In the past few days since Prince Fielder has signed with the Tigers, a few friends who are aware that I am an avid Brewers fan have brought it up with some predictable sentiments. "It sucks that the Brewers lost Fielder," or "baseball should have a salary cap," or "it sucks how baseball teams can't keep their best players." I usually just sigh and agree because I do not feel the need to go into a lengthy lecture about the real truth of the matter. In the future I might just link them to this post to explain why everyone that's a Brewer fan should take this news in stride.
It was extremely unlikely that Prince Fielder was ever going to be a Brewer after his first six years in the big leagues. After his 50-homer season in 2007 it was pretty clear that Prince was going to make a ton of money. The Brewers offered something like 5 years and $100 million when Prince entered arbitration, and when that was turned down there was no chance Fielder was going to be a Brewer beyond 2012. The Brewers knew it, Prince Fielder knew it, and some of the fans knew it.
Prince Fielder did not ask to play for Milwaukee. He is an asset that the Brewers drafted. He was obligated to play here for 6 years, 3 for a salary far below what his talents are worth, and 3 more at a still discounted rate. He gave the Brewers organization everything he had. There's no expectation that he needed to sign here. Prince did just about everything right.
The other piece of the puzzle is that the Brewers could have afforded Prince Fielder. There is certainly an imbalance in the competitive ability of the different franchises in MLB, but there's not some imaginary barrier between teams that can afford superstars versus teams that cannot. For the salaries of Randy Wolf, Rickie Weeks, and Corey Hart, the Brewers could have paid Prince Fielder $26 million next season. The Brewers think that those three players, together, will provide more value in 2012, and they are almost certainly right. That says nothing of 9 years from now, when Fielder will be making $25 million and most likely be nowhere near the production he had as a youngster when the Brewers were paying him $500,000.
The Brewers have to pick and choose when building a team. Some teams can afford to pay market value for a star coming out of his arbitration years, knowing full well that they will be paying close to market value for a few years and most likely overpaying significantly for the last few years of a deal. The only real viable strategy for a team like the Brewers to keep superstars beyond their arbitration years to identify them early. Ryan Braun did not sign his long-term extension as early as, say, Evan Longoria, but it's very clear he could have made a lot more money if he were to test the free agent market.
The Brewers do not need Prince Fielder to win in 2012. They are much better off filling the roster off by plugging holes and relying on cheap players like Mat Gamel and Taylor Green to fill out the roster. I think most Brewer fans understand that but it did not stop me from saying it anyways. If the Brewers, say, traded Randy Wolf and Corey Hart, and not elected to sign Aramis Ramirez, they could have afforded Fielder in 2012. The team, however, would not have been improved.
When Prince Fielder next plays in Milwaukee, hopefully in the 2012 World Series, I hope the crowd stays classy and lays off the booing. He did his time and is now rich beyond anyone's wildest dreams. He did not have to stay here, and the Brewers did not really need him to stay here. We had the privilege of watching Prince play for 6 whole years. I hope he sets all kinds of records playing with Detroit, but the Brewers are in the business of winning a World Series, not giving us a sentimental Brewer-for-life when it's not practical economically or smart in a baseball sense. The Brewers will move on without Fielder, and Fielder will move on without the Brewers. They say a breakup is never really mutual, but I think this one is. Hopefully we can still be friends.