September 15, 2011
"No spoilers!" we would have normally yelled, but the truth is that neither our beefy friend nor our pals in Wisconsin have ever been shy about the issue of impending free agency. Fielder has said in the past that he's going to explore his options with agent Scott Boras while the Miller Park faithful have kept their roots in reality.
Remember that warm ovation they gave him at 2010's home finale?
Given the generally muted response to Fielder's recent comments — can you imagine the uproar in St. Louis and across baseball had Albert Pujols(notes) said the same thing? — it got me wondering: Has the long-acknowledged inevitability of Fielder's departure set the stage for the friendliest split in baseball history? Are they the equivalent of the high school couple that's planning a logical end-of-summer split because they're headed to different colleges?
That last one is an interesting question to me because Fielder's departure has been such a foregone conclusion for so long that it's become overwhelmingly accepted that a split is the best outcome for both sides. Thing is, so many things have happened since this eventual move became a given that it's worth asking the question if that's really still the case.
After all, when this talk all started — and let's define that time as Fielder's breakout season in 2007 — the Brewers were a better fit for the definition of a small-market team. The pitching staff was a mess, consistent contention in the NL Central was only a dream and Miller Park attendance was just showing signs of being a possible phenomenon. If Fielder wanted to reach for baseball's brass ring, the conventional thinking was that he had to head to a bigger market for a better contender, a bigger salary and more marketing opportunities.
As for the Brewers, they comforted themselves with the fact that Matt LaPorta(notes) could eventually be a much cheaper alternative at first and then, after he was traded to Cleveland for CC Sabathia(notes), Mat Gamel(notes) became that guy. After all, the Brewers were a small market that needed to be comfortable with divorce after the six seasons of cheap team control were up.
Four or five seasons later, things are a bit different. The Brewers are headed to their first division title since 1982, Miller Park will again draw three million fans and Fielder is one of baseball's most visible stars despite playing in one of its smallest TV markets. Fielder forms one of the sport's best 3-4 punches with Ryan Braun(notes) and there's a core in place so the team can contend the next few seasons. Would Fielder really be in a better place if he heads off to, say, the Los Angeles Dodgers where he'll have to accept a lot more pressure with that new contract? How about the prospect of slogging through 162 games a year with the Chicago Cubs as they attempt to rebuild? We don't even know who's going to be in the bidding, so maybe Fielder will get a lot less than he's been expecting.
As for the team, the once-promising prospects of swapping in LaPorta or Gamel and trying not to notice the difference are long gone. Yes, it's worth noting that ownership has already committed a lot of money to Braun, Rickie Weeks(notes), Corey Hart(notes) and Zack Greinke(notes), but is it still possible for them to give Fielder a close enough offer that he'd accept and stay where his star was born and has flourished? Only the Brewers' moneymen know for sure.
We'll know soon enough — there's still a postseason to play, remember — and perhaps an active free-agent market, the involvement of Boras and the Brewers' lack of big TV network riches will moot this entire line of thinking. It was Fielder's stated desire to maximize his earnings potential, after all, that set the wheels into motion.
Regardless, I can't shake the feeling that this doesn't have to be Adrian Gonzales and the San Diego Padres without the trade. Given the transformation of the Brewers during the Fielder era, wouldn't it have been better for both sides had the "probably" been a "possibly" all along?