PHOENIX -- A smiling Prince Fielder arrived in Brewers camp Sunday morning eager to play baseball. Too bad he was surrounded by reporters eager to talk about his steady march toward free agency. "You guys can talk about it," Fielder said, "but I'm going to give you my answer." And that answer?
"I don't know how to do all that [business] stuff," Fielder said. "I'm playing baseball." In other words, he's not going to offer any updates about his thinking. "Pretty much," Fielder said with a grin. "But you can ask." He can bet they will ask as Spring Training turns into Fielder's 10th season in professional baseball and his final one under Brewers control. Talks about an extension with Milwaukee went nowhere, so the team signed Fielder to a $15.5 million contract for 2011 -- a record for an arbitration-eligible player -- and he is on a path to reach the free-agent market for the first time in fall. Fielder would rather focus on the Brewers' on-field business between now and then, but it's difficult for everybody else to avoid wondering what kind of interest he'll fetch on the open market. Fielder won't be 27 until May, and he's already belted 192 home runs (including a 50-homer season in 2007), driven in 536 (including a 141-RBI year in 2009) and posted two years with an OPS of better than 1.000. He would have been the best bat available on next winter's market had fellow first baseman Albert Pujols and the Cardinals been able to reach a deal before Pujols' deadline last week. Now it appears that both will hit the marketplace at the same time.
Fielder insists he paid no attention at all to the Pujols-mania of the past few days. So he was instead asked whether, as a fan of the game, he thought it would be "cool" to see the Cardinals' franchise player remain with the only team he's known. Fielder's answer wasn't very encouraging for the Brewers' fans still holding out hope for him to remain in Milwaukee.
"I think it would be cool for him to go wherever he's happy," Fielder said. "Whatever makes him happy, I think he does it."
The Brewers did engage with Fielder's agent, Scott Boras, about an extension over the past year or two, traveling to Los Angeles to meet with Boras last March and offering as much as $100 million over five years, according to various reports. Those talks died fast.
So the march toward the open market continues. Brewers manager Ron Roenicke was the Angels' bench coach when that team traded for Mark Teixeira in July 2009, when Teixeira was mere months from hitting the market.
Roenicke isn't worried that Fielder will put undue pressure on himself in a contract year.
"I don't think I have worries, but it's always there," Roenicke said. "Some guys want it so bad and they try so hard that they put that extra pressure on themselves. Other guys, it seems to work out where they pick it up a little bit and they're putting more effort out there and seem to have a better year.
"So, there's both ends out there. I'm hoping we're getting the latter. I think their focus needs to be on what they normally do. You can't focus on your individual stuff too much in your free-agent year or you're going to put extra pressure on yourself. If your focus is just to go out there and help the team win, I really believe you're going to have that same good year."
That Fielder is still with the Brewers for his "walk" year comes as a surprise for many who thought the Brewers would have to use him as a trade chip in order to improve a starting rotation that ranked at or near the bottom of the National League in the past two seasons. In the end, general manager Doug Melvin acquired starters Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum and managed to hold onto Fielder.
The Brewers did listen to offers as late as early December at the Winter Meetings, and Roenicke said some of the offers were interesting. But it's very difficult to trade a player of Fielder's caliber so close to free agency and get anything close to fair value, so Roenicke says he expected all along that Fielder would be back.
"To move him and have it make sense, we would really have to get a lot," Roenicke said.
Fielder, too, insisted he's not surprised to be back at Maryvale Baseball Park, even though he was removed from the Brewers' final home game last season to receive a standing ovation in what sure felt like a sendoff.
It was a tough season by Fielder's high standards. After hitting .299 with 46 home runs and a franchise-record 141 RBIs in 2009, he slipped to .261 with 32 homers and 83 RBIs in the Brewers' disappointing 2010. Opposing pitchers were content to tangle with five-hole hitter Casey McGehee (who ended up leading the club in RBIs) than with Fielder, pounding him with inside pitches.
Early in the season, Fielder swung at many of those pitches and made outs. At some point, he started taking his walks, and ended up leading the Majors in that category with 114. He also posted a .401 on-base percentage.
"I wouldn't call [the experience in 2010] adversity. I just played baseball, and I don't see it as that dramatic," Fielder said. "They aren't going to just throw it down the middle. ...
"I was just trying to contribute as much as I could to win, and I got anxious. That's just how I am. But once I kind of realized what was going on and helped win by trying to score runs and having good baserunning, getting on base, that helped more than me trying to swing and making outs for no reason."
Was there a turning point in reaching that outlook?
"I got tired of making outs on bad pitches," he cracked. "When you do that enough times, you start to get tired of it and you try a different way."
Fielder said he'd like to play all 162 games in 2011, something he did two years ago. Last season, Fielder missed only one game because of a bad bout of illness.
Is he confident he'll be able to block out all of the chatter about his contract status?
"Yeah, especially this year because we have a good team," Fielder said. "I'm just focused on winning. It's easy to block things out when you have a good team and you know you have a chance to win."
Position analysis• Manager
• First base
• Second base