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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Prince Fielder, Yi Jianlian and the Curse of Expectations

Jim Cryns on Sports

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It’s not easy being a “franchise player.” You’re picked out of a sea of potential players, hopes riding incredibly high, visions of pennants, world championships. That’s a lot of pressure for a young kid. Just ask Tony Mandarich (The Big Bust), or Pat Listach (former Brewer rookie of the year.) While Listach wasn’t a complete failure, he never lived up to expectations. Kenny Lofton, the player Listach beat-out for rookie of the year, went on to much greater success. Number one picks are a blessing or a curse. Management has to pick the front-runner, or risk alienating their fan-base. Keeping an established player can be just as harrowing.

History does repeat itself and that’s bad news for the Brewers. The team is faced with another unenviable do-or-die situation with young star Prince Fielder. He’s undeniably one of the most talented young players in either league, the youngest player to hit 50 home runs in the history of the game.

The way I understand it, teams are able to utilize the services of players for a limited period of time for a ‘reasonable’ salary. After all, they’ve developed the talent through the farm system. They have a viable investment, both financially and in development of the player’s skills. Now, as Fielder becomes a sought-after commodity---any team in the majors would take him on---the Brewers are faced with a break the bank scenario. How do you handle a situation like this? You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. They offered Fielder an increase over last year’s salary, more or less comparable to the salaries of other top performers. Here’s the rub. Fielder isn’t thrilled with the salary bump. In fact, even after amicable discussions with owner Mark Attanasio, Fielder surprised everyone by telling the media he wasn’t happy with the new deal. It’s this kind of unhappiness that breeds resentment, contempt and ultimately a divorce of sorts with no visitation rights.

Fielder seems to have taken well to Milwaukee but we’ll have to wait to see how this plays out. It could get ugly; he may very well leave town. But we’ve got some time. Attanasio and general manager Doug Melvin will do their best, in the face of offers from the Yankees and the like. It’s important for Attanasio to keep the discussions in the public view as much as possible, demonstrating to the fan- base how they are willing to do everything in their power to retain Fielder. You knew Francisco Cordero and Carlos Lee weren’t going to stay even if Attanassio slaughtered the fatted calf, that writing was on the wall.

Obviously, the fans want a winner, the owners want a winner, and the fickle media, homers and otherwise desire a winner. A successful team means more viewers, readers, effects attendance and reflects on the status of the state. It’s a catch-22 for the team. Pay the piper or suffer the wrath. Annastasio has shown Milwaukee he is committed to putting a contender on the field. Each year since he took ownership he’s made sound decisions and opened his wallet. With Fielder, he’s caught between a rock and a hard place, for those into mythology, caught between Scylla and Charybdis.

Meanwhile, across town at the Bradley Center:

Yi Jianlian, the Bucks number one pick in 2007, has exceeded expectations. This opinion is shared by some NBA insiders. Yi came into a league that was entire foreign to him, (pun intended.) He assimilated into a highly-stressful league at 19 years of age, when most kids his age are hitting keg-parties in college. Sure he hit the proverbial NBA “wall,” losing some steam in a grueling, long 82 game season; that’s to be expected. Yi was also injured and tried to play through. He played in the CBA; he’s going to play with his Chinese national team this summer in Beijing. That’s a boat-load of work for any man.

Those in the know feel Yi has incredible offensive skills, more of a perimeter player, not yet willing to bang it up in the middle. Andrew Bogut has shown more of a willingness to mix it up with some of the big players. Yi was exposed defensively, mediocre at best, and doesn’t have the quickest feet in the nation. Bogut and Yi will be around for a while.

Incidentally, Andrew Bogut will be representing his native Australia. Michael Redd was a qualifier for the USA team. As far as Bogut is concerned, another number one pick of the Bucks, the insider says Bogut has improved by “leaps and bounds.” This gives the Bucks two big men for the future, an enviable position for any NBA franchise. The chemistry is improving between the two young players. As with any men who spend 180 days in close proximity, there are degrees of tension and tempers.

Larry Harris was recently dumped by the Bucks. The former GM says he did his best to improve the team, working tirelessly to attain that goal. The Bucks are interviewing and will name a new GM as soon as possible. Potential replacements include TV analyst and former coach Doug Collins, Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh and former Sonics GM Rick Sund.

The Bucks will unfortunately be mediocre for years to come. If the Brewers can maintain a solid starting rotation, who knows?

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