Brewers owner Mark Attanasio, having just completed a nice team-friendly $30.1-million contract for ace pitcher Yovani Gallardo, is said to remain hopeful to lock up the team's biggest star, first baseman Prince Fielder. But according to the accounts of most in the know, this one is going to be much harder to get done than the Gallardo deal.
No particulars of the negotiations between the team and Fielder's camp have yet become public, but one person familiar with the talks suggested the eight-year contracts of Mark Teixeira and Joe Mauer for $180 million and $184 million, respectively, are viewed by Fielder's people as mere starting points. And another person familiar with the talks suggested Fielder is seeking about $200 million over eight years, which would represent the biggest contract ever in the non-Alex Rodriguez category and only $23 million less than Attanasio paid for the Brewers in 2004.
Attanasio, who has previously locked up cleanup hitter Ryan Braun and raised the small-market Brewers payroll by threefold in his short time there to the current high-$80 millions, has expressed some measure of hope to confidantes regarding the Fielder talks. But one former Brewers player characterized the chances for Milwaukee to keep Fielder as "very slim.'' And one Brewers official conceded that while they believe Fielder is enjoying his time there, they don't sense that he has such an overwhelming desire to stay that it would necessarily translate to a below-market contract.
Attanasio and Fielder's agent, Scott Boras, appear to have taken a vow of silence regarding the most important player negotiations in the Brewers' history. In separate phone conversations, Attanasio and Boras both declined to comment on the alleged $200-million asking price or anything else pertaining to the talks, beyond agreeing that they are indeed engaged in negotiations. That the talks have been ongoing for weeks and have not been cut off could be seen as a positive sign by Attanasio. But in a phone conversation Sunday night, Boras' comments provide an indication of the rarefied air where he believes Fielder resides.
"When you evaluate players at the major league level, those who have done certain things by age 25 are extraordinary, and two of those things are 40 home runs and 125 RBIs. You certainly can count the number of players who have done that,'' Boras said by phone. "Extraordinary performance at a young age gives you totally different career indices.''
The contracts of Mauer and Teixeira surely will come up in talks, but it's believed that Boras will likely try to draw comparisons between Fielder and all-time great power hitters Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols, as well. Along with those two, Fielder is the only active player to have a .275 batting average, .375 on-base percentage and .550 slugging percentage with 2,500 plate appearances by the year they turned 25. Historically, the onlly players on the list are Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Mel Ott, Ted Williams, Eddie Matthews, Joe DiMaggio, Frank Robinson and Dick Allen, with Allen the only non-Hall-of-Famer in the group.
While Fielder's batting average doesn't quite measure up to that of either Rodriguez or certainly Pujols, the "extraordinary performance'' theory is an attempt to bring A-Rod and Pujols into the equation. Though Pujols is making just $16 million this year and next, people around the game put him in the category of a $30-million player considering Rodriguez's $30.5 million salary ($27.5 million plus $3 million for attainable home run plateaus) and presume he'll be making about that much in his next contract. While Fielder wouldn't expect to have the salary of Rodriguez or Pujols, that's the company he'd like to keep.
Statistically and otherwise, Fielder, still just 25, is undeniably a special slugger. He had 46 home runs, 141 RBIs and a. 299 batting average in 2009 to finish in the top five in MVP voting a second time, despite the Brewers' also-ran finish.
But while Fielder had 115 more career home runs than Mauer following the year they turned 25 (160 homers to 45), a pretty good case could be made that Mauer is the better all-around player since he's a catcher who's a three-time batting champion and a league MVP. Mauer was also a year closer to free agency when he signed for $184 million over eight years -- though, it could be countered, too, that while Mauer signed a very nice contract he would have easily surpassed $200 million had he been willing to leave his hometown Twin Cities as a free agent.
First base isn't considered a "premium'' position, either, and Fielder's free agent class could be unprecedented in terms of talent at one position (Pujols, Ryan Howard and Adrian Gonzalez are also all due to be free agents after the 2011 season). But one thing that could help Fielder is the fairly widely-held belief within baseball circles that the bigger market Cardinals and Phillies will lock up their own slugging first-base stars before they get to free agency. While Gonzalez isn't seen as likely to be locked up by his hometown Padres, an acquiring team could well do it. Though this is obviously all hypothetical, it's possible that Fielder could be left as the lone free agent among that fearsome foursome.
Attanasio did well to sign Braun a few years back for a deal that guarantees him $45 million over eight years and Gallardo last week for $30.1 million over five. Braun showed by signing so soon that he much preferred to remain a Brewer, and he has expressed no regrets about leaving millions on the table. Gallardo isn't the established star that Braun and Fielder are. Plus, there are more risks inherent for pitchers, further explaining his lower salary.
"I think he's a pretty unheralded pitcher,'' Attanasio said of Gallardo. "That was very good. But it's a challenge. We have a wonderful group of homegrown guys, and we're trying to keep as many as we can.''
Fielder, the biggest star of the bunch, is beloved by Brewers people, including manager Ken Macha, who cited Fielder this spring as perhaps their best example of a player who understands what it takes to succeed and goes hard all the time. Fielder is also becoming the clubhouse leader in the absence of veteran position players. But he can also show his youth. Last night, after striking out against Chris Carpenter, he threw a memorable fit in the dugout, slamming his hand and elbow against the bench repeatedly. This spring, he good-naturedly declined to talk to SI, citing a 2007 magazine profile which surprised Fielder with extensive quotes from his estranged father Cecil, the former slugger, about their relationship. Prince, who is generally very warm and fuzzy and lives up to his first name, later apologized for feeling the need to take that hard-line stance.
Fielder's youth doesn't mean he disregards the business side of baseball, and his decision to hire Boras suggests to some that he may be looking for contract over comfort. So it's no wonder many around baseball believe Attanasio is being too hopeful to think he has a realistic chance to keep Fielder. Attanasio once expressed some hope that he had a real shot at retaining star pitcher CC Sabathia, but that was before the Yankees blew away the Brewers by $60 million, bidding $161 million to about $100 million by Milwaukee.
Judging by the reluctance of Attanasio and Boras to comment, it's clear this has become a super-sensitive topic to all. The two Southern California residents were hoping to keep their talks entirely a secret, even though Attanasio had made known this winter his intention to try to lock up Fielder. But the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported about an early meeting this spring.
More recently, Attanasio seemed to express a bit of frustration about the talks in USA Today, wryly noting accurately that "the Yankees infield makes more than our whole team,'' a remark that spurred Yankees president Randy Levine to slap Attanasio down with a comment of his own, telling ESPNNew York that the Yankees and other big-market teams subsidize the Brewers with tens of millions of dollars in revenue-sharing monies and called upon Attanasio to "stop whining.''
Attanasio suggested in a phone interview with SI that his remark was only intended as a light aside that seemed to become much bigger in the article, and remarked that he likes Levine very much. "The Yankees do pay money. We certainly get money in revenue sharing,'' Attanasio said. Levine, for his part, said in a subsequent phone conversation that he sniffed out a hint of Attanasio's Yankees sentiment and warned him that he'd have to take him down if he expressed it publicly, which is what he did. Levine also said he likes Attanasio very much.
Boras expressed his affection for Attanasio, as well. But Attanasio's popularity isn't at issue here, and there's real doubt as to whether he will meet Fielder's price under the constraints of the small-market Brewers' financial situation. While their financial condition has improved dramatically with their attendance increasing to more than three million each of the last two years and revenues said by Forbes to be $171 million, Attanasio said by phone he and his partners expect to lose "a few million dollars'' this year and that he doesn't see their payroll expanding much from about $88 million.
Attanasio also said when he told his partners they'd be losing a few million bucks this year, they asked him, "In what kind of business do you project a loss?'' And he said he responded, "The baseball business.''
It might be easier making money if he owned the storied Dodgers instead, but Attanasio immediately dismissed any notion he might skip from the Brewers to buy the Dodgers from the bickering McCourts in his adopted hometown (the Bronx native lives in Beverly Hills). Attanasio said in our phone conversation that he is committed to the Brewers, and apparently has said the same thing to others who've inquired.
Attanasio has been a savior in a small town. But to expect the same sort of Brewer-first feeling from a superstar player who is less than two years from free agency might be somewhat optimistic.
Some teams that could become Prince Fielder's next employer if the Brewers are unable to lock him up ...
1. Mariners. Seattle has high revenue, a rich owner and a need for power. Perhaps more importantly, it also is run by GM Jack Zduriencik, the scouting director who picked Fielder for Milwaukee. The Mariners' scouting director Tom McNamara is also the scout who convinced Milwaukee to sign Fielder back when Wendy Selig-Prieb and Laurel Prieb ran the team
2. Cubs. His 11 home runs at Wrigley are his most in any opposing ballpark, and his 1.076 OPS is his highest at any park with at least 50 at-bats. Incumbent Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee is a free agent at year's end.
3. Giants. They've tried to trade for Fielder in the past, and current 1B Aubrey Huff may not have much left. Fielder could give the Giants the type of offense to put them over the top but it's hard to imagine they'll dish out the bucks necessary to keep him long-term.
4. Dodgers. As long as the fighting McCourts are battling it out, they're won't be any expensive free agents coming their way. James Loney is solid but hasn't delivered for power.
5. Mets. They're going to be counting on top prospect Ike Davis. But if he doesn't pan out, they could become a candidate.
• The Diamondbacks are believed to be one of the teams looking at free-agent pitcher Jarrod Washburn, who is expected to choose between a few teams pursuing him at some point soon. The Royals are another team that's shown interest, and Yahoo! reported the Indians did, as well.
• Mets manager Jerry Manuel raised a few eyebrows when he said, "We didn't appear prepared. I have to take responsibility,'' after his team failed to score in seven innings against wily but underwhelming veteran Livan Hernandez, an ex-Met. Such honesty seems rare for someone on the hot seat.
• Rangers manager Ron Washington went with a quick hook, replacing closer Frank Francisco with Neftali Feliz after one week and a 27.00 ERA. His bosses showed more faith in Washington than he did in Francisco.
• Target Field opens today with the Red Sox visiting the Twins. All early reviews are positive. But it's not likely to match the Homerdome as a home-field advantage for the Twins.
• Jon Rauch looks good through one week of closing. Scouts are skeptical that he's a closer all year, though.
• Mariners center fielder Franklin Gutierrez showed why his defensive metrics were the best in baseball last year with a game-saving catch.
• Mark Teixeira has displayed good range already after a year in which his UZR was negative. Teixeira incidentally said he fielded better last year than in 2008, when his UZR was positive.
• Teixeira said he thinks Nelson Cruz could be a superstar, and he's off to a nice start with three home runs already.
• Reds rookie pitcher Mike Leake, who never threw a pitch in the minors, was a great candidate to make the jump to the majors. He showed he has a great idea how to pitch and win while at ASU and beat the Cubs in his debut Sunday.
• Aroldis Chapman and Stephen Strasburg looked great in their minor league debuts Sunday. Chapman is expected to get six to eight starts before his ascension to the majors.
• Creditors are still balking over Tom Hicks' deal to sell the Rangers, and nobody should blame them since he is said to owe them $500 million (at least) and they have grown to not trust him. But Chuck Greenberg remains hopeful that his deal to buy the team from Hicks for $570 million will eventually go through.
• The 0-6 Astros, as bad as they may be, are no threat to the 1988 Orioles, which set a major league record for consecutive losses at the start of the season by going 0-21.