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April 25, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL Central

At Your Service

by Larry Granillo

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Why would a team sign a 27-year-old Ryan Braun to a five-year, $105 million contract extension when the extension is still five years from kicking in, as the Brewers did last week? There are certainly practical reasons, but one overriding one that rarely receives its full due from analysts is fan service. The small market curse—that teams can develop superstars, but cannot afford to retain them—is very much alive in Milwaukee, and fans are keenly aware of it. The Prince Fielder situation is a perfect example of this.

In Prince Fielder's final plate appearance at Miller Park in the 2010 season, the 30,000 fans in attendance  gave him a rousing ovation. Later, after Fielder walked and was replaced by a pinch-runner, the ovation was louder and longer, forcing a curtain call from the slugger. It wasn't because Fielder had just hit a walk-off home run or knocked in the winning run. It was because not a single person in the stadium believed that the power-hitting first baseman, who had finished third in MVP voting in 2007 and fourth in 2009, would ever play a game in a Brewers uniform in Miller Park again. The fans wanted to make sure that he knew how much he was appreciated.

The grace Brewers fans showed in September was perhaps prompted by the fact that Fielder's exit would not be fatal to the Brewers' current offense. With a fellow superstar in Braun already locked up through 2015, fans could accept Fielder's expected departure more easily, since the team could still expect to be competitive without him. But would they be feeling the same way next spring if they were suddenly faced with the prospect of Braun dumping the Brewers in a few years with no fallback and no farm system to replace him?

Yes, the 2015 season is still four years away, but that kind of logic doesn't often play into these things from a fan's perspective. Ryan Braun is currently one of the best hitters in baseball, the fan's logic goes. His 927 career OPS and 135 home runs in 600 career games is proof of that. If he continues on a similar course as he finishes out his twenties, it would be hard to see him as anything other than a potential Hall of Famer, especially with the eyes of a Brewers fan—a Brewers fan who has helped turn the franchise in the smallest market in baseball into one of the top ten drawing teams in the majors for three straight years. What does this Brewers fan do if he sees a potential Hall of Famer only two years away from free agency? Remember, the buzz surrounding Fielder's potential departure started well before the 2010 season, when he was still two years from free agency. In fact, there were even rumblings of it after the 2007 season, when the Brewers renewed his pre-arbitration contract without first negotiating with him.

These are the issues that Brewers GM Doug Melvin and owner Mark Attanasio have to work through. The Brewers have a competitive $90 million payroll this year, but that is only after squeezing over nine million fans into Miller Park over the last three years. Fan interest is what drives the franchise. If the organization starts signalling to fans that it can't or won't do what is necessary to field the best possible team, that interest could shrink very fast, injuring the franchise greatly.

The Brewers didn't have to act now, though. Why not wait until those three or so seasons had passed for Braun to prove that his is a Hall of Fame-level bat before making the deal? Baseball contracts are agreed upon by two parties: both the organization and the player have to benefit from the deal. This deal can be made in 2011 because Braun feels that the certainty of $105 million before his 28th birthday is worth the sacrifice of potential funds that a free-agent Braun might command in 2015. If the deal weren't discussed for another three years, that tradeoff would not apply, and the terms might not be satisfactory to Braun (and likely wouldn't be, considering that Braun approached the Brewers with this deal). The Brewers, in that scenario, risk losing a Hall of Fame-level Braun over a few million dollars today.

The deal is not without its risks, of course. Any time money is guaranteed this far in advance, the risks are large. Sudden or nagging injury, a shift in attitude and/or preparation, a decline in skill—the dangers are real. Obviously, the Brewers feel they are worth taking. In the organization's eyes, Braun is a healthy, hard-working, athletic player on the fast track to a memorable career that will keep Wisconsin fans in the seats for the next decade. A below-market deal that ensures he stays with the team over that time is almost a no-brainer, if that's you're point of view. How happy would the Indians have been to sign Manny Ramirez to a ten-year, below-market deal in 1998? Or the Cardinals with Albert Pujols in 2004? That's the mentality that Melvin and Attanasio are working from here.

A "fan service" operating procedure is generally not the wisest way of doing business. It's what keeps someone like Geoff Jenkins or Darin Erstad around too long. With the right player, though, it's as easy a choice as offering hot dogs and beer at the concession stand. For the Brewers, it's bratwursts, Miller Lite, and Ryan Braun.

***

One example of how not to handle fan service came last week in St. Louis. Struggling Cardinals closer Ryan Franklin was removed from the role he'd held for the past two-plus seasons early in the week. On Wednesday, making his first appearance after the demotion in the first game of a doubleheader, Franklin gave up a walk and a home run in his second inning of work. The Busch Stadium faithful showed their distaste with some hearty booing.

After the game, Franklin talked to FoxSports' B.J. Rains:

"Sure, I hear it. I guess they have short memories too because I think I've been pretty good here. It doesn't bother me, but it just shows some people's true colors. You're either a fan or you're not. ... You should go write stories about the fans booing. They are supposed to be the best fans in baseball. Yeah right."

The moniker "best fans in baseball" has been placed on Cardinals fans in the last few years, and perhaps it is too weighty a crown for any large fan base to wear and live up to. No group that large is homogeneous, even when united around something as simple as a favorite baseball team. Any bad eggs on a given night can be used by others to throw the "best fans in baseball" tag back in the faces of the group as a whole, ridiculing them for a failing common to all fanbases.

Franklin, especially, should have known not to do such a thing. Clearly, the 37-year-old closer, who has had success for the club in the past, was a bit frustrated with his situation and with the boos that he'd heard. It's perfectly understandable for him to want to air those frustrations, but his quotes to Rains were not the way to do it.

Franklin realized it too late, issuing an apology shortly after the back-end of the doubleheader had ended.

"Things didn't come out the right way. It was right after the game and I said things I shouldn't have said. I apologize for that. ... It was the wrong thing to say, but at the same time I was frustrated. I am frustrated. I'm just trying to do my best to do everything I can to get back on track. So that's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to get back out there and help this team."

The damage has been done, though, and now it's going to take more than just good performances to win back the fans. Before he made the comments, a return to form would have been enough, since all the fans were booing was his performance. Now, though, fans have both his performance and his personality to dislike. When similar comments got Milwaukee's Corey Hart in hot water a couple of years back, it took a return to his All-Star form before fans forgave him (and even now they have him on a short leash).

In the meantime, the closer's role has been handed to Mitchell Boggs. Boggs has made two appearances since the switch, earning saves both times. He's allowed two baserunners and struck out one in those 2.1 innings of work. It's possible that Tony La Russa may try to work in a few other relievers as the save opportunities present themselves, but Boggs has been his man for the first two chances, and La Russa, like most managers today, isn't one to play with a bullpen-by-committee arrangement for long. One must also wonder whether Franklin's comments will have a lasting impact on his future in the bullpen. Confidence is a key part of any late-inning reliever's approach, after all, and a booing home crowd does little to inspire it.

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