Ex-Raptor Prince Fielder free to offer his talents to a new team

Nov 4 2011 - 4:19pm

MILWAUKEE -- The five-day window when the Milwaukee Brewers had exclusive negotiating rights with free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder is now closed.

There was no ground broken by either side during that period, which was hardly surprising.

For some time, Fielder and agent Scott Boras have been focused on reaching free agency. The Brewers tried to head off that process by offering a five-year contract extension for approximately $100 million in spring 2010 but were turned down, and no negotiations have taken place since then.

Boras had no intention of negotiating with the Brewers during that five-day window after the conclusion of the World Series but that became moot because the club wasn't ready to make an offer. General manager Doug Melvin has yet to meet with owner Mark Attanasio to discuss a possible offer to Fielder because he first traveled to see prospects at the team's newly opened baseball academy in the Dominican Republic.

At his media session to wrap up the Brewers' playoff season, Melvin said he expected to meet with Attanasio in early November in Los Angeles.

So, when might something start happening on the Fielder front? It's unlikely there will be any real developments before baseball's winter meetings in early December and could go on well beyond that.

Boras is looking for a contract similar to the one another of his clients, Mark Teixeira, got from the New York Yankees heading into the 2009 season. The New York Yankees signed the veteran first baseman to an eight-year, $180 million deal, making him the highest-paid first baseman in baseball at the time.

But with Teixeira still in the midst of that deal with the Yankees, and two other big-spending franchises -- the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies -- also having invested huge money in first basemen, the bidding war that Boras is seeking for Fielder might be tempered somewhat.

There are some big-market franchises in need of a slugging first baseman, including the Texas Rangers and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the American League and the Chicago Cubs in the National League. Whether any are willing to pay Fielder more than $20 million annually for seven or eight years remains to be seen.

Working for Fielder is the fact he'll be just 27 heading into the 2012 season and is coming off one of his most productive years. He earned his second Silver Slugger Award earlier in the week and figures to be a top-four finisher in most valuable player balloting after hitting .299 with 38 home runs and 120 runs batted in for the NL Central champion Brewers.

Not helping Fielder will be the huge step back he took defensively this past season, when he committed 15 errors, 11 more than he accumulated in 2010. Some NL teams also might have reservations about committing to a long-term deal with a player who already weighs about 275 pounds.

Fielder might project to be a better fit for an AL club because he'd be able to see action as a designated hitter as he ages. The Houston Astros have been unable to do that with Carlos Lee, a former Brewer who hit it big on the free-agent market only to weigh down the franchise as the years passed and he no longer was mobile enough to play the outfield.

But would Fielder, an iron man who was the only major-leaguer to play all 162 games this past season, accept being pegged as a future DH? It's yet another question that will be answered in the coming weeks.

Aside from the Rangers, Angels and Cubs, there are other possible fits for Fielder in both leagues.

In the NL, the Washington Nationals have shown the willingness to spend big money in an attempt to become relevant in the NL East. The seven-year, $126 million contract they gave outfielder Jayson Werth last off-season is proof of that. They do have a first-base candidate of their own, in Michael Morse, who's coming off a solid 2011 and would be more affordable.

The Miami Marlins could also be an interesting destination. They're looking to make a splash with a new name, stadium and logo for 2012, and Fielder could be just the type of player to help them do so. Fielder also lives in the Orlando area in the off-season.

In the AL, the Seattle Mariners could use a left-handed power hitter. And general manager Jack Zduriencik, having already signed a multiyear contract extension with the team, drafted Fielder in 2002 when he was the Brewers' director of amateur scouting.

The Baltimore Orioles might also make some sense, although it's hard to believe the competitive Fielder would take well to playing with a franchise that has struggled perennially after finally experiencing the other side with the Brewers.

Another factor is Fielder isn't the only big-name first baseman available. St. Louis slugger Albert Pujols is also a free agent. While he'll be five years older than Fielder entering next season, Pujols has generally been regarded as the game's premier player for a number of years while also being much better defensively.

Attanasio said in the wake of the Brewers' NLCS Game 6 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals that the team would be a player in the Fielder sweepstakes.

But with the Brewers' payroll not expected to go much beyond its current $90 million level, it would take creativity to put together a package to keep Fielder. They might well decide that extending starting pitchers Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum and filling first base from within is the way to go for the long haul.

If Milwaukee chose to stay in-house, Mat Gamel would be a natural choice to get the first shot. A left-handed hitter, Gamel spent most of the season at Class AAA Nashville, where he hit .310 with 28 homers and 96 RBI.

Gamel, 26, has bounced back and forth between Milwaukee and the minors for each of the past three seasons, but 2012 might well be a make-or-break season for him because he will be out of minor-league options.

"We know Mat Gamel is here," Melvin said. "I look at guys like Nelson Cruz and David Freese. And Mat Gamel has had years as good as they did in the minor leagues. He just hasn't had the chance because we haven't given him the chance. Is this the time to give Mat Gamel a chance?

"That's something we have to seriously consider."

The Brewers might also consider an in-house platoon of Gamel and the right-handed-hitting Casey McGehee, who struggled both offensively and defensively at third base in 2011.

Looking at the free-agent market, Carlos Pena (.225, 28 homers, 80 RBI with the Chicago Cubs in 2011) would be a legitimate left-handed power bat the Brewers could use to split Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks in their lineup.

Casey Kotchman is also a left-handed hitter who is a standout defensive player. Right-handed-hitting possibilities could be Derrek Lee or Michael Cuddyer.

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(c)2011 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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