Prince Fielder signed for nine years and $214 million with the Tigers, putting an exclamation point on what has been a very spending-heavy winter. Rate-wise, the contract isn't that crazy, as it puts Fielder along four other similarly-paid first basemen in the game, including the Red Sox' own Adrian Gonzalez. The main difference is the nine years, as well as the timing of the contract -- for that, the Red Sox deserve credit.
Travel back in time, all the way to the beginning of the 2010-2011 off-season. The Red Sox had just finished a year in which Kevin Youkilis was their starting first baseman, and Adrian Beltre was at third. There were multiple options to choose from, including sticking with the 2010 lineup at the corners, but that would have entailed investing heavily in Beltre, a player already in his early 30s, and Youkilis, at the same point in his career, was under contract for just two more years and was starting to show signs of wear.
The decision was made to finally do what had been rumored for the better part of a year, and trade for Adrian Gonzalez to play first base.
Gonzalez wasn't yet 30 -- 2011 would be his age-29 season -- and he had just come off of a four-year stretch in which he hit .284/.377/.517 despite playing in the game's most vicious park for left-handed hitters. Gonzalez was set to be a free agent in a year, though, prompting outcry from some who felt Boston had wasted prospects in a trade when they could have simply waited for their prize to be available to all. Part of the reasoning was that New York was already dug in with Mark Teixeira thanks to an eight-year, $180 million deal that ends in 2016, so Boston's path to Gonzalez was clear.
The counterpoint to this was that there would always be teams ready to line up to pay the game's very best players. Baseball is a very rich sport, and while the payrolls of the Red Sox and Yankees tend to be the game's highest, they aren't the only clubs capable of handing out enormous contracts to the top talents out there. With Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder both signing mega-contracts with the Angels and Tigers respectively, this point is magnified even further. Add to that the fact that the Marlins almost landed Pujols with a supposedly larger offer, and that the Cardinals, a team in a market small enough to qualify St. Louis for a chance at the new draft lottery also offered him a huge deal to stick around, and you can see that there is always money for the game's superstars.*
*Offer not valid in Tampa Bay, San Diego, or Pittsburgh
Gonzalez signed an extension for seven years and $154 million, adding on to the last year of his original contract with the Padres for a total of eight years and $159.5 million. That's $22 million a year if you just count from the extension onward, or $19.9 million if you put it all together. It's difficult to imagine the Red Sox getting Gonzalez for that low amount in a winter in which Pujols signed a 10-year deal, and the inferior Fielder was also awarded over $200 million and nearly a decade's worth of guaranteed work.
The Red Sox are, even with Gonzalez in a situation where $22 million per year is a discount, in a bit of a budget crunch as they attempt to stay under the luxury tax in order to make future over-spending easier on the team's wallet and budget. Marco Scutaro was dealt to free up some cash to bolster the outfield, and potentially the starting rotation.
What would the 2012 Red Sox look like if they had to contend with the market of the 2011-2012 off-season, and had signed Gonzalez to a longer-term deal, or one with even just a little bit higher average annual value? They would be a lesser team for it, most likely, or even worse, would be sans Gonzalez due to monetary concerns after setting themselves up to acquire him through free agency.
The Red Sox paid out in prospects, dealing a pitcher who wouldn't be ready to impact the team for a few years, a first base prospect they wouldn't require if they had Gonzalez, and an outfielder from the low minors who could turn into something great or never even make the majors. Those prospects all had value, there is no denying that, but the Red Sox felt that getting Gonzalez for a year and extending him prior to a winter that Pujols, Fielder, and Scott Boras could make into their plaything was worth that cost in prospects. With Fielder and Pujols both signed and Gonzalez coming off of a 2011 MVP-caliber campaign, it looks like Boston's plan worked out.