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Fielder, Brewers gear up for run

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Jon Paul Morosi

Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.

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PHOENIX

The St. Louis Cardinals lead the majors in spring training stress.

Last week, the failed contract talks with Albert Pujols drew a media horde to Jupiter, Fla. More recently, the team learned that 20-game winner Adam Wainwright will miss the season because of Tommy John elbow surgery. At the moment, it seems like the most visible sports figures in America are Mo (Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak) and ‘Melo.

The Milwaukee Brewers, meanwhile, are enjoying a quiet camp at their humble headquarters in Maryvale. They have an excellent chance to finish ahead of the Cardinals — not to mention the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cubs — in the competitive-yet-winnable National League Central.

The irony is that even the Brewers’ biggest star hasn’t received top billing this spring. Prince Fielder, the powerful cleanup man, is merely the second-most-talked-about free agent first baseman in the 2011-2012 class. As was the case with Carl Crawford and Tampa Bay at this time last year, we’re likely witnessing the start of Fielder’s final season in Milwaukee.

For now, though, Fielder remains the face of the Brewers’ franchise.

And on Thursday, that face was smiling.

“We’re a team that has fun,” said Fielder, still just 26 years old. “I think we got away from that the past couple years. We were trying to be something we’re not. No offense to anybody else, but we like to have fun. If you think we’re disrespecting the game, that’s your problem. Beat us, then.

“Before, we were never trying to disrespect anybody. We were just having fun. The fans liked it. It was good for baseball. Hopefully we’re going to get back to that.

“This is an exciting team. If you want to show emotion, show it. We’re not in a library.”

You may recall that Ken Macha, then the Milwaukee manager, wasn’t a fan of Fielder’s oft-replayed “bowling pin” walk-off celebration against the San Francisco Giants in 2009. Well, Macha doesn’t work for the Brewers anymore. He lasted only two (losing) seasons. Ron Roenicke is the new skipper, and I would like to offer him the following advice:

If Fielder hits like he did in ’09 — .299 batting average, 46 home runs, major-league-leading 141 RBIs — he should be allowed to leap over a Kia Optima (thank you, Blake Griffin) en route to the plate if he so desires.

Fielder is among the handful of hitters for whom last year’s production — .261, 32 home runs, 83 RBIs — would be considered even moderately disappointing. He looked uncomfortable at the plate on occasion, perhaps because of perpetual trade rumors. During interviews, he was polite but seemed overwhelmed by the uncertainty.

No more. An upbeat Fielder said Thursday that he isn’t dwelling on the fact that this could be his final spring as a Brewer.

IN FULL SWING

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“Not at all, man,” he said. “I think this clubhouse is more focused on winning. That hasn’t crept up until you said something. That will take care of itself. Just try to win, man. If it is my last year, try to go out with a bang.

“Last year kind of prepared me for this year. I thought I was getting traded every five minutes. I’m already past that. I feel like I’m in the driver’s seat. There’s nothing to worry about.”

The Brewers are fortunate that Fielder reacquired his swagger during the same offseason in which general manager Doug Melvin landed two impact starting pitchers, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum.

At long last, the Brewers can declare that they have one of the NL’s best rotations. They aren’t the Phillies. They aren’t the Giants. But they’re close. Marcum, who posted a 3.64 ERA last year in the American League East, is among the game’s most underrated starters. Greinke is one year removed from winning the AL Cy Young Award.

Some in the industry figured that the Brewers wouldn’t be able to acquire an ace without including Fielder in the deal. Melvin proved them wrong. “When they got Greinke, and Prince was still on the team,” Milwaukee infielder Craig Counsell said, “you were amazed they could pull it off.”

Fielder said he was watching “Desperate Housewives” with his wife, Chanel, when he heard the news. “She had her phone, she was looking at the Brewers’ website, and, all of a sudden, it showed that we got Greinke,” Fielder recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool,’ and I kept watching the show.”

On some level, the Crawford/Fielder comparison makes sense: In each case, a smaller-market team was/is trying to make one final championship run before the homegrown star hits free agency. But a deeper look reveals that the ’10 Rays and ’11 Brewers don’t have many similarities after all.

Tampa Bay lost a number of key contributors from last year’s team — Crawford, Carlos Peña, Matt Garza, Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit and other key setup relievers. Fielder, meanwhile, is Milwaukee’s only core player eligible for free agency after this season.

Barring trades, the Brewers’ entire rotation should be back in 2012, along with Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, and Rickie Weeks, all of whom have signed long-term extensions.

“The Rays lost their whole bullpen — losing a whole bullpen is tough,” Melvin said. “All five of our starters can be back next year. They’re all under contract or under control. People are saying ‘win or else.’ I don’t view it that way.”

Said Braun: “You look around, and they’ve done a great job of locking guys up. We have young guys just starting to enter their prime. We all recognize the situation we’re in with Prince. But we certainly have a lot of talent aside from him, as well.”

TEAM LEADERS

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Pujols has had a better career than Fielder — no one would argue that point — but the hype difference between them now is disproportionately large. Fielder is four years younger than Pujols. He’s going to get his fortune, too.

Melvin said he’s not currently discussing a contract extension with Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras. That is not surprising. There never was an abundance of hope that the Brewers would sign Fielder to a long-term deal. In a sense, that is liberating. It’s hard for a fan base to feel disappointed and heartbroken when their hopes weren’t high to begin with.

Since I couldn’t resist, I had to ask Fielder where he thinks Pujols will be at this time next year.

“Albert?” he replied. “I think Albert’s playing wherever he’s happy. How about that?”

A safe answer. But that’s fine.

How about Prince Fielder?

“Prince is playing wherever he’s happy, too,” Fielder said with a grin. “And I’m happy here. But we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

No, we don’t. But don’t be surprised if the Brewers spray champagne once or twice before we find out.

Tagged: Brewers, Cardinals, Albert Pujols, Zack Greinke, Prince Fielder

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