The truth is that the Brewers made their choice well before Prince Fielder signed with the Tigers two winters age. As a small-market team already pushing the payroll to the limit in 2010, the Brewers knew they’d have to decide whether to build around Ryan Braun or Fielder.
What made it an easy choice was that Braun was already under control through 2015 under the terms of an eight-year, $45 million contract he signed at age 24.
Fielder, represented by Scott Boras, was never amenable to such a contract. He did sign a two-year, $18 million pact when he was first eligible for arbitration, but the Brewers weren’t able to convince him to give up any free agency seasons. The Brewers weighed trading him after the 2010 season, when he had one year left before free agency (one rumored deal would have sent him to the Dodgers for James Loney and Jonathan Broxton), but they instead chose to make a run with him and let him go in free agency. In April 2011, they doubled down on their commitment to Braun, giving him a five-year, $105 million extension through 2020.
We know what happened next. Despite a seemingly bare market in the aftermath of the Albert Pujols contract, Fielder got a nine-year, $214 million contract from the Tigers that took him through 2020. Though he was the inferior player, Fielder would make $72.5 million more than Braun under the terms of their deals.
If the Brewers had it to do over again now, I imagine they would have declined to give Braun the big extension. However, giving a $200 million to Fielder seems like no better of an idea now than it did then, even if Brewers first basemen have been terribly unproductive in the two years since Fielder departed (Corey Hart did well after moving in from right field last year, but he’s missed all of 2013. Mat Gamel has missed the last two years).
Fielder did have a great first season after leaving for Detroit, hitting .313/.412/.528 with 30 homers while supporting Miguel Cabrera in the Tigers lineup, but Braun was even better, hitting .319/.391/.595 with 41 homers. This year, Fielder’s numbers have fallen well off; he’s sitting at .269/.362/.453 with 16 homers, though he has driven in 70 runs. Fielder’s body type has always made him a poor bet to age well. Expectations were that he’d be a $20 million-per-year player in the first half of a new contract, but that the back half could get ugly fast. His 2013 line is probably more the result of an off three months than the beginning of the end, but it still can’t be taken as a good sign at all.
Even with the steroid cloud forever hanging over Braun’s head, I’m pretty sure I’d rather have him at $127 million for the next seven years than Fielder at $168 million. Fielder probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the Brewers’ chances this year, and he’s not getting any better with time.