Detroit Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder smiles while sitting next… (Carlos Osorio / Associated…)
Prince Fielder's landing in Detroit was a big surprise, but it turns out the Tigers were not the most unexpected entrant in the sweepstakes.
The Dodgers were secretly in at the end too, losing out only when the Tigers upped the ante after learning last week that Victor Martinez had severely injured a knee and probably will sit out the upcoming season.
Needing a middle-of-the-lineup bat to protect Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers ponied up a nine-year, $214-million contract and on Thursday introduced Fielder as their newest member.
The Dodgers offered the All-Star first baseman $160 million over seven years, according to people familiar with the negotiations who were not allowed to speak publicly on the matter.
The Dodgers went into the off-season with about $90 million budgeted for the salaries of the 25 players who will be on their opening-day roster. But owner Frank McCourt, who is in the process of selling the team, was willing to add $25 million or so for Fielder — and Fielder only.
"Frank decided to make a special exception," said a person familiar with the Dodgers' thinking.
Up to that point, the Dodgers had been acting and sounding like a team operating under major financial constraints. The only free agents they signed were relatively inexpensive veterans such as second baseman Mark Ellis and back-of-the-rotation pitcher Aaron Harang. And even those contracts were multiple-year deals that were backloaded, with the players making less money their first year and substantially more thereafter.
That also changed in the offer to Fielder.
The Dodgers offered him a front-loaded contract that included an opt-out clause to entice him into terminating the deal after three or four seasons. Fielder is 27 but is listed at 5 feet 11, 275 pounds, which has raised questions about his health over the long term. McCourt and General Manager Ned Colletti were also mindful that a potential bidder for the team might not want to inherit a seven-year contract, people familiar with their thinking said.
The proposed contract would have paid Fielder an average of about $26 million for the first three or four seasons and about $20 million per season after that.
Under that framework, the Dodgers would have had Fielder in his prime years. And if Fielder were to produce at All-Star levels through the first half of the contract, it would have been to his benefit to reenter the free-agent market again at the age of 30 or 31.
Fielder's agent, Scott Boras, would not confirm he negotiated with the Dodgers but hinted the team might have been willing to add another year to its offer.
"There were multiple teams involved with Prince, and I was not talking to any team that was not in the eight-years-and-above market," Boras said.
Colletti said as recently as three weeks ago that the team lacked the wherewithal to pursue Fielder. The Dodgers didn't even meet with Boras at baseball's winter meetings last month in Dallas.
However, shortly thereafter the Dodgers reached out to the slugger, and Colletti and two other front-office officials met with Fielder and his representatives two weeks ago. Colletti followed up by visiting Boras at the agent's Newport Beach office a few days later.
Fielder probably would have hit behind Matt Kemp, who signed an eight-year, $160-million contract earlier in the off-season. With Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw ineligible for free agency until after the 2014 season, the Dodgers would have had three top-tier players 28 or younger.
First baseman James Loney, who is under contract next season for $6.375 million, would have been traded or moved to the outfield.