Can you imagine a world where the Padres have a power hitting first baseman? Wait, they had that didn’t they? Well imagine, if you would, a young slugging first baseman who gets on base, hits for average, and can knock the ball all around the park. Imagine a franchise player who could make the team nationally newsworthy.
Now stop, because it can’t happen. Prince Fielder is the hottest American talent available right now (Yu Darvish may be equally hot on the international scene). His youth and track record make him a great candidate for any team. His price and the Padres home ballpark make him impossible for the Padres. But we can imagine.
Now I often talk about Petco Park’s effect on hitters and pitchers. I’ve talked about the pros and the cons, but I want to make it clear, I wouldn’t change the stadium’s dimensions for the world. It plays perfectly for a team who can’t afford players like Prince Fielder. But even if the Padres could afford him, would he play there?
The effect on hitters has been widely documented. Petco Park ranks toward the bottom of the league in park factor in almost every offensive category. Players like Adrian Gonzalez know their numbers will skyrocket if they play their home games elsewhere. This puts San Diego at a distinct disadvantage in signing players like Fielder. Luckily, the team will never spend the kind of money it would take to bring Fielder to San Diego, so we don’t really have to worry about it.
But I digress. The topic here is an imaginary scenario when the Padres were able to sign Prince Fielder. The first obstacle would be the contract. Albert Pujols set the precedent, but I wouldn’t expect Fielder to get a ten year deal anywhere. He will pull in about $22-24 million a year though. Now let’s assume the Padres committed to that. Let’s assume they agreed to pay Fielder $24 million a year. With a payroll that will be in the $50 million range, and will likely never get much above $70 million, half the team’s cash would be locked up in one player.
Rather than trying to sign extensions for players like Cameron Maybin and Nick Hundley, the team would need to let them play out their inexpensive contracts and not offer arbitration. This takes quite a few years off the service time for young, talented players. The team would be forced to call up prospect before they are fully ready to fill the holes left behind by arbitration eligible free agents. And when those players, whom the Padres failed to offer arbitration, sign elsewhere, San Diego would get no compensation in return.
Essentially, the Padres would have to field a minor league team with Prince Fielder as the only legitimate Major Leaguer. How would the fans react to this? They’d be happy about Fielder at first, but as the losses pile up year after year, attendance would quickly decrease. It happened with Tony Qwynn. The Padres manages to hold on to one of the best players in a generation, and the fans loved the team and Tony for it. But the team continued to lose, and attendance suffered.
And how about Prince Fielder? The Brewers’ park factor for home runs was 1.062 in 2011, or 6.2% above league average. Petco Park’s park factor was 0.862, or 15.8% below average. Part of these numbers is based on the team of course, but as a quick calculation, Fielder may see a 22% drop in home run production in San Diego. He won’t be happy about that. He also won’t be happy about losing. He did that in Milwaukee. After a while, he may become disgruntled. He may demand a trade.
If the Padres agree to trade him, and find a suitor, they may get a nice return. However, they will have forfeited years of being able to compete. It would have been a waste of time and money for the club, and they’d be worse off after trading Fielder than they were before they signed him.
So while it may be nice to dream of Prince Fielder in a Padres uniform, the team has a better shot at competing with Anthony Rizzo and other talented, inexpensive, young players. A world in which Prince Fielder as a Padre may seem like a dream, but it would quickly become a nightmare.