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09/22/11 11:40 AM ET
Prince factor gives Brewers incentive to win
By Adam McCalvy / MLB.com
MILWAUKEE -- Prince Fielder says he wants to "go out with a blast," and the Brewers are only a few games away from lighting their postseason fuse. With a rebuilt pitching staff worthy of a long-potent offense, the Brewers are closing in on their first division title in 29 years in what will probably prove to be Fielder's final season. That's not our assessment; it's Fielder's own, offered to a TBS camera crew last week that was in Milwaukee gathering footage for postseason coverage. Fielder was asked a question about teammate Ryan Braun and responded with the sort of jarring honesty that free agents usually save for the winter. "It's been great; unfortunately, this is probably the last year of the one-two punch," Fielder told TBS play-by-play man Brian Anderson, who also calls Brewers games. "But I think it's been good -- [five] years, him and me. Hopefully, we can go out with a blast." The comments caused something of a stir, but they should not have. Neither Fielder nor the Brewers have acknowledged any contract talks since Spring Training 2010, and both sides entered '11 content to focus on baseball instead of business. Now that the season is drawing short, the reality is setting in. The most prolific power hitter in club history may be taking his final swings in a Brewers uniform. It makes it the perfect time for the Brewers to do some damage in October. The franchise has not won a postseason series since 1982. Asked about the Fielder factor, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said, "I can't worry about that too much. He's hitting fourth in our lineup. He's been unbelievable. Could we be where we are without him? Probably not." The Brewers are where they are for a myriad of reasons, beginning with general manager Doug Melvin's work in rebuilding a pitching staff that had become a liability since CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets left via free agency in the fall of 2008. Melvin made bold trades for starters Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, signed former Dodgers closer Takashi Saito and then kept adding in-season. His trade for Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez the night of the All-Star Game was arguably one of the summer's most impactful deal, and it cost the Brewers only a situational left-hander and a low-level relief prospect. The result of those additions, along with incumbent closer John Axford, is a pitching staff befitting of a potent if often inconsistent offense built mostly from within. Braun, Fielder, right fielder Corey Hart and second baseman Rickie Weeks are all drafted-and-developed players who have been All-Stars. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy could be a future All-Star if he takes more steps like he did between 2010 and '11. That leaves only three positions filled by outside acquisitions: third base, shortstop and center field. The Brewers might have had homegrown players at the latter two positions, too, had they not parted with Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain in the Greinke deal with Kansas City. Fielder, though, remains the big man in the middle. He was the first Major Leaguer to top 100 RBIs this season and the first Brewers player to reach the century mark in four different seasons since Cecil Cooper had his fourth in 1983. Last weekend, Braun joined Fielder in that distinction. The perception of the Brewers goes something like this: They must win it all this season, before Fielder departs via free agency, or risk seeing the window of opportunity slam shut. But that perception is wrong, say players and front-office executives alike. The Brewers believe they are positioned to compete this postseason and beyond, perhaps better positioned than some other teams. That's mostly because of a five-man starting rotation that will remain intact for 2012, a shutdown closer under club control for four more years and an offense that, even without Fielder, still has All-Stars Braun, Weeks and Hart signed for multiple seasons. "The biggest thing for us is to treat that like we've treated everything else this season," third baseman Casey McGehee said. "That's something we've got no control over. Whatever is going to happen, is going to happen. Just like we've approached every day separate from the other days, we have to treat that as separate from what we're trying to do here. I don't think this is even the time to talk about what might happen down the road, to be honest with you." It's a difficult topic to ignore, because Fielder would leave a big hole in the lineup. He was the seventh overall pick in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft, was in the Majors by '05 and a fixture in the starting lineup by '06. Since then, Fielder has played more games (953 through Wednesday) than anybody in the Majors. He's missed only 13 Brewers games over the past six seasons and only one game in the past three years. The Brewers would miss more than Fielder's production. If any player is the heart and soul of the team, it's Fielder. Roenicke lauded Fielder's "leadership in the locker room." "If No. 28 is back with us next year, I'll be the first one over there at his locker jumping up and down, because I know he helps this team win," McGehee said. "If he's not, then absolutely no hard feelings. He's got to make his own decision, and he's going to do what he has to do. We'll go on from there." That's a matter for the winter. First, the Brewers have some October baseball to play.