If Brewers talk, will Prince listen?
Milwaukee owns All-Star's rights for two more seasons
MILWAUKEE -- Brewers general manager Doug Melvin retained his star closer in October, rebuilt the lineup with a November trade and then landed the second of two starting pitchers he coveted this week. With a month to go before the mitts start popping in Spring Training, there's one big agenda item left to check off: exploring an extension for Prince Fielder.
If the Brewers are indeed preparing to approach their superstar first baseman and his super-powered agent, Scott Boras, about a contract extension to keep Fielder in Milwaukee past 2011, the team's veteran general manager is keeping those plans to himself."It's a big one," Melvin said this week, "and if we have any kind of conversations it wouldn't be for publication. You don't want to be asked about it every 24 hours. I'm not going to get into that sort of thing. "But at some point, we said we want to get together. It has to be the right time. Is it the right time now? I don't know the answer to that." A discussion of Fielder's future requires this disclaimer up front: He's already under contract for 2010, then is under club control for one more year of arbitration eligibility in 2011. That means the Brewers own Fielder's rights for two more seasons, and, as Melvin has pointed out in the past, this means that there is no sense of urgency to strike a deal. On the other hand, it's understandable that Melvin would seek a sense of whether Fielder (and Boras) are open to the idea of an extension or whether they intend to test the free-agent waters two years from now. If it becomes clear to Melvin that Fielder will follow the latter path, the Brewers would have to at least consider trade offers rather than risk losing Fielder for only compensatory Draft picks in return. Melvin would prefer the former, and why wouldn't he? Fielder had a monster season in 2009, when he batted .299 with 46 home runs and a club-record 141 RBIs. Of Major League hitters, only the Cardinals' Albert Pujols hit more home runs, by one. Fielder and the Phillies' Ryan Howard tied for the RBI crown. In four full Major League seasons, plus a cup of coffee in 2005, Fielder, Milwaukee's top Draft pick in 2002, has amassed 160 home runs and 453 RBIs. He's already tied with Paul Molitor for eighth on the Brewers' home-run board. "You're talking about a franchise player, but historically, when you look at those kinds of guys who are represented by Scott Boras, the success rate of extending guys and buying them out of free-agent years is not very high," said former Mets general manager Jim Duquette, who currently works as an analyst for MLB.com and Sirius XM Satellite Radio. Duquette raised a trio of Boras clients -- Matt Holliday, Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran -- as examples. The Rockies' offers were spurned in 2008 when Holliday was poised to enter his contract year, and Colorado ended up trading him to the A's that November. The Rangers traded Teixeira, a first baseman, to the Braves in July 2007 after he and Boras reportedly passed on an eight-year, $140 million extension. Teixeira was 27 at the time, and a season and a half removed from free agency. For now, Fielder is following a similar path. Texas and Teixeira agreed on a two-year, $15.4 million deal in January 2006 that bought out two of Teixeira's arbitration-eligible seasons and left him with one remaining. It was very similar to the two-year, $18 million pact between Milwaukee and Fielder in December 2008. Fielder will earn $10.5 million in 2010 in the second year of that deal. Before Teixeira there was Beltran, shipped from the Royals to the Astros in July 2004. Beltran parlayed a fabulous finish to that season into a mega-deal with the Mets. Boras could not be reached for comment on Fielder's future. "I have a hard time thinking of [a Boras player] who took an extension," Duquette said. "Look at the numbers he's gotten for some of his guys over the years and it's almost like, how could they? Unless the team is willing to go to such an extreme to make it worth his while, like the Brewers going to Boras and saying, 'We'll give you Holliday money.'" Duquette was referring to Holliday's recent free-agent pact with the Cardinals, who will pay the left fielder $120 million over the next seven years. "In fact, I'm not sure that even that would get it done," Duquette said. "I'm not sure it would take as much as 'Teixeira money' [he got eight years and $180 million from the Yankees], but probably pretty close." Several other baseball officials agreed, including a rival scout who suggested that he would not take a Brewers offer for Fielder unless it spanned 10 years. One agent suggested that the Boras Factor was among a slew of salient points to consider that could work either for or against the Brewers in their talks: 1. The market, and baseball's revenue at the time. In other words, how many teams a) will need a first baseman in the winter of 2011-12 and b) could support Fielder's salary demands? The Yankees, with Teixeira under contract through 2016, would presumably be out. Which brings us to: 2. The Pujols Factor. Plus the Howard Factor and the Adrian Gonzalez Factor, for that matter. All three fellow first basemen are lined up with Fielder to be free agents following the 2011 season. The topic of an extension for Pujols has already been raised in St. Louis, and if a deal is indeed struck, it could both help and hurt Fielder, Gonzalez and Howard as they seek the richest deal. Help, because it would reduce the number of premium players available at the position, and hurt because a hometown discount for one could theoretically set a lower bar for Fielder and Howard. 3. Age. Fielder is only 25 today, and he would be 27 as a free agent. Howard and Pujols will each turn 32 during the 2011-12 offseason. 4. The status of baseball's Basic Agreement. The current agreement runs through Dec. 11, 2011, and any significant changes could alter the landscape for teams and free agents. "The Brewers are certainly one of the teams that reinvest their revenue dollars so I'm sure they'll give it a shot," the agent said. "But I think Prince has come too far to settle for anything less than top dollar." Some optimism may be in order, and the Mariners provided some on Thursday when they formalized pitcher Felix Hernandez's five-year, $78 million extension. Hernandez, like Fielder, would have been entering his second of three arbitration seasons, but he's a pitcher. What about hitters? There is precedent there, too.
In March 2008, the Tigers locked up Miguel Cabrera with an eight-year, $153.3 million extension. Like Fielder is today, Cabrera was 25 at the time and two seasons shy of free agent eligibility.
Two months earlier, Justin Morneau inked a six-year, $80 million extension with the Twins. He was 26 years old, and one season removed from winning the American League MVP Award and two seasons shy of free agency at the time.
Travis Hafner was a year and a half away from free agency when the Indians signed him to a four-year, $57 million extension in July 2007.
In June 2005, Jimmy Rollins signed a five-year deal with the Phillies that guaranteed $40 million when he was still a year and a half from free agency.
Other similar deals could be in the works. The Twins, for example, are currently working on an extension with catcher Joe Mauer, scheduled to reach free agency after next season.
Melvin has some payroll flexibility in his favor. The Brewers' only commitments past 2010 are to outfielder Ryan Braun, whose contract runs through 2015, starter Randy Wolf through 2012 and reliever LaTroy Hawkins through 2011.But if it becomes clear to Melvin that Fielder plans to exercise his right to free agency following the 2011 season, the Brewers might look at some point to other options. Melvin has been down that road before, trading Richie Sexson to the D-backs in December 2003 when Sexson was a year removed from free agency, and shipping Carlos Lee to the Rangers in July 2006 when Lee was in his contract year. "It's going to be very difficult for the Brewers," Duquette said. "They're going to really have to make it worth his while. "But if you're Doug Melvin, you have to go for it. This is a franchise player, and you have to try to lock him up. In the end, it's highly unlikely that you're going to get anything done. Based on the history, you kind of know where this is going to go."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.