MILWAUKEE -- Timing is everything, and if anything stands out about what might otherwise be regarded as refreshing honesty from free agents-to-be Francisco Rodriguez and Prince Fielder, it's the timing of the thing. Rodriguez is unhappy with his role in the Brewers' bullpen as a setup man, saying he was told when he accepted a trade to Milwaukee in July that he would get some save chances. Then Fielder said this is "probably" his last year in Milwaukee, not exactly a stunning premise since everybody can see his free agency coming -- but notable nonetheless because it was Fielder himself stating the obvious. Set those sidebars with a Brewers funk during which the team has lost nine of its past 15 games, cutting a 10 1/2-game lead in the National League Central to 5 1/2 games with two weeks to go, and you have the appearance of players focusing on next season instead of this one.
General manager Doug Melvin downplayed that appearance on Thursday morning. "If players give you the same old clichés, then they get criticized for the same old clichés," Melvin said. "Both players spoke what they felt, and I respect that. I don't have a major issue with that as long as these guys go out and play the game. Nobody plays the game harder than Prince Fielder, and nobody is as big a competitor as K-Rod." Both are on track to reach free agency at season's end, Fielder after amassing six years of service with the Brewers, and Rodriguez if Milwaukee expectedly declines his $17.5 million option. The club would instead owe him a $4 million buyout. The likely departure of both has been a simmering issue throughout the second half, but as the Brewers get closer to their first division title in 29 years, the stories are finding the spotlight. Rodriguez raised his displeasure first to a CBS Sportsline reporter and backed up his comments in a longer discussion on Wednesday. Fielder was making his statements to TBS at about the same time, in a taped interview intended for the network's NLDS coverage. "You've got 162 games in 180 days, and you've got media in the clubhouse [three and a half] hours before the game asking questions, so it doesn't bother me," Melvin said. "A lot of interviews go on, and some of the questions are the same questions asked back in April. I don't walk 12 steps without someone asking me about our team and what we're going to do next year. "Our focus is this year." Fielder's comments came in a discussion with Brewers television play-by-play announcer Brian Anderson, who also does work for TBS and was compiling material for the network's Division Series coverage. Anderson actually asked Fielder a question about teammate Ryan Braun's accomplishments, and Fielder responded like this: "Unfortunately, this is probably the last year of the one-two punch," he said. "But I think it's been good, six years, him and me. Hopefully, we can go out with a blast." Anderson followed up and Fielder said, "I'm signed for this year, but being real about it, it is probably the last year." Being real, he is absolutely right, and when Fielder was asked about the comments after a 6-2 loss to the Rockies, he argued it's what he has said all along. He chided reporters for being the ones to first raise the likelihood of his departure at this time last season, when teammates said their goodbyes and Fielder was removed mid-inning from the season finale to a standing ovation. When it became clear that the Brewers instead planned to retain Fielder for his final year of club control, both sides vowed to keep business matters off the field and Fielder has been a model of media relations, deftly deflecting questions about his uncertain future by saying his focus on winning games and not on winning in free agency. The difference Wednesday was the directness of his quotes. Fielder stood by them Wednesday night. "It's, 'probably,'" he explained with a shrug. "It is what it is." Asked Thursday morning whether anything had happened between the club and Fielder in recent days or weeks that may have altered his outlook, Melvin said no. The club's stance remains the same: Focus on baseball now, and take care of the business in the offseason. Fielder said the same thing. "They asked me a question, and it's the same thing I've been saying," he said. The Rodriguez flap may be more concerning for manager Ron Roenicke, because K-Rod said clearly, "I'm not happy." Rodriguez was told when he approved a July trade from New York that he would get occasional save opportunities alongside incumbent closer John Axford, and it simply hasn't happened. "Don't tell me something if you're not going to do it," Rodriguez said. "That's what irritates me most." Again, Melvin shrugged off the issue. "I've talked to K-Rod before, and I know he wants to be a closer, and he'd like to have more closing opportunities," Melvin said. "I also know when he takes the ball, he's gone out there and been arguably one of the main reasons we put together our good record." The Brewers still have a good record at 87-63, and they have a magic number of eight to clinch the NL Central. That means a combination of eight Brewers wins in their final 12 games or Cardinals losses in their final 13 games would clinch Milwaukee's first division crown since 1982. But Melvin conceded that it's time to turn things around after the team's first losing homestand all season. The Brewers, who had two 3-3 homestands earlier in the year, were 2-4 against the Phillies and Rockies, including a very disappointing loss to Kevin Millwood and Colorado on Wednesday. "[Wednesday] night was the first game that I thought was really flat," Melvin said. "We're going to have to play better baseball here." "You've got to just battle the adversity," right fielder Nyjer Morgan said Wednesday night. "The game's catching us a little bit. We were beating up people a little bit in August and everything, so it's definitely no time for a panic or nothing like that. It's just part of the game." Melvin remains convinced that the Fielder and Rodriguez matters won't get in the way. "Our focus goes back to winning games, playing out the season and getting to the postseason," Melvin said. "That's what it's always been. [The other issues] are only issues if we continue to talk about them."