While the summer (and more specifically, the end of July) is often full of summer rentals around MLB, a new trend seems to be emerging around the movement of players that are under contract for longer than just 2 more months. That is, players who aren't going to be Free Agents for more than a full season have become the newest currency in the MLB marketplace, leading to trades that can't even be called summer rental...call them summer timeshares, given that some of these players change hands a couple of times from the time of their first trade to when they actually hit Free Agency.
The most recent application of this phenomenon could come on the western shores of Lake Michigan as the idea that Prince Fielder may be headed to the trade block with a year and a half left on his contract before hitting FA was addressed recently in a piece from Dave Cameron of Fangraphs, who asserts that it may be time to "Break up the Brewers":
With 124 games to play, assuming that they'll need to win 92 games to give themselves a good chance of winning the NL Central or the Wild Card, they would have to play .621 baseball the rest of the way to make that happen.
Realistically, the playoff chances for the Brewers appear slim for 2010, and with that reality staring them in the face, it's probably time for them to put Prince Fielder on the trading block.
It's not the outcome that Milwaukee had in mind when they put this roster together, and they do have enough talent to right the ship and get back to a winning record, but they are far enough back in the NL Central where its getting to be time to change directions. Six weeks of bad baseball can sink a season, and in the case of the Brewers, it probably has.
Before attempting to prevent Brewers' fans from heading straight to the Third Ward or SummerFest grounds to drown their collective sorrows (and Milwaukeeans are good at this, particularly in the summer, even when not drowning sorrows), let's take a look at this seemingly new approach to rebuilding a team or re-stocking a farm system in short order. To my knowledge, the precedent was set with Texas and Mark Teixiera, as the Rangers (on their way to a 75-87 record in 2007) dealt their slugging 1B to Atlanta for Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Neftali Feliz, Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison, and Beau Jones. In hindsight, the trade looks like an absolute haul and justifies the Rangers' rationale for trading Teixiera as the Rangers now sit atop the AL West with Andrus as their 21-year-old wunderkind at SS, Feliz as their 22-year-old flamethrowing closer, and with the 24-year-old Harrison working his way into the rotation while Saltalamacchia attempts to...well, attempts to overcome a mental block that has impeded his production.
However, that deal (as good as it looks today) didn't start to bear fruit for a solid 2 years as the Rangers scuffled through the AL West, waiting for the seeds sewn in the deal to blossom, which is certainly something for the Brewers to consider in their evaluation of whether to move Fielder this season...but we'll get to that.
The strategy of dealing players with 1 ½ years left on their deal was executed again last summer as the Indians parted with reigning Cy Young Award winner CP Lee and Victor Martinez, receiving pitchers Carlos Carrasco, Justin Masterson, Nick Hagadone, Jason Knapp, Bryan Price, catcher Lou Marson, and infielder Jason Donald from the Phillies and Red Sox. While the early returns on those deals have been...um, mixed, the Indians (like the Rangers) harbored no grand illusions of attempting to contend in the next couple of years when Lee and Martinez were sent elsewhere. Both the Rangers and the Indians realized that contention (with or without Teixiera then Lee and Martinez) was unlikely and attempted to fortify their farm system, in essence to attempt to fight another day.
With that in mind, a trickier question emerges for Milwaukee as the Brewers have pieces and parts to build around in Ryan Braun and Yovani Gallardo, both under contract through the 2015 season, that provide the cornerstones for both the offense and the rotation. Perhaps just as importantly to consider, attendance in Milwaukee has been in the Top 10 in the league since 2008, with an average attendance per game of over 35,000 since 2007. How would the trade of a player like Fielder affect the interest and support in one of the few small-market teams that actually draws in this day and age?
While Mark Attanasio has already gone after the disparity of revenue in MLB (explained wonderfully here) and how it affects the ability of small-market team to keep a player like Fielder, the trading of one of the best players in recent franchise history is sure to cause some regression, both in team performance and attendance. That being said, if the Brewers hold on to Fielder even until next July (and let's dismiss the notion that the Boras agent is going to give some kind of hometown discount to remain in the Cream City), they're doing so because they think that they have a legitimate shot at contending in the NL Central next year when their pitching has shown no signs to merit such optimism.
Yes, the Brewers have young talent like Alcides Escobar and Mat Gamel, who is the likely replacement for Fielder at 1B when that day arrives, but many of the other Brewers' top prospects are below AA, except for a pair of catchers. The question becomes, rather quickly, how realistic contention is for this team not only in the 2011 season, but in the seasons going forward. If the answer comes back that the Brewers need an infusion of upper-level talent (particularly for the pitching staff) to contend in the next couple of years, the decision becomes easier to rationalize.
Back to the timeframe issue, it has to be balanced however with the idea that even if the Brewers are able to replicate the haul that Texas received from Atlanta, it remains likely that the players that they'll receive for Fielder won't be able to consistently contribute for 2 to 3 years with no guarantee that their own talent (Escobar and Gamel, most notably) will be any more productive as they adjust to life in MLB.
Are the Brewers ready to concede that their current window of opportunity to contend has closed and move on with the next stage of developing players as they attempt to build around Braun and Gallardo, among others?
The Brewers are at a serious crossroads in their organization in terms of whether to keep Fielder around for one last push or whether to cash him in at peak value as teams have done in the last couple of years in an attempt to press the accelerator on a team rebuild. It's not a question with an easy answer and things are about to get very interesting in Wisconsin.