My lengthy outlook on the future of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder

Posted by Steve

I realize it’s over a week late, but I haven’t yet chimed in on Ryan Braun’s record-setting contract extension. I am probably more leery than most when it comes to extending pre-arbitration players; the arbitration system is a big reason why the Brewers are able to compete. Getting players on the cheap for their first few years is very valuable.

When news of Braun’s extension first broke, I was a bit unsure. Most every poster at brewerfan was very excited, but I found myself a bit nervous. Due to unclear language, I was unsure whether the deal was a seven-year deal or a seven-year extension. That’s a huge difference, because one means the deal buys out one year of free agency, the other means buying out two.

The Journal-Sentinel obviously got confused also, because they initially reported the deal would buy out one year of free agency. I would have been pretty unhappy with that, and that was even before the dollar amount of the contract was released. When you control a player for six years with no guaranteed money, is it really worth guaranteeing money to have him for seven years? Generally, my answer to that would be no.

Then the specifics were reported, and my entire perception changed. Turns out it does buy out two years of free agency, and the money is very reasonable as well. Eight years, $45 million is a total steal if Braun simply stays healthy. You can bet Braun understands that as well, but that security obviously means a lot. A freak injury could derail his career, and he would have had nothing guaranteed; now he’ll have $45 mil to “fall back on.” Like he said, there isn’t much he can’t buy with $45 million.

So what does this mean for the Brewers? Probably a number of things. They probably have their three-hitter for the better part of the next decade. They probably now have a new most marketable player, or at least right up there with Prince Fielder. And depending on how Braun progresses, they may have a superstar.

I say that because Braun has not yet become a truly elite hitter. The main reason for this is his free-swinging tendency. He can hit a baseball as well as any player in the world, but until he improves his plate discipline, I’ll always be left wanting more. Because Braun has only drawn nine walks this season, his on-base percentage is a disappointing .325. I’m not going to lie: I find his refusal to take walks maddening. If he had half the plate discipline of Rickie Weeks or even Prince Fielder, he’d be an MVP caliber player.

Braun is considered one of the two best hitters on the team, yet he sports an OBP lower than J.J. Hardy, Jason Kendall and Rickie Weeks, all players who are generally considered to be struggling at the plate this season. Braun’s fat OPS is all slugging-based.

He’s still young, and while history generally shows plate discipline develops slowly or not at all, I still have hope that Braun will progress in this area. Think of the numbers he’d put up if he forced pitchers to throw him strikes! Each times he lunges at a low-and-away slider or hacks at a shoulder-high fastball, it only encourages pitchers further to not give him anything in the zone.

But the bottom line: Braun will either be a very good hitter or a great hitter, and the Brewers made an extremely savvy move with this extension. Without expanding too much in this post, I would expect Corey Hart to be the next Brewer extended.

At the risk of making this my longest post ever, I’m going to change gears to the future status of the team’s other offensive star, Prince Fielder. Sadly, it seems the writing is on the wall for Fielder. It’s impossible to speculate how Fielder felt about the Braun signing. He’s probably happy for Braun, but who knows if it bothers him that he’s not getting paid while Braun is. Either way, one thing he’s surely thinking is ‘Man, I’ll make twice that in the next eight years.’

It doesn’t make nearly as much sense for Prince to accept a long-term deal as it did for Braun. Fielder is due for arbitration next year, where even the most conservative projection will bump his salary to about $7 million in 2008. Prince’s days of being underpaid will end after this season.

Like I said, the writing is on the wall. Prince Fielder will almost surely not be a Brewer a day longer than his free-agent year, and it’s beginning to appear he will not even be here this long. There are simply too many things stacked against this. Consider the following:

  • Fielder has not been receptive to discussing a long-term deal with the Brewers, and his agent, Scott Boras, is notorious for pushing his players into free agency as soon as possible and going for a huge payday from the highest bidder. On the open market, that surely won’t be the Brewers.
  • The Brewers’ top two offensive prospects, Matt LaPorta and Mat Gamel, are both close to the majors. Both probably project as left fielders at best. With Braun and Hart seemingly entrenched in the outfield, there is only one spot available for these two players. By the way, Cole Gillespie, another outfielder and high draft choice, is having a nice season at AA as well. It’s getting very crowded.
  • LaPorta played first base in college, and it’s still his natural position.
  • Prince’s defense is truly terrible. It’s hard to commit to him there for years when he is a huge hindrance to the infield defense.
  • The Brewers will need top-end starting pitching, particularly if Ben Sheets is not re-signed. The only way the Brewers will get this outside the draft is through trading. LaPorta and Gamel wouldn’t bring back nearly the return that Prince Fielder would.
  • The sooner Fielder is traded, the better the return will be because teams will pay more if they get to control him longer.
  • Consider the defense if the team keeps Prince for the next few years: Fielder at first, Gamel at third and Laporta in left. Good God. That is a nightmarish defense. All three of those guys are below average, and in the case of Gamel and Prince, well below. Add them to a defense already featuring Rickie Weeks at second base, and the thought makes my brain cry.

In my eyes, this all adds up to Prince being traded following the 2009 season, with a small possibility of him leaving even after this year. He can be dealt for a young ace-type pitcher and/or a third baseman. A defense with Gamel in left, Braun in right and LaPorta at first is much, much better, and the drop in offense could actually be minimal. Essentially you have LaPorta and Gamel replacing Cameron and Fielder.

Waiting until after the 2009 season allows a few things: First of all, another year of Fielder mashing. Secondly, it allows you to see if Gamel and LaPorta continue to progress offensively. Third, it gives those same two another year at third base and left field respectively to see if they make significant strides. By this time, the Brewers should know whether they will be ready to start and produce at the major league level.

I’m imagining a 2010 team featuring LaPorta at first, Gamel in left, Hart in center and Braun in right, with a rotation topped by Yo Gallardo and our new ace from the Fielder trade. If they end up re-signing Sheets, that would be a killer rotation.

At first thought, trading Fielder seems ridiculous. When I think about it though, he may have more value in a trade than he does with the Brewers. It would obviously also benefit Prince to move to the A.L. to DH. As much as I hate the phrase, you can already sense that Braun is replacing Fielder in some ways as the “face of the franchise.” That’s what I expect in the future as well.

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