Prince Fielder will leave. Most of us came around to accepting this a year or two ago. A lot of us are to the point now where we’ve talked ourselves into not even wanting him to return, due to the financial burden it would put on the club going forward. There’s still that small chance that Fielder enjoyed this playoff run so much that he’d be willing to drastically slash his contract demands, but the odds are too great that he’ll get an offer he can’t refuse this winter from someone else.
With that in mind, we might as well start thinking about how the Brewers should go about filling that hole at first base.
It’s going to be impossible to completely replace Fielder’s production in the lineup with a single player. As far as offensive talents go, he’s close to one-of-a-kind — his wOBA this past season was .408, for example, second only to Miguel Cabrera among first baseman.
The good news is that the Brewers don’t have to completely replace Fielder’s production at first base to once again have a very good offense in 2012 — as many others have noted, they just need an above average player at first while making slight upgrades in other areas (most notably, shortstop and third base).
So who are some of the players they should target?
The average wOBA among qualified Major League first baseman in 2011 was .360, but that’s distorted a bit by the four men that posted wOBAs higher than .400 (Cabrera really screws up the average with his .436 mark). The median wOBA among first baseman was closer to .350. If the Brewers can replace Fielder with someone who can put up a wOBA between .350 and .360, they should be fine.
That’s why so many people thought moving Corey Hart to first base would have made sense. Offensively, he would produce like you would expect a first baseman to produce. Defensively, he likely wouldn’t be worse than Fielder — Hart was a first baseman in the Brewers’ system until Fielder came along. Of course, Doug Melvin quickly squashed that thought in his end-of-season press conference. Hart hasn’t shown much desire to move from the outfield, either.
As far as other internal options go, there’s a good chance Mat Gamel will finally be given the opportunity to stick on the big league roster. He’s been preparing for a move to first base for over a year now, and while he continues to hit well in AAA (he hit .310/.372/.540 with 28 home runs and a .391 wOBA in 2011), concerns about his ability to hit big league pitching linger. It’d be unfair to count him out based on 194 plate appearances spread over four seasons, but as he enters his age 26 season in 2012, he’s also inching closer to Quad-A territory.
Since the Brewers are unwilling to move Hart, though, Gamel is probably their best in-house option. The other possibilities are less than enticing — Casey McGehee could move across the diamond if Jerry Hairston returns and splits time with Taylor Green, but McGehee would provide below-average production at first even if his bat returns to 2009/2010 levels (the defense would be solid, though). There’s also Mark Kotsay — if he returns on another one-year deal, would it surprise anyone if Ron Roenicke gave him plenty of time at first?
That brings us to the free agent options. The list of first basemen isn’t exactly inspriring this offseason (part of the reason why the bidding for Pujols and Fielder is expected to be high), but with some creativity there could be some interesting options. The caveat here, though, is that the Brewers don’t have as much money to spend as you would expect with Fielder’s salary coming off the books — they’ve already spent a good deal of that budget space with extensions to the likes of Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, and Yovani Gallardo.
For that reason, a guy like Carlos Pena — who would otherwise seem like a very good fit — might be out of reach. Pena has always struggled to make contact, but he’s a walk machine and is good for about 25-30 home runs a year (all while playing some solid defense at first). The Cubs seem to have shown an interest in keeping him, although he’s probably more of an insurance policy if they can’t land Pujols or Fielder. Considering the Cubs gave him $10 million last season, though, he might not be willing to play for an amount that fits into the Brewers’ budget. At age 34 next year, there’s also the concern that he may be nearing the end of the road.
The same could be said for Derrek Lee, who looked every bit of 35-years-old for much of the season (at least until he was traded to Pittsburgh, where he put together a strong 101 ABs). Lee might be a better fit for the Brewers’ budget, though. He’s also familiar with the division, and could at least be a solid platoon option/pinch-hitter.
The good thing about trying to fill first base is that conceivably, you could plug just about anyone there, defense be damned. Carlos Beltran, for example, would probably benefit from a move to first with his bad knees…but that’s not a realistic option. There are a slew of other outfielders that are fun to dream about, though — Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Nick Swisher (if he doesn’t return to the Yankees), and Josh Willingham, just to name a few.
Get any of these free agent names, get better production out of third base (whether it’s a Hairston/Green platoon or a rebound year from McGehee), and make an upgrade at shortstop, and the 2012 Brewers should be just fine. I’m not ready to start advocating one player over another right now, but these are some of the candidates. Some are better than others, and some are more realistic than others. The sooner the Brewers drop the charade of “doing everything they can to re-sign Prince,” though, the better.