The biggest questions for the Milwaukee Brewers organization this winter all center on a pitching rotation that was dead-last in National League ERA.
For the fan base, something much bigger is on their minds: Prince Fielder. Fielder has just completed the best season of his career, but all Brewer fans can think of is just how long he'll continue to be the anchor of a potent Milwaukee offense.
If not for Albert Pujols, Fielder may have positioned himself for his first MVP award. He posted career-highs in the following categories: games played (162), hits (177), triples (3), RBI (141), walks (110), batting average (.299), on-base percentage (.412), and OPS (1.014). The walks and RBI were franchise records for the Brewers, and he tied with Ryan Howard for the league lead in RBI, as well.
It is pretty much assumed by most fans and media members that Fielder will bolt from Milwaukee after the 2011 season when he become a free agent. The fact that Scott Boras is his agent only adds to the feelings of impending departure.
Most fans support one of two solutions for Fielder's situation: do whatever is possible to sign him to a long-term deal this winter or trade him for the best possible trade package to re-tool the roster.
The reality of the situation is likely to be a different scenario altogether. It will also be the scenario that gives the Brewers franchise the best chance for a World Series title.
The Brewers will spend this winter overhauling the pitching staff, something that can be done without trading Fielder. The team has already re-signed closer Trevor Hoffman. General manager Doug Melvin can now spend the rest of the winter focusing on finding starters.
Currently, the staff has a couple of pieces to the puzzle in place to build around.
Yovani Gallardo proved himself to be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher in 2009. Gallardo would have easily won 18 games with better run support. Dave Bush was also having a fine year until a Hanley Ramirez line drive off his pitching arm caused inconsistency the rest of the season.
JJ Hardy, Mat Gamel, and Corey Hart have all been brought up in trade discussions. Trading two of those players should return a good middle-of-the-rotation pitcher at the very least. Milwaukee can then look to the free agent market and sign any number of pitchers to round out the rotation.
It is true that the trade market for Fielder will be at its apex this winter, but acquiring equal value for the 25-year-old isn't likely. The Brewers would want a very good pitcher and someone to take his place in the lineup in return.
There are very few teams that even have those types of players to make such a trade, and even fewer willing to give up that talent for the robust first baseman.
Fielder has turned himself into an all-around player. While he will never win a Gold Glove, he is no longer the defensive liability he once was. Only Pujols is a more feared hitter in the National League.
Fielder's value is much more than his value at the plate or in the field. The protection he provides Ryan Braun has turned Braun into one of the best pure hitters in all of baseball. Teams think about Fielder two or three hitters before he even gets to the plate, making the pitcher more vulnerable to those at the plate.
Fielder is also the heart and soul of the franchise.
While Braun may be the mouthpiece, he doesn't command the respect in the clubhouse that Fielder does. Braun is a leader with his words, but Fielder a leader with his demeanor and actions. With the possible departures of Mike Cameron and Jason Kendall, Fielder will take on an even bigger role for the 2010 team.
Despite popular opinion, Milwaukee isn't very far away from competing for a playoff spot. Removing Fielder from the team will make that destination less of a reality and more of a mirage.
Milwaukee will have a very difficult time winning a world title with Fielder on their roster, but they will have no shot at winning one by trading him away. The team needs to take their chances the next two years before Fielder leaves for good and hope for the best until then.
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