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Fielder's best year may earn big payday
Haven Fielder sat at a desktop computer in the Brewers’ clubhouse Thursday afternoon, while his dad was busy preparing to play the Mets. Haven was smiling and chewing gum and sporting an impressive Mohawk haircut, as only a 5-year-old can.
A baseball video game occupied the screen. Not surprisingly, young Haven was good at it.
“Home run!” he cried out, before offering the verbal equivalent of a trot around the bases. “So easy!”
It's reaching the point where his father could say the same thing — in a similarly carefree tone.
Prince Fielder began the season amid the pressure of a contract year. The Brewers had a new manager and dialed-up expectations, thanks to an improved pitching staff. The combination of circumstances could have made Fielder try too hard — as he did at times last year while batting a career-low .261.
Instead, Fielder is thriving for what he believes is the best Brewers team of his tenure in Milwaukee — yes, even better than the one that reached the 2008 playoffs with a 90-win season.
Fielder has hit six home runs in his last seven games. He leads the majors with 55 RBI. He's enjoying one of the best power-hitting stretches of his career — just in time for Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals to arrive for an NL Central showdown.
Let's be honest: Brewers vs. Cardinals means Fielder vs. Pujols. It's going to be that way for the rest of the season, as long as the division race stays this tight. You could call it a little slice the NBA on a baseball field — two marquee players, at the same position, on rival teams.
Fielder smiled when I mentioned that parallel to him, but he wasn't about to say which of them will play the roles of Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade, respectively. “I'm going to leave that one up to you,” he said.
Off the field, of course, Pujols-Fielder will last deep into November and December, and maybe January, as the agents for both players try to convince run-starved teams their guy deserves the biggest contract.
And to be sure, there is a healthy debate as to which slugger deserves the most money, in a way there wasn't when spring training began.
Remember all the sportswriters and television cameras that descended on Jupiter, Fla., to chronicle Pujols' arrival to Cardinals' camp — and the cessation (for now) of contract talks? There was no such scene for Fielder at the Brewers' humble dwelling in Maryvale, Ariz.
Yet, Fielder has unquestionably been the better player this season. He has a higher batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He has more home runs. He has more RBI. He even has more walks. Entering Thursday, Pujols was tied for 38th in the majors with a 2.0 WAR (wins above replacement, a big stat for sabermetricians) — just behind Alex Gordon and Danny Espinosa, according to FanGraphs.com.
None of that changes the fact that Pujols has three NL MVP awards and Fielder has none. None of that changes the fact that Pujols has won a World Series and Fielder has not. None of that changes the fact that Pujols has been the better overall player — for many more years.
But does it complicate the argument that Pujols deserves the richest free-agent contract in history — or even the richest free-agent contract of the winter? Absolutely. Sensible teams pay for anticipated future performance, not simply past success.
I shudder to use the term “worst” in connection with Pujols, but we can say this has been the least-excellent season of his career. Even if Pujols continues on this pace, one owner is going to place a nine-figure bet that the '11 season was an aberration, not a harbinger.
Implicit in that team's wager will be the belief that Pujols, 31, is going to be better than Fielder, 27, over the next seven or eight seasons. And I'm not convinced that will be the case.
I believe there are indeed some teams for which Pujols would be the better fit — because of league/division factors, clubhouse dynamics, ballpark dimensions and handedness of other hitters in the lineup.
But I believe the same is true of Fielder, and probably for a similar number of clubs.
Fielder, of course, wasn't about to make any such declarations.
“I'm not competing with Albert,” he told me Thursday.
But Milwaukee teammate Corey Hart wasn't as guarded when asked which player would be the better investment for a team, all money being equal.
“Prince,” Hart answered. “He's such a happy, hardworking guy. Pujols obviously has such a tremendous résumé. He's done it forever. He's had great success. But for me, I like the excitement Prince brings. He's fun. He's loud. He's a lot of things that Pujols isn't.
“Pujols is a great player, but, for a clubhouse guy, you want to be able to cut up and have fun. For a leader, he lets young guys see that this is a fun group you want to be around. Prince is a big part of that. He gets everybody going.”
And maybe that's the most intriguing thing about Fielder: Despite having hit more than 200 home runs in the major leagues, he's only now entering his prime — professionally and maybe personally, as well.
“He's very comfortable with where he's at,” Brewers infielder Craig Counsell said. “I don't want to say this in the wrong way, but I think he's grown up. He's at peace with the game, which is a difficult game, and (that's) where he's evolving: He's already a great player, but he's kind of taking it to another level.”
Ask Fielder why he's been so good, though, and he talks mostly about the positive atmosphere created by first-year manager Ron Roenicke, the coaching staff and his teammates.
Ask him why he seems more relaxed at the plate, and he points to all the talent around him, emphasizing the trust he has for his fellow hitters.
“No need to press,” he says.
Ask him about the uncertain winter ahead, and he says, “I'm not even thinking about it. I'm just excited to play baseball.”
Right now, hitting is fun and maybe even a little easy for Prince Fielder. Just like a video game.
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