Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Prince of Thieves

I came into work today, and as I always do, poured myself a cup of coffee and checked my email. I then moved onto to check for any updates, that way if my brother called me with the latest crisis in Milwaukee I'd know what the heck he was talking about.

The past few weeks have been very busy for the Brewers, as they look to follow up on last year's impressive performance with another playoff season. A number of players have said goodbye, and we've welcomed a few new faces to the clubhouse. The Brewers recieved a wonderful present from Santa this offseason, the anticipated departure of one-time closer Eric Gagne, along with his $10 Million price tag - which, as it turns out, amounted to $1 Million per save in 2008. Reminds one of Clemens' payscale with the Yankees a couple years back. Anyhow, goodbye to Gagne and hello to Trevor Hoffman, whose pay in '09 will be $6 mil with an additional $1.5 Mil in incentives. If he makes his career average number of saves in '09, that'll work out to about $187k per save, a much more affordable number for the Brewers. This, added to the departure of Ben Sheets and C.C. Sabathia frees up much more money for the Crew to throw into shoring up the pitching rotation, as well as retaining some of the young talent that got them to the playoffs last year.

Amoung these young players, Milwaukee has already restructured deals with Ryan Braun, J.J. Hardy, Seth McClung and Dave Bush. Yet to be addressed, however, would be the most important in my opinion - the contract for right fielder Corey Hart. Hart, as you may recall, was an All Star in 2008, and whom the Cubs' scouting director refered to as the "Best player on the Brewers' roster". How we've made it to January 21st without restructuring his deal is beyond me. You don't want a player to get a sour taste in his mouth because you get all the way to an arbitration hearing, especially a guy who is at the core of your franchise.

I decided to write today, most importantly, on the situation with Prince Fielder. Arguably the best young power hitter in the league, Prince will be entering his 4th full season as the Brewers' first baseman. He is not eligible for free agency until 2011, but more importantly to Milwaukee he is arbitration eligible this year, and this has proven to be an issue already. In 2008, Prince pulled in just under $700,000 salary. As we approach spring training, however, he is asking for nearly $8 million dollars, which would make him one of the highest paid players at the position league-wide. Milwaukee, looking to avoid going to arbitration with Fielder, countered with a $6 Million offer yesterday, and that is as much as we know at this point. Is he worth that much? Absolutely! Is he worth $8 Million, to a team whose entire payroll last season was around $80 Million? Not sure about I decided to took at his stats, and compare him to a few other first basemen around the league.

Justin Morneau, the 6-year veteran 1st baseman in Minnesota made $8.4 Million last year. Ryan Howard made $10 Million, and Boston's Kevin Youkilis made only $3 Million last season (before signing a 4-year, $41.5 Million contract this offseason). He earned it, though, and Boston has that kind of money to throw around. Milwaukee doesn't.

Let's start with awards - they kind of sum it all up in a nutshell. Justin Morneau has 2 All-Star appearances, and won the AL MVP in 2006. Ryan Howard has 1 All-Star appearance, was rookie of the year in '05, and was named NL MVP and MLB Player of the Year in 2006, along with winning the Hank Aaron Award that year as well. Kevin Youkilis has 1 All-Star appearance, won the AL Hank Aaron Award in '08, and even has a gold glove. Fielder himself has 1 All-Star appearance ('07) and won the Hank Aaron Award that year as well.

Even if we stopped there, we could see that Fielder wouldn't be worth $8 million, but when we start to look at individual stat categories, the evidence is overwhelming. Out of the 4 players, he doesn't lead a single category (major ones being hits, runs, HRs, RBI, AVG, OBP, etc). He does, however, tie Youkilis for the top base stealer of the 4 players (all of 3 SB's in'08). Here's a side-by-side comparision if you want to look at what I'm talking about.

So how does a guy who doesn't lead a stat category amoung his peers demand the same kind of money they make? Simple. His ego is as big as his belly. To him, it's not the paystub, but what the paystub "represents" according to an article on him from last year. Now, I'm not denying the kid's ability. He has the potential to become the best power hitter in the majors. He has a more-than-decent glove at 1st base, and has quite a strong baseball pedigree. His future, however, is in the American League, as his weight continues to go up (slightly under 270 lbs, as of this offseason) and without being addressed will surely lead to health problems (specifically knee and/or back ) in the near future.

The Brewers are still licking their Ben Sheets/Eric Gagne wounds, and are as a result, still gunshy of large contracts. They haven't had a great track record recently on high yielding returns from newly structured player contracts, and understandably so. It's entirely understandable why they are not giving Fielder the $8 Million he is asking for. Ben Sheets had a career high 13 wins last year...13! his 8th season. His paycheck? $12.5 Million. Eric Gagne, as previously discussed, had 10 saves last year. His paycheck? $10 Million. They were the two highest paid players on the roster in 2008, and yielded far less than they should have. Prince Fielder had an amazing year in 2007, but followed it up with a less than stellar follow up campaign in 2008. Had he been arbitration eligible following the '07 season, he'd have probably recieved the money he asked for Tuesday. After last year, though, the Brewers need to see a bit more consistent performance from him. His numbers from '07 to '08 went down in every single statistical category - except for strikeouts. Those, oddly enough, went up to nearly 23%.

The Brewers counter-offer to Fielder yesterday was $6 million, and we'll see what becomes of that. In my opinion, it's more than he is worth as a player. It is worth paying him that much money, however, when you look at the bigger picture. Like I said, he'll most likely end up in the American League sooner than later. He is under contract in Milwaukee for another 2 seasons. Should he stay healthy, he'll be commanding well over $10 million/year by that time, and your Boston's and New York's will be more than happy to pay for it. What does Milwaukee get in return? Some solid starting pitching, for one. Some farm hands, for another. With the money and compensation the Brewers recieve from the Prince Fielder trade sometime in the future, it won't be that hard to find a first baseman who can at LEAST get league average stats, allowing the Brewers to shore up the pitching rotation, and shoot for another postseason berth.

The underlying problem, however, is something that perhaps cannot be fixed. It's naive to think that a player will stay in one city for the duration of his career, those days are gone. Arbitration has allowed players to see that their rights are met and honored, no longer being sold or underpaid. As we have seen in the past, however, the precedent has been set that allows players like Fielder to reject his team's counteroffers long enough to see himself sitting across the arbitration table from the front office, at that point recieving a sum which in almost every case is closer to what the player wants than it is to what the owner wants.

In a city like Milwaukee, this creates quite a problem. Fielder isn't the first and surely won't be the last player to grow from prospect to All-Star in the organization and leave for the almighty dollar. It's impossible for a team like Milwaukee with a league-lowest annual payroll to hold onto the high rollers for more than a season, at which time they will be forced to trade them or lose them to free agency, putting a Craig Counsell on the field and putting a couple more guys into the farm system in return. How do you fix this? A league-wide salary cap. That's a topic for a later time, however, and one that's not easily addressed.

As far as Prince Fielder goes, he's being selfish. I can't expect a guy to show any loyalty to the club that brought him up, gave him a chance, and allowed him to flourish and succeed. Like I said, those days are gone. But show some decency and understanding. It's obviously more important to Fielder to have a bigger paycheck, to "Get Paid", than it is to play on a team that is able to legitimately compete for a pennant year to year. We all understand that a billionaire doesn't get into the lucrative field of owning a professional sports franchise to show compassion or be showed compassion, and we should all expect our team's owner to throw more money into the salary coffers than is already there. Mark Attanasio has already done that, and he showed it last year by going after Gagne and Sabathia. But at what point do we have to draw the line, and at what point does an owner have to pull up the pants and not allow himself to be taken advantage of by premadonnas like Fielder? Sure, an extra $2 million is not going to affect Attanasio at all. To him, it's drop in the bucket. But if he does it for Fielder, he'll have to do it for everyone, and for an owner that has no historical or family ties to the franchise, this could spell doom for the fans. He's from California, so what's to stop him from selling the team because it's not yeilding a high enough profit for him? Absolutely nothing. Next thing we know, we have a new owner who has less money and less concern for the franchise, putting us right back into the situation we were in before Attanasio bought the team.

Fielder doesn't see it that way. As I said, it's more important for him to feed his ego and not be looked upon by other players as the guy who "isn't getting paid" than it is for him to play on a team in playoff contention every season.

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