Wednesday, January 4, 2012

And Now For Something Comparatively Trivial

So it looks like my very own Washington Nationals are on the verge of signing Prince Fielder. Oh my God. The Washington Nationals are on the verge of signing Prince Fielder. Fuck! What do we do with ourselves, Nats fans? For years, we've been shackled to a franchise that was hesitant to spend money on anyone, regardless of whether that "anyone" was a first-round draft pick or a hall-of-fame manager. The Nats front office has been characterized by a series of high-profile failures and flare-ups, such as the failure to either trade or re-sign Alfonso Soriano, the Esmalyan Gonzales fiasco, or Jim Bowden's entire tenure. Even seemingly-good ideas, like dedicating unimaginable amounts of money to stealing a borderline-star player from a bitter divisional rival, have dramatically backfired, at least thus far.

If this happens--if the Nationals land an actual, no bullshit top-flight free agent at the peak of his productivity, and at a position of the utmost need--it would be the franchise's defining moment since moving to DC, reflecting a dramatic change in attitude and priorities. A Fielder singing would serve as an acknowledgement that the Nats can't win by playing small ball; that while they might be able to bunt, sac-fly and suicide squeeze their way to an 80-81 record, it'll take a bit more than that to beat the Phillys and Floridas of the world. And it would be an acknowledgement that the Nats can't win just by sitting on their hands and hoping that their prospects pan out two or three years down the line--it would cop to the reality that management actually has to make bold, expensive decisions every once in awhile if they want to field a contender. More so than the Werth signing, the record contract for Strasburg and the Gio Gonzelez trade, giving Prince Fielder a 9-year, $200 million-type deal would signal a complete reorientation for the club.

Now we Washington sports fans are used to moves like these actually wrecking the franchises they were meant to save. The Caps traded so little for Jaromir Jagr that his acquisition was tantamount to a free agent-signing, and after landing Jagr, the Caps promptly signed him to the most valuable contract in NHL history. Jagr's tenure resulted in his two worst seasons, zero playoff series wins, whining, infighting, firings, and by far the most painful fire sale in DC sports history, a culling that left a doddering Olaf Kolzig as virtually the only recognizable player on the roster. The Redskins' signing of a disinterested Deon Sanders hogged cap space and symbolized an entire era of mismanagement and excess. The Bullets gave up two first-round picks for the right to sign Juwon Howard to one of the largest contracts in NBA history; in return, Les Boullets got one measly playoff appearance and the worst nickname, jersey and logo in the history of sports. Surely the names Haynesworth, Stubblefield, Jeff George and Albert Belle are familiar to some of you.

By now, DC fans harbor an ingrained suspicion of expensive potential saviors. But it's worth setting aside here, because signing Fielder makes more actual, organizational sense than any of those other, inevitably nightmaric moves. As Nate Silver explained in a seminal essay about baseball free agency, the value of an additional win increases exponentially when a team is within the playoff contention "sweet spot" between 80 and 90 wins. By value, Silver actually means long-term financial value for the franchise--because pennant races produce buzz and the ticket sales and TV views that come with it, and because even a single playoff appearance can increase a team's revenues for up to a decade, games in which a playoff berth is potentially at stake have a potentially-outsize effect on a franchise's long-term and of course short-term cash flow. According to the chart, win #90 (which is usually a playoff-clinching win, since teams miss the playoffs at 90 wins like, 1-3% of the time, if I remember correctly) is worth an additional $4.5 million of revenue, whereas win #79 is worth only about $750,000.

Cumulatively, wins 80 through 90 produce somewhere in the neighborhood of $25 million in extra revenue. The Nats won 80 games last year. According to baseball reference, Fielder performed at 5.2 wins above replacement, and 5.9 offensive wins above replacement last season. The Nats are currently in the process of negotiating a new TV deal with MASN and have yet to sell the naming rights for Nationals Park, so the "sweet spot" multiplier might even be understated in this case (Fielder is one of those players whose adds value to a franchise beyond his performance on the field, I think it's safe to say). Twenty mil a year for Fielder could be a bargain from an organizational perspective, at least for the first 3 to 5 years of the deal. The Nats wouldn't just be throwing money at a sexy free agent, the way the Caps and Redskins used to.

Another reason not to worry about a potential Fielder signing: even if the Nats end up overpaying Fielder over the second half of an 8 or 9 year contract, they're already overpaying Adam LaRoche. LaRoche produced a piddling 4 runs above replacement over 600 plate appearances during a contract year in Arizona in 2010. LaRoche's season was cut short by a shoulder injury last year, but there's no use in pretending that the guy is actually like, all that good. The Nats brought him in--and paid him an astonishing $7 million for his replacement-level services--simply because their infield defense had been pitiful the season before, and because an aggressively mediocre journeyman who had the proven ability to hold up over an entire season seemed better than the currently-available alternatives (Morse's breakout season made LaRoche's acquisition seem a bit superfluous. But Morse was a 27-year old career minor leaguer when the season began.). There's something to be said for consistency and a baseline of competence, even when that baseline is fairly low. But does it really make more sense to overpay a 32-year old replacement-level 1st basemen in 2012, when the team appears to be on the cusp of something special, than it does to overpay a 32-year old probably well-above replacement-level 1st basemen in 2017, after five years of actual, honest-to-God contention? If the Nats are going to overpay a 1st baseman, I'd rather it be Prince Fielder 5 years from now than the current incarnation of Adam LaRoche (by the way, apparently Florida, Milwaukee and a number of other teams disqualified themselves by refusing to sign Fielder to more than a five-to-six year deal. If five years of overpaying for .700 OPS is the price of five years of arguably underpaying for 1.1 OPS, then fuck it, just sign him. We'll figure out whether and how often he plays after we win the 2015 NL pennant...).

Obviously there are concerns. Fielder is a below-average defensive player, and unless he does a ton of steroids his power statistics will likely plummet during the second half of his deal. But let's worry about that shit later. If the Nats land Fielder, they add a player who finished top-3 in the NL in walks, homers, runs created and win probability added in 2011 to a power-deficient lineup that could very well improve next year. If Jason Werth performs just slightly below his career average, if Ian Desmond continues his tear from late last season, and if Danny Espinosa and Michael Morse can stay within the 20-25 home run range, this is a mildly formidable lineup, even without Prince Fielder batting 4th. And with him batting 4th, the Nats would turn their franchise around and acquire a player who might as well be a robot constructed by a team of cyberneticists who also happen to be sabermetricians in their spare time.

Most importantly, now that I've hacked out a fairly lengthy blog post on the matter, this deal had better like, actually happen.

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