Money tree: Attanasio can’t pass around hat

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Tom Haudricourt, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Thursday, November 17, 2011
— As principal owner of the Milwaukee Brewers and founder of a burgeoning money management firm in Los Angeles, Mark Attanasio is not accustomed to being offered charity.

But, while attending the Green Bay Packers game against Minnesota at Lambeau Field on Monday evening, Attanasio said erstwhile Brewers fans offered to pitch in to help re-sign free-agent slugger Prince Fielder.

“The Packers are a publicly owned team,” Attanasio said Wednesday during a break in the major league baseball ownership meetings at The Pfister. “If they want to build a new section of the seats, they go raise some public money and do that.

“Unfortunately, we can’t do that. No doubt it would be a populist move to bring Prince back. The people in Wisconsin love him.”

The Brewers cannot operate on populist whims, however. They must deal with real-world economics on a budget of less than $100 million if they have any hope of finishing in the black year to year.

With that in mind, they have no chance of retaining Fielder’s services should the bidding approach what agent Scott Boras has in mind. The Brewers are keeping the door open, or in the unexpected event that no market develops for Fielder, and he comes back offering a discount.

But they’re not holding their breath.

In fact, the more you talk to general manager Doug Melvin about Fielder, the bigger the impression that he has mentally moved on and is preparing to cede first base to prospect Mat Gamel.

“You have a premium player like Prince who does need to test the market,” said Melvin. “Usually, those premium players don’t sign early. We’re balancing the finances of his salary vs. filling holes on our ball club.

“I think there is a point this year where we’re going to have to give some younger players a chance and an opportunity. Some may fail and some may succeed.

“But I’d rather have them fail at $400,000 then go out and sign somebody (other than Fielder) for a large number and have that individual fail.”

In separate conversations, Attanasio and Melvin made it clear they consider the NL Central champion Brewers a playoff contender again in 2012, with or without Fielder.

The primary needs are a shortstop and setup relievers but with the starting rotation intact and most of the lineup returning, the club brain trust isn’t conceding a poor year if it loses its powerful cleanup hitter.

“We won 96 games last year,” said Melvin. “We’ve still got a very good ball club. We’ve still got a chance to win a lot of games next year and get in the postseason. As you saw this year, it doesn’t matter how many you win during the season. It’s how many you win in the playoffs.”

Then, showing he’s not deluded into thinking Fielder wouldn’t be missed,

Melvin added, “It’s going to be hard to replace him. He’s had an on-base percentage over .400 for three years in a row, and the slugging capabilities that he has.

“The biggest thing with players like Prince is hitting quality pitching. Guys that hit can hit the Chris Carpenters and Adam Wainwrights. You’ve got to have at least three or four of those types of individuals in the lineup.

“That will be the biggest thing with Prince is losing a player that has the ability to hit the top quality pitchers.”

Just as it would be nearly impossible to fit Fielder’s salary into their budget, the same holds for shortstop Jose Reyes. The Brewers have been linked to the talented free agent, but Melvin said that came out of one telephone call placed to Reyes’ agent, Peter Greenberg.

“There’s been a lot made of the Reyes situation,” said Melvin. “I had a phone call with his agent, but I haven’t talked to him since. I don’t think that’s got a lot of momentum at this point.”

Asked if he could shell out a big salary to any free agent and still fill other needs for his club, Melvin said, “Probably not at this time.”

Rather than empty their coffers at the outset, the Brewers prefer to keep money available for making impact moves if the opportunity arises. That philosophy allowed them to trade for right-hander Zack Greinke in December and still absorb his $13.5 million salary.

“In seven seasons (as Brewers owner), one of the things I’ve learned is how you manage your payroll has to be opportunity driven,” said Attanasio. “There’s a certain amount of money we can spend for players. But to just spend it for the sake of spending, it hasn’t worked out well for us necessarily.

“It didn’t work out in 2010. That’s why in 2011 we had a wide range of what we were looking at from a budgeting standpoint. The budget changed when we could get a Zack Greinke. And the budget is going to change if you can get a Prince Fielder.

“For the same reason, Doug is meeting with some premium free agents that have been discussed. If we think someone is a real it for our club, we’ll make a move.”

As for the prospect of moving forward without Fielder, Attanasio said, “We think we can compete even if we aren’t able to get Prince back. It does leave other options should we not be able to bring him back. We’re looking at first base, shortstop and third base as positions we have to consider.”

In his ongoing search for a shortstop, Melvin met Wednesday with agent Barry Meister, who represents free agent Clint Barmes. He expects to talk Thursday with Dan Lozano, the agent for Jimmy Rollins.

Meister said he thought Barmes would be a good fit with the Brewers and noted, “He can really defend,” which would make him stand out in their infield.

The Brewers’ fall-back position at shortstop continues to be their own free agent, Yuniesky Betancourt.

“I said at the end of the year I’d be satisfied with having ‘Yuni’ back,” said Melvin, who did not pick up the $6 million option on Betancourt.

“He has played six straight years of over 150 games. You have to be a good shortstop to do that. If you’re not that good, you’re not playing that many games. I think he did a very admirable job for us but there’s opportunity to keep our eyes and ears open to see if there are areas we can improve on.”

Last updated: 6:54 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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