Let’s start with the obvious. There’s a reason Prince Fielder has priced himself off the Brewers’ payroll. You’re simply not going to find another readily available guy that can hit forty home runs, drive in over a hundred runners, and walk nearly as often as he strikes out. There is no replacing that kind of talent, and if you expect Doug Melvin to do so, you will be disappointed.
And for those of you still hoping Prince will be back, well, Prince has a few words for you:
Unfortunately, this might be the last year for the one-two punch [with Ryan Braun]. I think it’s been good. The six years with me and him has been a good run. Hopefully, we can go out with a blast this year. . . . I’m signed through this year but being real about it, it’s probably my last year.”
Those comments stirred up a frenzy in Wisconsin, but there really isn’t anything there attentive Brewers fans didn’t know. We can safely say that the hefty slugger who has anchored first base for the past six years is on his way out the door, presumably leaving a gaping hole in the lineup.
But hold on a second. There are some hidden opportunities here that may do wonders to improve the ballclub.
First, it would be nice to have a first baseman that plays solid defense. Fangraphs says that Fielder’s defense has been pretty bad; in his six full seasons, Prince has only once pushed his UZR/150 into positive territory.* To be fair, Fielder has steadily improved, from a -11.6 in 2006 to a -5.2 this year. Still, with a pitching staff loaded with contact pitchers, a defensive first baseman would be a plus.
Second, Prince Fielder’s departure gives the Brewers an opportunity to improve other areas of the club by clearing salary. Here’s an example. One well-known liability this season is the shortstop position. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Brewers opt not to pick up Yuniesky Betancourt’s option. Betancourt has slashed .250/.268/.375, and is terrible with the glove (-8.1 UZR/150 in 2011). Prince’s departure frees up about $15.5 million, though escalating payouts to Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, and Yovani Gallardo will erase much of that. Still, one cost-effective shortstop option might be Marco Scutaro, currently with the Red Sox, who is slashing .288/.346/.399. Scutaro is currently making $5.5 million, which is probably right around where the Brewers will want to fall with a new shortstop assuming an internal candidate at first base. Would I take, say, Mat Gamel or Taylor Green at first combined with Scutaro at short over the defensively challenged Fielder and Betancourt? It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to sacrifice a little bit of power for a shortstop who makes better contact and plays decent defense. That might go a long way toward solving the Brewers’ shoddy defense and life by the long ball.
Third, Fielder’s departure gives other players a greater opportunity to shine. At .305/.370/.564, Corey Hart has been a dream at leadoff, but might do just as well as the third or fourth hitter in the order. Hart easily has the power to hit 30 or more home runs, and the plate discipline to be a .285 hitter. Or, perhaps Ron Roenicke could move Rickie Weeks up two spots to bat in front of Braun, guaranteeing that he will see some nice pitches to hammer.
Whatever the scenario, it really isn’t the end of the world that Prince is talking about leaving. And when it happens, the Brewers may still have a good shot at contending for the division crown; their pitching will be largely intact for 2012.
*UZR/150 is one measure of a player’s defensive prowess, assessing how many runs better or worse a particular player is than an average (0) player.
Magic Number Watch: 4