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Prospect Retrospective: The career of Prince Fielder

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Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas Rangers will hold a press conference today, likely announcing the retirement of first baseman Prince Fielder due to his recent neck surgery. Let's take a look at Fielder's time as a prospect back with the Milwaukee Brewers and the shape of his career.

Prince Fielder was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the first round of the 2002 draft, from high school in Melbourne, Florida. The seventh-overall pick, he was well-known to scouts for years as the son of former major league slugger Cecil Fielder.

At the time, the pick was considered somewhat controversial. Fielder's bat was highly-regarded, but he had a hard time keeping his weight under control in high school, exceeding 300 pounds at times, and he was seen by many as a future DH. The Brewers already had their first base slots filled with Richie Sexson and prospect Brad Nelson, but scouting director Jack Zduriencik was sold on Fielder's potential to be more than just a regular slugger.

Zduriencik's judgment that Fielder could be a franchise cornerstone turned out to be correct.

Fielder made his professional debut with Ogden in the Pioneer League, hitting a robust .390/.531/.678 with 10 homers and 37 walks in just 41 games. Promoted to Beloit in the Midwest League, he was overmatched somewhat and hit just .241/.320/.384 in 32 contests, but considering that he was just a couple of months out of high school, this was understandable.  I gave him a Grade B in my 2003 book, praising his bat but concerned about reports that he would end up as a DH.

Fielder returned to Beloit in 2003 and mashed, hitting .313/.409/.526 with 27 homers, 71 walks, and just 80 strikeouts in 502 at-bats, posting an OPS a full 37 percent above Midwest League average. He lost weight and was in better physical shape, although his defense remained problematic. The bat was amazing though, with a rare combination of power, plate discipline, and a low strikeout rate. He rated a Grade A- in the 2004 book and I rated him as the Number 12 hitting prospect in baseball, which in retrospect looks too low. Baseball America had him ranked eighth among hitters.

Skipped past High-A in 2004, Fielder moved up to Double-A Huntsville and continued to hit, posting a .272/.366/.473 line with 23 homers, 65 walks, and 93 strikeouts in 497 at-bats, very impressive for a 20-year-old in Double-A. Although his OPS dropped to +15 percent in the Southern League, he was one of the youngest players at the level. His defense improved somewhat, and I moved him up to Number Six on my list, still with an A- grade. Interestingly, he actually lost ground on the Baseball America list, down to 12th among hitters.

Continuing his steady rise through the system, Prince moved up to Triple-A Nashville in 2005 and hit .291/.388/.569 with 28 homers, 54 walks, and 93 strikeouts in 378 at-bats. He saw 39 games of action with the Brewers and held his own in major league play, hitting .288/.306/.458 in 59 at-bats.

His first major league hit was a double off of Hideo Nomo; his first homer came off Jesse Crain. I ranked him Number Nine on my hitting prospect list entering 2006. Baseball America ranked him seventh. In my book, I wrote "I'll make a prediction here and say that Fielder will hit .267 with 25 homers" in his rookie year, "have a similar season in 2007, then break out big-time in 2008."

The first part of that prediction was close: Fielder hit .271 with 28 homers in 2006, but the big breakout came a year earlier than I expected: he hit .288/.395/.618 with 50 homers and 119 RBI in 2007.

His OPS+ marks in 2009 (166) and 2011 (164) are actually better than in his 50-homer season, due to his own higher OBPs and the general decline in major league offense during those years.  As you know, he eventually left Milwaukee for the Detroit Tigers as a free agent, then was traded to the Texas Rangers. Injuries limited him to just one full season out of three with the Rangers, and now we have the premature end to his career.

In WAR terms, his best season was 2009 with a 5.9 fWAR mark, with 2011 (4.7) and 2007 (4.7) also ranking strongly. His career WAR is 26.8. The WAR system hates his defense and baserunning but his hitting has been strong enough to overcome those limitations.

All told, Prince hit .283/.382/.506, OPS+134, wRC+ 133, 26.8 fWAR. His career was broadly similar to his father Cecil's: they both hit 319 homers in their career, though Prince was a more complete hitter than his father and more productive once era/context is considered: Cecil hit .255/.345/.482 in his career, with 319 homers, 118 OPS+ and a 19.0 fWAR. Using fWAR/PA ratio as a crude metric, Cecil's career fWAR projected into Prince's plate appearances gives a pair-normalized fWAR of 21.0. In other words, Prince was better.

In historical comparison terms, Prince Fielder ranks (by Sim Score, retired players only) with Mo Vaughn, David Justice, Kent Hrbek, Ryan Klesko, Ted Kluszewski, Richie Sexson, Carlos Delgado, and Tim Salmon. Among first basemen with a similar number of plate appearances, Prince Fielder's 26.8 fWAR puts him in territory with Bill Skowron (28.6), Kluszewski (27.2), John Mayberry (26.9), and Andre Thornton (24.8).

All told, Prince is a deserved member of the Hall of the Very Good.