Monday, December 12, 2011

Game Changed on Fielder with Braun Bombshell

Let's assume that Ryan Braun is going to miss fifty games in 2012. That, folks, is not a judgement on his presumed innocence or guilt. The statement is merely based on the likelihood that Braun will beat the test result to avoid the downtime. Based on Braun's 7.7 fWAR last season, if you lose a third of that production, you are losing two and a half wins. Prince Fielder was worth another 5.2 wins. Can the Brewers absorb seven and a half to perhaps eight wins of loss in 2012? Not in this Fan's estimation, they can't.

The fact that Fielder hasn't signed anywhere yet could indicate a softer market for the first baseman than his agent, Scott Boras, anticipated. Or perhaps Boras and Fielder are being obstinate in what they are asking for. In either case, the fact that Fielder isn't signed means that the Brewers can still be in the game for getting him back. What if after looking around, Fielder doesn't see many situations better than what he had in Milwaukee? Could Milwaukee up their offer a little bit to get a deal done? Without being privy to those kinds of conversations, any answer this writer could give would be pure speculation.

There is another concern for this observer. According to the Brewers' Pythagorean win-loss record last year, they performed six games above their run differential. What that means is that the Brewers won six more games than their run differential should have allowed. The Brewers won 97 games last season. Take away those six wins and you are down to a 91-win team. Lose another seven games between Fielder and Braun's suspension and you could be looking at an 84-win team.

Of course the flaw in that argument is that whoever replaces Braun for those fifty games and Fielder for 160 games should provide some value to make up some of the difference. Yeah? But who? Say the Brewers sign Carlos Pena. Pena's highest fWAR in the last three years has been three. Last year, Pena was worth a little more than two and a half wins above replacement. It is likely that he could duplicate that kind of season. But those wins only replaces what you lose for Braun and you still haven't made up for Fielder's loss. And Pena's contribution at most brings you back to 87 wins. 87 wins is not going to win the NL Central.

What other options are there? Matt Gamel? Gamel has put up some nice numbers in the minors. But nothing he's done in the majors leads to a conclusion that it translates. Sure, other players could up their game and add wins. Heck, any shortstop other than Yuniesky could add two wins to the team's bottom line. But Reyes is already off the board and the likelihood of signing Rollins is remote and/or questionable. Can or should you count on other team members to up their game?

And it's not like the Brewers are going to sign an outfielder worth anything in the current market or should when so many dollars are tied up with Braun already. So, this writer can't see any scenario that a player can be much more than replacement level for fifty games while holding down Braun's spot in the field.

The Brewers have done a magnificent job of building their brand over the past several years. The supposedly mid-level market had drawn over three million fans the past two seasons. Like it or not and fair or not, the Braun situation already damages the brand to some degree. Add the hit of losing Prince Fielder and now the brand is leaking. Markets are volatile. Just ask Coca-Cola. All the work that has been done in the past few years can be undone in a matter of months.

This writer realizes that the reality for the Brewers might not be the same as the reality for the Angels or the Rangers. There might not be the lucrative television and media deals available to them that those teams can rely on. But with three million seats filled per season, they can't be crying poverty can they?

The Braun snafu changes things. Prince Fielder becomes a little more important than perhaps he was a week ago. The Brewers should take that into consideration and perhaps swallow a bit of discomfort to sign the big fellow. It would be terrific for their brand and in light of the Pujols' defection, would be good for baseball. And from a Fan's perspective, Braun's current troubles or not, it would be cool to see the tandem of Braun and Fielder in the middle of that line up for years to come.

**Update** The Brewers signed Aramis Ramirez today and traded away Casey McGehee. They also signed  Alex Gonzalez. So everything changes and pretty much makes this entire post moot. Ramirez is worth so much more than McGehee and Gonzalez is a big upgrade on Betancourt. That evens things up quite a lot. The only continued reservation is Gamel at first.

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