One of the first orders of business this offseason will be whether the Royals will tender contracts to its arbitration eligible players. While most of the decisions are obvious, Josh Fields presents an interesting case. The Royals bought Fields and Chris Getz from the White Sox last offseason for $1 million (and what is left of Mark Teahen). Heading into the season, Fields had no real defined role other than right-handed bench bat, so it was not surprising that he started the year on the disabled list with an injury that was never mentioned during spring training. It turned out, however, that Fields needed arthroscopic hip surgery. As a result, Fields missed the season except for a September cameo when he hit 306/320/490 (352 wOBA) in only 50 plate appearances, prompting Rany Jazayerli to call for the Royals to sign him to a 3 year/$15 million contract (no, not really).
Fields has a pedigree as a former well-regarded prospect who ranked 45th on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects entering the 2007 season based primarily on his true plus power. In part because he also played quarterback in college, Fields was a bit of a late bloomer, but he still hit reasonably well in the minors (278/361/464) and his rookie year in the majors (244/308/480). Fields has not hit as well since then, and his overall major league career line is unimpressive:
234/303/421, 8.7% BB%, 33.0% K%, 293 BABIP, 314 wOBA in 796 PA
His lack of success in the majors to date rests on three factors. First, as the 33% strikeout rate indicates, Fields has struggled mightily to make contact. Few players can manage a strikeout rate that high without making up for it with a well above average walk rate. While close to average, his 8.7% BB% rate has not been enough to offset the strikeouts.
Second, Fields has always struggled to hit right-handed pitchers. His major career splits are:
v. LHP: 293/357/600 (400 wOBA) in 240 PA
v RHP: 209/280/343 (276 wOBA) in 556 PA
As noted by Matt Klaassen (the extra "a" is for "analysis"), Fields’ splits should be expected to regress somewhat over time. But there is a real risk that Fields never hits right-handers well enough to play regularly in the majors.
The third problem for Fields is that he is a poor defender at his primary position of 3B. In 1315 career innings (equivalent to roughly one and a half seasons), his UZR/150 is -9 runs. In other words, he is not the admonition that is Wilson Betemit’s 3B defense (-15.3 UZR/150), but he is bad enough that he probably should not play there regularly. Fields has played about 180 major league innings in the outfield without embarrassing himself, but he would lose about ten runs in value over a full season due to the positional adjustment of moving from 3B (+2.5 runs) to a corner outfield spot (-7.5 runs). His hitting would have to improve significantly to stick as an outfield regular.
Fields will be arbitration eligible this year for the first time as a "Super Two." He made the league minimum last year of $422,000. Given his performance and lack of playing time over the last two years, Fields would likely receive only a modest raise to somewhere in the $700,000 to $1 million range (in comparison, Alex Gordon received $1.1 million in his first year of arbitration eligibility with better numbers and about twice the playing time).
Fields is a tough case because while he has some potential and should not receive much of a raise, he does not appear to be in the team’s long-term plans. Next year will be his age 28 season, so he is not young. If he was a better defender, he might be a decent stopgap at 3B until Mike Moustakas makes his major league debut around mid-season. As is, he does not really have an obvious role on the 2011 team, other than right-handed bench bat who can stand in at the various corners. And if the Royals do not tender Fields a contract, his stock may be down enough around the league that the Royals can keep him as a minor leaguer.
That said, the plus power makes him somewhat intriguing as a project because a modest improvement in his walk and strikeout rates could make him a viable regular and any substantial improvement could make him an above average player. Former prospects who have shown some promise like Fields are exactly the type of player to whom the Royals should give auditions. Other considerations in his favor are that Fields should be in the middle of his offensive peak, the Royals should have room on the 40-man roster, and Fields would be under club control for four more years (through 2014).
In the end, it should come down to whether the front office expects Fields to have a reasonable shot at a roster spot on the 2011 team. If not, there is no reason to keep him around and guarantee him any money (the team could release him but he would be guaranteed at least 1/6 his 2011 salary). It is a close call, but non-tendering him (and trying to re-sign him to a minor league deal) is probably the right move. The chances of Fields improving enough to become a regular are just not very good, and right-handed bench bats are easy to find. And there should be better free talent options available this offseason.