Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Monday, April 3, 2006. Prince Fielder begins his first full season in the major leagues against the Pittsburgh Pirates, going 0-4 with 4 strikeouts. The golden sombrero. While Fielder would go on to post 6 of the finest seasons in Brewers franchise history, this inauspicious start to his 2006 season has been forgotten. So, too, was his 0-5 with three strikeouts the next game. But I find myself thinking of this over and over. What if these games never happened? And what if Fielder was allowed to have 6.75 of the best seasons in franchise history? Why did Prince Fielder start the 2006 season in Milwaukee rather than Nashville?
Let’s start by asking, “was Fielder ready for the majors?” I would say most certainly so, but he also wasn’t so ready for the majors that he couldn’t have spent 2 more months in Nashville. He had a .957 OPS in 378 ABs in Nashville and a .764 OPS in 59 cup-of-coffee ABs in Milwaukee in 2005. But two major defects existed in his game: strikeouts and defense. He had 93 K’s in Nashville and a worrisome 2:17 BB:K in Milwaukee. While the strikeout numbers were not horrible for a power hitter like Fielder, they did signal that he was likely not going to be a superstar in his first season in the majors, especially considering his poor defense. In 2006, all around, Fielder was about an average first baseman in the majors. Staying in Nashville until June would likely not have developed Fielder, who needed to make the transition to the majors, but it certainly would have been a justifiable move for the Brewers to make at the time.
The next question is, “did the Brewers have any other options at first base?” This answer is a resounding, “yes.” Lyle Overbay completed the 2005 season with a .816 OPS, and he could have been kept for another season (not that trading him wasn’t smart). Russell Branyan was allowed to walk away from the Brewers after the 2005 season. At this point in history, Branyan was a better hitter than Fielder. And, during this time, the Brewers were employing Carlos Lee in left field, a position Lee was not equipped to play. Moving Lee to first base would have created several issues of its own, but the fact is that the Brewers could have filled first base without calling Fielder up.
The last question is, “did the Brewers need the extra win or two that Fielder could provide in 2006?” This answer is an obvious and resounding, “no!” While the 2005 team finished 81-81 and gave immense hope for the future, the future was not 2006. The 2006 team finished with 75 wins, a lucky total for a team that surrendered over 100 runs more than they scored. Though the NL Central Division was horrible in 2006, the Brewers were not a legitimate contender. Their third starter was Dave Bush. Their second best reliever was…Rick Helling?! This is the bullpen that was so thin it employed Derrick Turnbow (6.87 ERA) at closer for two-thirds of a season, as well as Chris Mabeus, Joe Winkelsas, and Chris Spurling. I could go on, but you get the point. Having now witnessed a division-winning team in Milwaukee, looking back at this pitching staff it was obvious, or at least it should have been, that the Brewers were not going to win anything in 2006.
Yet, Doug Melvin brought Fielder up to the majors in April instead of June (or July, whatever was necessary given Fielder’s 2005 call-up and the other rookie call-ups of the time). The Brewers maybe won one more game than they otherwise would have in a season that was utterly meaningless. What if Melvin had been patient? Fielder may have been pissed, sure, but that wouldn’t really matter. It wouldn’t affect his play. All I can say is it is a damn shame.
The Brewers enter 2012 trying to defend their 2011 divisional crown, and they do it having lost perhaps their most important player. The cards are now stacked against the Brewers this year, in what will likely be the last year the Brewers have any legitimate shot at competing for the postseason until 2017 at the earliest. And every time I say or I hear someone else say, “if we only had Fielder for one more season,” I think of that opening day performance in 2006 and shake my head. What if Doug Melvin had just been a little more patient?