Friday, January 27, 2012

So long, Prince



As a Brewers fan, I'm sad to see Prince Fielder go. I had come to grips with the fact that he was on the way out. He's a Boras client, a few times turned down a pretty big extension offer from the Brewers, and he pretty boldly hinted all last year that this would be his final season in Milwaukee. I don't begrudge him wanting his money, and I'm actually glad the Brewers didn't try to overextend and match Detroit. The Tigers just gave a 27 year-old who is charitably listed at 275 pound and, in spite of his last name, can barely field the least important position on the diamond a 9-year contract worth over $200 million. At 36, he will make $24 million and he will almost certainly weigh over 300 pounds. If he lives up to this contract, it will be a minor miracle. The Brewers will definitely miss his presence in the lineup, but he's also almost definitely not worth that much money.

* An interesting (and kinda technical) aside. Fielder (or Cabrera) might be more valuable as a DH than as a first basemen, at least according to WAR. Currently, the plan is for Miguel Cabrera to move back to his "natural position" of third base. That's not going to work. Cabrera was a bad fielder 40 pounds ago. Instead, one of these guys is going to have to DH, possibly this year especially because the Tigers' nominal DH, Victor Martinez, is out for the year. Weirdly, there aren't very many good players DHing. In terms of value over the average DH, either hitter would almost definitely be the best DH in the league by a long margin. I don't love defensive wins above replacement, but both guys are worth an average of -1 wins per season as first basemen. DH, according to WAR, is only half a win less valuable than first base. Thus, if one of them puts up the same stats as a DH, and especially because so few other teams have great DHs, Cabrera or Fielder could absolutely be more valuable DHing than at first. It is counterintuitive because it's always more valuable to get the same production out of a position player than a DH, but because both are such poor fielders at such an unimportant position I think it'll be a wash. *

As Steve alluded to in his ode to big fat athletes, there was something cosmically right about Prince Fielder playing in Milwaukee, for a team called the Brewers. He was a joy to watch play, and that's a rarity in baseball. Pujols, A-Rod, and quite a few others are undoubtedly better but they're not nearly as fun to root for. Pujols' persona, at least on his Sportscenter commercial, was literally a machine. He's great but not that compelling. A-Rod just comes off as a narcissist who tries too hard to be liked. Fielder, on the other hand, seems like a goofball. He inspired articles like this and this (God bless The Onion). Here was an obese vegetarian who swung as hard as he could, probably harder than anyone else in baseball, but he also always ran hard down the line. I watched him, on more than one occasion, tire himself out on the basepaths to the point that he would make sloppy plays in the field the next half-inning. I distinctly remember a late-September game this past year where Fielder hit a double and having this gut feeling while watching that he was going to make a terrible play in the field. Sure enough, the next inning Fielder dropped a throw that came right to his glove, and I wasn't even surprised. It was a little maddening, but I didn't mind because Fielder was such a joy to watch play.

Cheering for a team like the Milwaukee Brewers doesn't bring a lot of rewards. Unlike basketball, where one talent can turn a team around (or at least drastically alter its fortunes) it takes a long time to rebuild in baseball. The Brewers built a solid core of prospects and twice made big deals for pitchers, trading prospects for CC Sabathia and then Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, and they've made the playoffs twice in the last four years. The preceding two decades were a little barren. The Brewers didn't play in a playoff series from 1982 until 2008, didn't even have a winning season from 1992 until that year. And they were just so mind-numbingly dull. I used to almost hope for blowouts so the great Bob Uecker would start telling stories. There were years when Richie Sexson was legitimately the best and most exciting player on the team. Cal Eldred was pretty clearly the Brewers' best pitcher in the 1990s. What I'm trying to say is that there were some lean years cheering for them. And Fielder was anything but lean. Fielder, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, and this new generation of Brewers turned it around. Last year, especially with the addition of the gentleman Tony Plush (nee Nyjer Morgan), was the first time cheering for the Brewers was legitimately fun. They clowned around, had a lot of personality, and had a lot of talent. They got as chippy as you can legitimately get in baseball and had a particular hatred for the Cardinals. They were a real team, man.

I'm sure the success drove how much I appreciated them as a team. If this were the 2002 team that lost 106 games the shtick would have worn through pretty quickly, but these players could back it up. And Fielder was the epitome of that team, high fiving everybody after any given home fun and generally being the second funniest fat athlete in Wisconsin (number one would be BJ Raji).

I have a feeling everything's about to change. Braun is most likely suspended (and I'll write more about that as more facts come out). The team built a solid core of number two starters, but Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf are due to regress. Nyjer Morgan can't really get any crazier, and he also played out of his mind last year. And at the top is Fielder, the fat goofball patriarch no longer of the team. They'll miss his production, but as a fan I'll just miss knowing that I could watch him play every day.

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