Albert Pujols turned down a massive contract extension offer from the St. Louis Cardinals this March, and Chicago Cubs fans everywhere have been silently crossing their fingers ever since. Pujols is the best hitter in a generation, after all, and if you had to pick a non-incumbent front-runner for his services when he hits free agency after this season, you would have to pick the Cubs. Failing that, the team could also go after Milwaukee Brewers slugger Prince Fielder, but somehow, that has seemed a tenuous and undesirable second option.
Scarcely 10 games into the season, though, everything has changed. As outlandish and reactionary as this is sure to sound, Prince Fielder is the best value to be had among elite free agents this coming winter, and it’s not all that close. Consider:
- Fielder is over 50 months younger than Pujols–and that’s on the off chance that Pujols is actually his own age.
- Reportedly, Fielder wants a contract modeled on the one signed in December 2008 by Mark Teixeira, a fellow first baseman. Pujols’ demands seem to be modeled on the contract signed in December 2007 by Alex Rodriguez, a third baseman with comparable hitting prowess.
- Not yet 27, Fielder has room to improve. Pujols may maintain his superior skills through his late 30s or even early 40s, but at 31 (or 32, or 33, or 34…), he has had the best season of his career, and probably the second-best.
- Through 39 plate appearances in 2011 so far, Fielder is batting .400/.488/.686. Pujols, to the horror of just about everyone, is struggling for the first time in recent memory, batting .150/.222/.225 in 44 plate appearances. What does that mean, statistically? Nothing. But life is more than statistics. Sometimes, anyway.
Is there a counterargument here? Absolutely. Pujols has the longer, ebtter track record, and given Fielder’s girth, there is no doubt Pujols is the safer bet. He’s the superior fielder, although in fairness, I too, am a superior fielder to Fielder.
From a wide-angle view, Pujols is a better player. But Fielder is a better long-term signee, especially in light of the disparate starts the two men have had in 2011. Call me a reactionary, but I think this is real.
For fun, then, let’s imagine that Prince Fielder becomes a Cub. Instead of playing his home games in Miller Park, he plays them in Wrigley Field. Other than markedly worse concessions and markedly better everything else, what difference does the ballpark shift make for Fielder, the mythical Cub?
Check out the dimensional differences between Wrigley Field and Miller Park. Down the lines, Wrigley is one of the deepest parks in big-league history and a not insubstantial eight-to-10 feet deeper than at Miller Park. Up the middle, though, Wrigley’s power allies–just 368 feet to left- and right-center fields, with terribly inviting dimensions between the wells at the ballpark’s corners.
Fielder’s power, as any Brewers fan worth their brew well knows, is from gap to gap. He hit two home runs against the Cubs last weekend in Milwaukee, and both were to left-center field. Of his 32 home runs in 2010, only seven would have been close enough to the lines to go into or over the wells at Wrigley, and six of them would have rather easily cleared the fence anyway. By my count, 11 balls Fielder hit from gap to gap in Miller Park in 2010 would have cleared the fence under most conditions at Wrigley Field. Instead, six went for doubles and five were just loud outs.
Fielder’s strength is his sheer strength, his ability to use the whole field as a result of truly massive power. Wrigley could hurt him at times, as it hurts all power hitters: When the wind blows in, power hitters can be frustrated, and Fielder’s sky-high shots would only be affected more sharply. Still, the cozier dimensions up the middle would augment Fielder’s power at Wrigley and could make him a 50-homer guy again. If he has anything like that potential, it’s pretty hard to justify sinking $50-100 million extra into Pujols this coming December.