True Blue: Rookie Fielder Looks Like Real Deal For Brewers

By Michael Hunt
Updated: March 27, 2006

SURPRISE, Az. – Like the Japanese soldiers who emerged from Pacific islands years later thinking World War II was still on, holdouts somehow remain on the 2003 Richie Sexson trade.

These are, it should be noted, some of the same people who still believe the Milwaukee Brewers were fools for moving Lyle Overbay last December to make way for Prince Fielder.

So for their benefit, let’s recap:

For Sexson, the Brewers got Overbay, Chris Capuano, Jorge De La Rosa, Chad Moeller, Junior Spivey and Craig Counsell. For Spivey, the Brewers got Tomo Okha. And for Overbay, the Brewers got Dave Bush, Gabe Gross and Zach Jackson.

Capuano, who won 18 games last season, is the No. 3 starter. Okha, who won seven after June 10, is the No. 4 starter. And Bush has pitched well enough in spring training to become the No. 5 starter. They might not be Spahn, Sain and Two Days of Rain, but they are serious upgrades from the Wayne Franklin-Matt Kinney-Glendon Rusch era.

Likewise a vast improvement over Chris Magruder, Gross is a left-handed bat off the bench. If De La Rosa learns how to throw strikes, he could be vital as a left-hander out of the pen. Moeller is a backup catcher. Jackson has performed such that he will start at Class AAA instead of AA.

Great, you say, three starting pitchers and three big-leaguers from the Sexson-Overbay turnover. But doesn’t the real question involve whether Fielder is major-league ready, whether he can actually bend over and make plays as a worthy successor to the departed and productive first basemen?

General manager Doug Melvin recently took those queries separately to Robin Yount and Dale Sveum, who were principally hired to ensure that the right side of the Brewers’ precocious infield, Fielder and Rickie Weeks, learn to catch a baseball on more than a regular basis. Whether it was telling the boss what he wanted to hear, Melvin was assured that both, and notably Fielder, would be fine.

“That was encouraging,” Melvin said, “because (Yount and Sveum) are two outsiders who had heard nothing but horror stories.”

Manager Ned Yost doesn’t attribute Fielder’s fielding improvements so much to the new coaches as he does to Fielder’s inner drive to silence the critics.

“He came here on a mission,” Yost said. “He came ready to go to prove any doubters wrong about his defensive ability.”

And so far?

“He’s been phenomenal defensively,” Yost said. “He’s just been excellent. Like all young kids he’s going to make his mistakes, but he’s very agile. He’s very athletic.”

“Agile” and “athletic” are not necessarily adjectives one would associate with the stocky Fielder, much less “phenomenal” as it might apply to his defensive capabilities. But he has displayed soft hands in camp, as well as aggressiveness at the position.

It also might be recalled that the Brewers led the league in errors last season without Fielder. When Melvin is asked about defense, he expresses more concern for the veterans, who are supposed to make plays.

No one has ever questioned Fielder’s hitting, and the prediction here is that he will eventually make people forget about Sexson in that regard.

“Not a lot of young players can step in the middle of a lineup and be counted on, and I think he can be counted on,” Melvin said. “I don’t think the pressure gets to him. With his personality, he looks to the challenge. He seems to be handling everything. So far, so good.”