder has reached agreement on a nine-year, $214 million contract with the Tigers. Once the physical exam is complete, Fielder can look forward to teaming with Miguel Cabrera to give Detroit the most formidable middle-of-the-order combination since well Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun were emulating Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews in the 3-4 spots in Milwaukee.
Fate carried Fielder to Detroit, the town where he launched batting practice homers as a 12-year-old and Tony Phillips used to stuff him into trash cans during playful clubhouse wrestling matches. Tiger Stadium has been torn down, and Fielder's relationship with his father, Cecil, has been torn asunder. But Prince still has plenty of time to carve a new legacy in the city where his dad once played and burnish some very Hall of Fame-worthy early credentials.
Talk about a surprise ending. In size, scope and landing spot, Fielder's deal with Detroit was a bolt from the blue.
Late last week, general manager David Dombrowski assessed the team's alternatives in the aftermath of Martinez's injury and told ESPN.com's Jayson Stark that Fielder "doesn't fit for us." Early Tuesday, ESPN's Buster Olney talked with a front-office executive who raised the possibility of Fielder signing with Detroit, but most likely for one year, not nine. And according to a tweet from Peter Gammons, "[Tigers manager] Jim Leyland didn't know about the Prince deal" as late as 3:08 p.m. ET Tuesday.
ESPN Insider's Dan Szymborski used his ZiPS projection system to forecast Prince Fielder's production in Detroit over the life of his nine-year deal.
If you're a hot stove junkie, you already know the stream of Fielder updates this offseason never mentioned the team wearing the Olde English "D." The Nationals and Rangers were perceived as major players for Fielder from start to finish, even though officials from both clubs went to great lengths to debunk the speculation. The Cubs, Mariners, Blue Jays and Orioles appeared in cameos but never gained much traction. The Dodgers are for sale, so they were never a realistic option. And while the Marlins made a spirited run at Albert Pujols, they were a nonfactor with Fielder, in part because they don't give out no-trade clauses and Boras insists on them for his upper-echelon clients.
As recently as Monday, Tigers officials were telling agents they weren't going to be a player for Fielder -- that they expect Martinez to return at full strength next year and they probably would just fill the void with a trade or an inexpensive free agent such as Hideki Matsui. If the Tigers were going to sign a Boras client, it probably would be Johnny Damon, who played for Detroit in 2010 and might be a nice fit in the leadoff spot.
So what happened? At this point, we can only speculate, but it's easy to surmise Boras did a skillful job of circumventing the chain of command and going all the way to the top.
It's no secret Boras has a productive history of cultivating ownership in deals of this magnitude (did someone say "Tom Hicks"?). It's also no secret he has a productive working relationship with Ilitch, the Tigers' beloved "Mr. I," who signed Boras clients Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez to free-agent deals in February 2004 and 2005, respectively.
Boras might have been challenged convincing the Lerners to take the plunge in Washington or going over Theo Epstein's head to sell Tom Ricketts on the idea of Fielder playing at Wrigley Field through 2020, but he ultimately found someone in Detroit to buy what he was selling. Was there some luck involved? Probably. Is Fielder's contract Major League Baseball's answer to the auto industry bailout? A lot of front-office people and fellow agents are surely thinking that. But judging from those Kevin Brown, Barry Zito and Jayson Werth deals, Boras has a way of making millions of dollars magically appear where no one thought possible.
We'll learn soon enough whether Fielder's deal includes any club options, mutual options or "voidable years" that could make it look somewhat different from nine years and $214 million. But a source confirmed there are no CC Sabathia- or Alex Rodriguez-like "opt-outs" that could send Fielder back onto the free-agent market in search of a big payday in just a winter or two.
Down the road, the Tigers could be challenged to make the pieces fit defensively. Cabrera's $152.3 million deal runs through 2015, and Martinez's four-year, $50 million contract extends through 2014. Leyland might look up in spring training of 2013 and find himself with too many designated hitters, no matter where he chooses to play these guys.
But Justin Verlander and the Detroit pitchers aren't complaining. Tigers fans aren't complaining. And Prince Fielder, who went from jobless to "holy cow" in the span of a couple of days, most likely feels a tangible sense of relief right now.
The sudden plot twist also provides some vindication for Boras, who took some hits in the aftermath of reliever Ryan Madson's disappointing one-year deal with Cincinnati two weeks ago. The patient approach worked out in the end, and Boras, Fielder and the Tigers all found seats in a very crowded lifeboat.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.