12/13/11 12:30 PM EST
Suitors will find Prince dressed for success
By Richard Justice / MLB.com
Let's go to my personal leaderboard:
1. Blue Jays
Those are three logical candidates -- three with money and a motivation to do a big-ticket free-agent signing. The Brewers dropped out of the process on Monday after signing Aramis Ramirez, and the Rangers seem unlikely to get involved.
There could be others. The Dodgers and Nationals appear to have at least kicked the tires on Fielder, and the Marlins can't be counted out after last week's furious run at Albert Pujols.
From the beginning, this was a different kind of free-agent sweepstakes, because it wasn't going to involve the Red Sox and Yankees. Still, anyone who thinks Fielder is going to suffer from a soft market makes the fundamental mistake of underestimating agent Scott Boras.
No one is better at creating a market, even when none appears to exist. As you read these words, he might be convincing some owner or general manager that the player he didn't think he wanted actually is the No. 1 thing on his wish list.
Now, a word about Prince Fielder. If you know him only from highlight shows, or have only caught a couple of his games, you might not understand how good he is.
He's pretty much a complete package. He's also only 27 years old and should be at his best for several more years. He has averaged 38 home runs, 108 RBIs and 33 doubles during his career, has finished in the top four in National League MVP Award voting three times and is a three-time All-Star. He has missed one game the last three seasons.
Fielder is a solid defensive player, a very good baserunner, and from top to bottom, an instinctive, winning player. Beyond the scouting report, there's an exuberance in his game, a dose of fire and emotion that plays well in a long season.
Fielder helped transform the Brewers, who hadn't made the playoffs for 25 years when he and Braun led them to a 2008 Wild Card berth and a 2011 division championship. Even if Fielder never plays another game for the Brewers, he leaves behind a very nice legacy.
So, Fielder would make virtually every team better. That's not the issue. His signing will come down to circumstances, finances and timing. As Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said last week, "We're not going to be involved on EVERY free agent."
OK, let's look at our leaderboard. Timing, right? With another Wild Card being added, the Blue Jays have an opportunity to once more make their presence felt. They also appear to have some financial flexibility and have said there'll come a time when they'll make the kind of impact acquisition that could get them over the top.
Can you imagine having Jose Bautista and Prince Fielder back-to-back in the middle of the lineup? It would require a huge financial commitment, but it would change the way we look at the American League East.
The Mariners are in a similar spot. They also have advantages no other franchise has. General manager Jack Zduriencik was Milwaukee's scouting director when Fielder was drafted and has known him since he was a teenager.
Zduriencik has declined to say whether the Mariners are interested, but he hasn't said otherwise, either. Fielder would be a perfect fit on a team that has two of baseball's dominant starting pitchers (Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda) at the front of the rotation, but finished last in the AL in runs and hit just 109 home runs.
The Mariners have $59.5 million in 2012 salary commitments on the books, but it's unclear how much money they have to spend. With Ichiro's $18 million salary coming off the books after the 2012 season, the Mariners look like serious players for Fielder.
And then there are the Cubs. On the surface, they don't seem to fit with Theo Epstein's plan to build from the bottom up.
The Cubs make some sense, especially Fielder is only 27 and should still be an impact player by the time Epstein has the team back in contention. Fielder might not be the type of player Epstein is looking for at this point in his construction of the franchise, but players like him don't come along very often. He could be a cornerstone player for the next decade.
The Rangers have been thought to be in the mix for Fielder, but their payroll is already going to be over $100 million. If they were going to make a big-ticket purchase, it is more likely to be Japanese free agent Yu Darvish, who would fill the hole left by C.J. Wilson's departure and allow Alexi Ogando to remain in the bullpen.
Don't expect a quick resolution. Boras typically allows the process to play out and to create whatever market he can. That's why some teams may bow out, opting instead for pitching (Ryan Madson or Darvish), because it's unclear where the bidding for Fielder will end.
Once Fielder is off the market, there could be a flurry of activity for the remaining free agents as teams begin putting the finishing touches on their spring rosters. But for now, it's Fielder's time.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.