Prince Fielder, one of the more beloved players the Milwaukee Brewers have ever had, is leaving. Sure, there is still that very slim chance that he will return, but given the financial situations the Brewers face, a lot would need to change for that to even be a decent possibility. Instead of focusing on re-signing Fielder, the Brewers will have to turn their attention towards finding his replacement at first base and finding production that will help keep the Brewers competitive in 2012, when they can potentially make another run towards the playoffs.
It's always hard to keep in mind that the Brewers don't have to replace all of Prince Fielder's production at first base, though. They don't need to find a forty home run, .400 OBP player for their cleanup spot. If they did, their only options would be Fielder and Albert Pujols. Somewhat fortuitously for Milwaukee, they actually have a number of positions where they could desperately use improvement at, which could make replacing Prince relatively easy.
Look at it this way: Fielder was worth 5.5 fWAR in 2011. The Brewers will be looking to find better production at both third base and shortstop in 2012, as well. Milwaukee third baseman accounted for a grand total of 0.1 fWAR in 2011, including 0.3 by primary starter Casey McGehee. Brewers shortstops accounted for a grand total of 1 fWAR, with half a win coming from both Yuniesky Betancourt and Craig Counsell. Added up, that is a grand total of 6.6 fWAR that the Brewers will be looking to replace. An average of 2.2 fWAR from each spot would give Milwaukee the exact same number of wins above replacement in 2012 at those positions as they received in 2011.
A popular free agent target among Brewers fans is Houston Astros' shortstop Clint Barmes. Barmes, last season, was worth 3.1 wins above replacement, and that's in just roughly 3/4 of a full season. If the budget is there, Jimmy Rollins was worth 3.8 wins above replacement, and the potential is there for him to regain his old form and put up another near-MVP season. Alex Gonzalez, Nick Punto, Rafael Furcal and Marco Scutaro--all potential free-agents--might approach or exceed that 2.2 fWAR benchmark.
Unfortunately, it's not the best year for third baseman on the free-agent market. Aramis Ramirez is the clear-cut best of the bunch, but will cost too much for the Brewers to even consider him. Edwin Encarnacion is a decent hitter, but can't field. Same with Wilson Betemit. Casey Blake is an intriguing option, and the financially strapped Dodgers have already declined his $6MM option for 2012. If he will take a paycut, Blake could make a lot of sense for the Brewers. Of course, the Brewers still have Casey McGehee, whom they may hope can have a resurgence next year, and Taylor Green, whom the team seems to be warming up to. It would be hard for McGehee to be any worse than he was in 2011 and, even if he regains the starting job and is playing terribly, the Brewers will almost certainly have him on a very short leash.
Then, you finally get to first base options, where the choices are underwhelming. Jorge Cantu, Brad Hawpe, Derrek Lee, Xavier Nady are all guys who have had good to great seasons in the past but who would be among the worst starters at first in the majors next year. Carlos Pena is a name that has been thrown around as someone the Brewers should have interest in, but he is fresh off a $10MM contract with the Cubs and probably wouldn't take a significant pay cut. With the Brewers having roughly $10MM of salary room to work with barring any trades, Pena is not a viable option. A pair of Twins outfielders, Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer, would be interesting moves to first, but both will also be looking for a fairly large contract. In house, Milwaukee has Mat Gamel, but it remains to be seen whether the team actually has any confidence in him. Gamel will get a look in spring training, but it would be shocking if GM Doug Melvin didn't bring in an outside candidate to compete for a job. Unfortunately, Mark Kotsay will also probably be resigned and given a shot in spring training.
Still, the Brewers don't need to sign a star player at all three positions. Depending on how Milwaukee thinks about Green and Gamel, they might see shortstop as the only real necessity. It's not beyond reach that both those players could reach two wins above replacement. It's certainly possible that Gamel and Green could both exceed that. Plugging in a player like Clint Barmes at shortstop would, at the very least, bring the team close to the same number of wins above replacement in the starting lineup as they had in 2011. If Barmes can replicate his 3.1 fWAR year of 2011, it would require the Brewers to only find a grand total of 3.6 more wins above replacement between first and third base. That's absolutely do-able.
Of course, fWAR doesn't tell anywhere close to the full story. It is one of the best and quickest ways we have right now to judge the worth of a player, but there's still no telling how it might effect, say, Ryan Braun that he won't have the slugging Prince Fielder protecting him in the lineup. Without Fielder, the entire Brewers lineup changes. They may quite possibly no longer be known as the home-run hitting team that they have been the last several seasons. We won't know for sure until next year exactly how losing Fielder will effect the Brewers, but even if they recreate his fWAR they will be losing plenty of immeasurable intangibles. We'll have to wait and see what that means for the Brewers in 2012.