September 22, 2011
Life Without Fielder
All is well in Milwaukee, where the Brewers are on the verge of clinching both a 95-win season and a division title in the NL Central, but the team’s run to October has assumed an air of added urgency in light of Prince Fielder’s impending free agency. Fielder—who leads the NL with 155 games played and has produced rate stats (including a sterling .294/.409/.547 triple-slash line) and counting stats (34 homers, 112 RBI) capable of making adherents of both advanced and traditional statistics swoon—is both the second-longest-tenured and the highest-profile player on the roster, which has led many observers to conclude that the big first baseman’s uniform would be difficult to fill (in more ways than one) if he were to depart this winter.
Although some Brewers fans might have managed to delude themselves into believing that Fielder’s services could be retained even after he reportedly declined a five-year, $100 million offer last season, his acknowledgement last week that “being real about it,  is probably the last year” in which he’ll call Miller Park home forces us to consider whether the Brew Crew would be best-served by digging deep and overspending in an all-out effort to re-sign him or letting him leave and investing the savings elsewhere.
Given that players tend to peak at or even before Fielder’s current age of 27, it’s likely that we’ve already seen the best he has to offer. While he could continue to play at a high level for years to come, Fielder’s frame and conditioning represent significant causes of concern when it comes to a long-term pact. What’s more, while Fielder’s production won’t easily be replaced, his skillset lends itself to irrational exuberance on the part of those who’ve seen him play.
Despite his often-gaudy statistical totals—most notably his league-leading 50 home runs as a 23-year-old in 2007—Fielder has never been the most productive Brewer in terms of Wins Above Replacement (WARP), as he’s been outdone by at least one other Milwaukee position player in each of his six full seasons. Fielder’s relatively low WARP totals aren’t as much an indictment of his play as they are a compliment to other first baseman; the statistical bar is simply set very high at the position that demands the least of its fielders. NL first basemen have posted a collective .804 OPS this season, the highest figure at any position in either league.
In addition, while Fielder wields a big bat, his ancillary skills can’t keep pace. Fielder is a below-average fielder (-0.5 FRAA this season, -22.2 career) and baserunner (-2.6 BRR this season, -21.4 career) whose play beyond the batter’s box has cost his team roughly four wins over the course of his career. He’s even less likely to improve in either of those areas than he is at the plate, which could restrict him to DH duty during the life of his next contract.
That said, big power numbers often lead to big paychecks, and in light of the mega-deals awarded to comparable players like Ryan Howard and Mark Teixeira, Fielder is likely in line for a hefty raise from his already-substantial $15.5 million salary this season. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Brewers have to be (or even should be) the team to give it to him. Even aside from channeling their limited resources into less glamorous (but still sound) potential expenditures on player development, the international talent market, and the amateur draft, the Brewers’ free-agent funds could go further if they chose to devote them to a few less prominent players rather than tie up a sizeable percentage of their payroll in Fielder alone.
If Fielder walks, the Brewers will need to address a new vacancy at first base. 25-year-old infield prospect Mat Gamel has been biding his time in the minors while blocked by Fielder, and although he doesn’t have the kind of no-doubt bat that teams look for in their first basemen—he’s managed just a .684 OPS in nearly 200 major-league plate appearances, albeit spread across four fractional seasons—he has the Triple-A track record to warrant a crack at filling Fielder’s shoes.
If Gamel gets off to a bad enough start to convince the organization that his bat isn’t meant for the bigs, the Brewers can take a look at another internal replacement in Taylor Green, a recent call-up who has played primarily in the outfield but has spent time at first base and has hit even better than Gamel (.336/.413/.583) in 2011. The Brewers could supplement the left-handed Gamel, who has mashed opposite-handed hitters to the tune of a .347/.408/.602 line in Nashville this season, with the righty bat belonging to Wily Mo Pena, a potential platoon partner and pinch-hitter who could be had for not much more than the league minimum.
If the Brewers’ upcoming playoff run gives them the resources to ink any notable free agent to a long-term deal, they should forgo Fielder and pursue Jose Reyes instead. Shortstop has been by far the team’s weakest position aside from third base, where the right-handed Casey McGehee has been plagued by an almost inconceivably low .202 BABIP against southpaws (versus whom he’s hit an anomalous .171/.230/.187), and he seems a fairly safe bet to return to at least a league-average level.
Yuniesky Betancourt, on the other hand, is unlikelyto contribute anything positive next season, having played below replacement level in three of his last four campaigns before poking his head just above it (0.5 WARP) in 2011. Despite the risks associated with signing Reyes, the Brewers could make a massive upgrade by letting Betancourt depart via free agency and bringing Reyes aboard. If Reyes is too rich for the Brewers’ blood, they could recoup some of their first-base shortfall by replacing Betancourt with either the Tigers’ Ramon Santiago—who has accumulated roughly 3.0 WARP over the equivalent of a full season’s playing time from 2010-2011 but could come cheap—or the Astros’ Clint Barmes—who’s been approximately league average in three of the past four seasons.
The Brewers could also look to sign a starter with a higher upside than Chris Narveson, such as Erik Bedard, to round out their rotation, though they needn’t go to great lengths to avoid returning with the same formidable front five. Ron Roenicke is working without a single left-handed reliever in his nine-man bullpen, so Doug Melvin might be wise to monitor the market for the likes of Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, and the ageless Darren Oliver in search of a steal.
The Brewers can also do better on the bench, where they’ve carried such aged and extraneous spare parts as Craig Counsell, Mark Kotsay, Erick Almonte, and Wil Nieves this season. It might not seem this kind of improvement on the margins could offset the loss of a star like Fielder, but those four players have combined for -1.5 WARP this season, so if the Brewers could replace them with merely mediocre pieces, they’d be well on their way to recouping their on-field loss at a fraction of the cost.
The Brewers’ competitive window needn’t close after this season, since the rest of their core—Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, and Shaun Marcum—will remain intact regardless of which team fits Fielder for a cap come next spring. If they can’t afford Fielder or would prefer not to overpay for his decline phase, they can still assemble another contending team by spending their savings in places where each dollar would bring a better return.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .