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Prince Fielder's contract, a lackluster performance and hard questions

Prince Fielder is getting a king's ransom for his performance. Has he been worth it?

Rob Carr

Prince Fielder was hired for one reason. OK, maybe two. The first reason was his power in the batter's box. The second reason, related to the first, was his box-office draw. As to the first reason, his career stats seemed pretty solid. He hit 228 home runs from his first full season (2006) to the final year before he was signed by the Tigers (2011), for an average of 38 home runs per year, and an average of 108 RBI per year. In that time, he averaged a slashline of .282/.391/.541, with an OPS of .932. What's not to like here?

But since signing with Detroit, some of his numbers have gone downhill. In his two years with the Tigers, Prince has averaged 28 home runs per year, 107 RBI per year, and has slashed .295/.387/.491, with an OPS of .878. The astute reader will notice: his batting average has gone up! Correct. But the Tigers didn't sign Prince for $21.4 million per year to get base hits. His slugging average has dropped 50 points overall, his on-base percentage has dropped, and his OPS has dropped 54 points, on average. The man who was purchased to be a slugger isn't slugging.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the postseason. Prince participated in two postseasons with the Brewers, in 2008 and 2011, and two postseasons with the Tigers, in 2012 and this year. His combined postseason totals with the Brewers look like this -- a slashline of .192/.317/.500, for an OPS of .817, with four home runs, eight RBI, and a 27 percent strikeout rate in 52 at-bats. Notice that while his batting average dropped dramatically, his OPS remained respectable, mostly due to the eight extra-base hits. Meanwhile, his postseason with the Tigers trends in the opposite direction -- a slashline of .208/.282/.260, for an OPS of .542, with only one home run, three RBI, and a 19% strikeout rate. The batting average drop is less dramatic, and he's striking out at a lower rate, but the slugging average and overall OPS drop are shocking.

Let's put this in clear terms: Prince's average OPS with the Brewers dropped by 115 points in two postseasons; his average OPS with the Tigers has dropped by 336 points in two postseasons.

I wrote in a previous post ("In Cabrera's absence, who fills the void?") that the Tigers, in 13 games where Miguel Cabrera sat on the bench due to injury, relied on Prince Fielder to drive in 18 percent of the team's total RBIs, supplied in part by three home runs. When Prince is slugging, the Tigers can make up the difference for an injured Cabrera.

Granted, Prince hasn't exactly had many opportunities to drive in runs during this postseason. The table-setters, Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter, are a combined 9-for-66 (.136) in the postseason. Perhaps that's why Prince Fielder has exactly zero RBIs so far in 29 postseason at-bats. But a slugger like Prince needs to be more of a home run/extra-base threat, and so far, in 29 at-bats in the 2013 postseason, he has one double to his name. That's it. With Jackson and Hunter failing to hit ahead of him, and with Cabrera still struggling with his injury, Prince needs to be hitting himself into scoring position with at least a few more doubles, especially with the team's hottest hitters (Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta) following immediately in the lineup. So far, Prince has a weak postseason slugging average of .310, even though he's hitting a respectable .276 with only a 17 percent strikeout rate.

But the roles are all wrong here. In essence, Prince has become what the Tigers need Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter to be -- a guy who gets base hits and doesn't strike out a lot. Hitting in the number four slot, Prince needs to be closer to what Jhonny Peralta has become in the postseason -- the guy who is slugging .708 with four doubles, one home run, and six RBIs.

There seems to have always been a slice of the fanbase that has been quick to jump on the "Prince isn't worth his contract" bandwagon, but in this case, perhaps the bandwagon view isn't entirely incorrect. Prince was hired to be a slugger, and the Tigers paid him an excessive amount of money to play that part. Obviously, a larger paycheck doesn't make a player better, but the extra money does increase expectations. So far, the Tigers are paying an average of $778,181 for each of Prince's home runs, and $200,000 for each of his RBIs in the two regular seasons he's been in Detroit. The money doesn't make him better, as if the dollars equated to some kind of mystical fait accompli, but on the other hand, it may be time to start asking whether Prince's performance warrants that much "shelf space" on the payroll bookshelf. If it doesn't, then a lot of even harder questions need to be asked.

Let's just hope that Prince returns to form, if not in the 2013 postseason, then at least by the 2014 regular season.