Spring Training is a time when optimism is running high for fans of every team -- as the running gag on Brewers Radio during the Spring goes, "Hope springs attorney."
So what am I about to do? I'm going to introduce a bit of horror and pessimism into our ideas of playoff contention. I tend to be an optimistic guy when it comes to this team, but when Milwaukee is one of the last teams to fully open camp, playing "What if?" can be a good way to pass the time.
So, let's assume everything goes horribly wrong for the Brewers once the regular season starts. It turns out Casey McGehee is struggling to repeat his success from last year. Mat Gamel gets jerked around again and can't find a groove at the plate in Nashville or Milwaukee. Alcides Escobar struggles to adjust to a full year of Major League pitching, and Carlos Gomez hits like he has the past couple years. To top things off, the pitching still stinks and Rickie Weeks' wrist isn't completely healthy.
The Brewers are middling in 4th place or so in July, and are closer to last place than first place. Knowing that Prince Fielder is going to be looking for a record decision in arbitration next winter, do you consider moving him at the deadline, like the Rangers did with Mark Teixeira in 2007?
As much as I hate to say it, I think you not only have to consider it, but you have to pull the trigger.
The catch? These days, when teams are much more conscious about their prospects, it's much harder to get the kind of haul that Texas got for Teixeira. Hell, the Yankees lost out on Roy Halladay because they refused to part with Jesus Montero, an all-bat-no-D catcher that would be average at best at first base or DH. If the Yankees of all teams are refusing to part with prospects, it's going to be hard to get the equivilent of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Neftali Feliz, and Elvis Andrus for Fielder.
The toughest part for the Brewers if they do decide to trade Fielder is knowing where to start. In theory, you're trading Fielder because you want something in return that's more certain than the pair of compensation picks you would get from letting him hit free agency. Contrary to what would be the public opinion, you're trading Prince Fielder so you can stay competitive in the short term -- if you try to compete by having him on your team and you let him walk, you'd still have to spend time waiting for those comp picks to develop (and there's a good chance they never will). Why not trade him while his value is still high, and get players that are closer to contributing at the Major League level?
Do you trade him to a team who has a nice selection of pitching prospects, but still resides in the National League -- looking at you, San Francisco -- so you risk the chance of him coming back to beat you before he hits free agency (we all know how much Prince loves revenge)? Do you ultimately take less just to make sure he lands in the AL (like the Twins did when they dealt Johan Santana)? In the return package, do you focus on young pitchers, or bats who can replace his offensive output?
Here's what I would probably do: if things look as bad as they do in the doomsday scenario I laid out, you probably start putting feelers out on the trade market by late June (because, hell, the rumors are going to be loud by then, anyway). What you don't do is handle this the way Toronto handled the Halladay situation last season, where you effectively kill your own market. Don't go to the Giants asking for Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey. Don't go to the Orioles and ask for Matusz, Arrieta, and Bell.
If someone offers you a star-studded package, great (especially if it's Brian Sabean, who gave away Tim Alderson for Freddy Sanchez). But don't immediately set the market price to a point where you severely limit your return. This is where I have tremendous faith in Doug Melvin -- he at least seems to know how to find a good starting point in trade negotiations, and he adds pieces as he goes along.
What would I like to see in return for Prince Fielder? I'd love to see a return filled with top prospects, but I wouldn't hate a deal that included a young pitcher or two with high upside and an interesting bat. The Brewers don't need to totally replace Fielder's offensive output in order to still be above average offensively. Chances are Mat Gamel can hit enough to at least be average at first base, and if not, average first basemen with some pop are a dime a dozen -- just take a look at the deal Adam LaRoche signed with Arizona.
In the long run, you're left with a team that's still a little above average offensively with a couple promising young pitchers waiting in the wings -- something the Brewers haven't had since Yovani Gallardo and Manny Parra were in Nashville, and likely won't have for a few more years without a deal like this.
Thoughts? What would you want in a deal for Prince Fielder?