The Prince Fielder situation is one of the few upcoming free agent contests I do not envy as a fan of the Cardinals and Albert Pujols. Fielder's going to be a free agent at 28 and is currently slugging .588 at 27; he plays for the Milwaukee Brewers, but barring the sudden reintroduction of the reserve clause he won't in 2012. For Brewers fans it has to be a little like cheering on a mid-season acquisition, aside from the fact that they've been rooting for him since he tore apart the Pioneer League (.390/.531/.678) when he was 18.
The DeWallet has been subject of much contention ever since it was revealed that Bill DeWitt thought money clips were just too much of an affectation, but I can't think of a situation this predetermined in recent Cardinals history; when a valuable player comes up for free agency the team is always in the conversation, even if they're outbid, eventually, by the Boston Red Sox.
I don't want to think about Albert Pujols having a down season—his baseball card is just too perfect right now—but the range of possible outcomes for his own free agency has gotten wider and stranger since it became evident that he wouldn't be having a career year to close out his current contract. After reaching base four times last night his OBP has hit a season high... of .329.
Okay, okay, let's do this down-season thing. I'm going to rip the band-aid off, write 100 words about it, and then put the band-aid back on. Pujols's primary baseball card achievement to date is that he's never hit less than .300 with fewer than 30 home runs or 100 RBI. The good news is that he's already on pace to maintain the home run and RBI crowns.
According to ESPN he's on pace to have 623 at-bats, which would be very surprising, but it's as usable a number as any other for this exercise. To finish at his current batting average of .252 he'd have to pick up 126 hits in his last 500 at-bats, to finish with 157. A .300 batting average across 623 at-bats requires exactly 187 hits, so in this strange universe where Pujols plays 162 games but also is not as good at baseball as he usually is—the equivalent of Chris Carpenter's 2010 season, I guess—he would have to go 156 for his last 500, which is a completely manageable .312.
For the sake of symmetry, and also the Cardinals' postseason plans, I hope he does it. All right: band-aid back on. Albert Pujols is Albert Pujols and will be Albert Pujols forever, the end.
Time was at a premium Thursday night, I'll try to pop back in this afternoon with something more for your Friday perusal. After the jump: I traded a few questions with Nicole Haase of Brew Crew Ball, our untucked neighbors to the north, and her answers appear below.
Dan: Is there any resentment toward Prince Fielder now that he's not likely to come back, or is he still popular at the stadium?
Nicole: No, there's no resentment towards Prince. I think a lot of fans are still in denial with themselves and think it's possible that the Brewers will still sign him. In all honesty, there's no way that the Brewers can commit that kind of money to a single player, especially after signing the extension with Ryan Braun a week ago. Prince is a homegrown talent and in a perfect world, we'd love to keep the potent one-two punch of Braun and Fielder in the lineup, but that's just not possible. It's clear that the whole team is committed to going "all-in" this season and the fans have bought in to that. We know our best chance of winning involves having Fielder batting clean-up, so we'll take what we can get until we can't anymore. I actually don't imagine there will be much resentment even when he leaves. Sure, the boo-birds will boo because they boo everything, but I think most people are happy to have had him this long. People don't seem to resent CC Sabathia for turning down the reported $100 million the Brewers offered him to take a bigger payday elsewhere, I think it will be the same with Prince.
Dan: What's been the biggest surprise of 2011 for you so far?
Nicole: The rotation has been the biggest surprise so far, both for the good and the bad. When we learned that we'd lose Greinke for at least a months worth of starts, fans began to worry. While the starting five was nice and solid, we quickly discovered that we didn't have an obvious candidate for a sixth starter. Marco Estrada was a non-roster invitee to Spring Training and has handled himself magnificently as the fifth starter fill-in for Greinke. He's 1-0 with an ERA of 3.00 over 21 innings pitched. He's made three spot starts, going at least six innings in each. We couldn't have hoped for anything more.
Chris Narveson didn't allow a run over his first two starts. Randy Wolf struggled in his first outing of the season, giving up six earned runs in four innings. Since then he's given up just four runs in 33.2 innings while striking out 28. Shaun Marcum has given up just nine earned runs in six starts and sports a 2.21 ERA with 34 strikeouts.
Yovani Gallardo is struggling and no one seems to know why. He insists he's not injured and manager Ron Roenicke says its just a matter of control. He's been susceptible to the "big inning" and the staff has tried a few different things to work through the problem, including speeding up his delivery. However, despite our ace struggling, the rest of the pitching staff has really helped keep the team afloat. The offense is helping, as well. Gallardo's struggles compounded with Greinke missing a month could have really put the Brewers in a hole coming out of April, but they managed to stay at .500.
Dan: What are you expecting from Zack Greinke this season?
Nicole: It's hard to say. My expectations have been tempered somewhat since Spring Training and the hoopla of signing him. The team isn't performing as well as we'd hoped and clearly we can't pin all our hopes on Zach Greinke. Of course we'd love to see him have another Cy Young-caliber year, but I think expectations are somewhat less than that. He's been good for a career average 3.24 WAR and I think we'd be happy with that. Our other ace, Yovani Gallardo, has been struggling, so I'm looking to see Greinke step up and become a bit of a leader of the rotation. We need the assurance of a solid start every five days. The Brewers have been unable to break the .500 bubble in April and spent two weeks trading wins for losses.
Dan: Finally, do you think the decision to try to win now by making the Greinke and Marcum trades was a good one? Which of those prospects will you miss the most?
Nicole: Absolutely I think the trades were worthwhile. The Brewers have the pieces to win and I appreciate management's decision to "go for it." Small-market teams like Milwaukee will have limited opportunities to make the post-season and I think they have to take advantage of those when they come along. Owner Mark Attanasio has been a god-send to baseball fans in Milwaukee. He brings a completely different attitude and viewpoint to ownership that wasn't there when Bud Selig owned the team. Fans have been excited about the Brewers for the past few seasons in a way they haven't been since 1982. But I think that goodwill will only spread so far. You play baseball to be able to play in October. Fans got a (very small) taste of that in 2008 when the team won the Wild Card and I think fans will be severely disappointed if they don't see another postseason appearance from this very talented group of players.
I, admittedly, am not one who spends hours looking at a worrying about the minor league system, so I do not have the same doom and gloom approach to the situation that some do. There are those who are concerned about the lack of depth in the minor league system, but I think that will rebound.
There are those who would say that the person we miss most is Alcides Escobar because most fans are pretty upset about the fact that Yuniesky Betancourt is the Brewers everyday starter at second base. However, Royals fans will tell you that they're gnashing their teeth of Escobar's struggles in Kansas City. Escobar is a huge improvement over Betancourt defensively, but I think Brewers fans would be just as upset with Escobar's .222/.248/.269 line.
Long term, I think the organization will miss Brett Lawrie the most. There's an argument to be made that with Casey McGehee at third, there's not really a place on the major league roster for Lawrie, but I think with his bat, they'd have found somewhere to put him in the majors. Losing Fielder's power will be a significant hit for the Brewers and I think a combo of Braun and Lawrie could have been formidable for the Brewers in the coming years.