"My approach with Prince is that he helped turn this organization around," Melvin said. "He took us from a level where we were rebuilding, and he was 'the guy.' He was here even before Ryan [Braun] was. Prince, I feel proud of the opportunity we were able to give him here, and he capitalized on it.
"We traded Lyle Overbay coming off a monster year for Lyle Overbay [at the 2005 Winter Meetings, clearing a spot in the big league lineup for Fielder], and that was a huge gamble. Prince stepped up. What else can you ask? The guy plays every day, every inning, and he brought a lot of great emotion to this franchise.
"In some sense, I'm glad he got a good contract that he's satisfied with. We knew early on that we probably weren't going to be in it. I think Prince probably knew that, too."
Fielder's long-expected departure will help the Brewers bolster their next wave of talent. He was a Type A free agent, so Milwaukee will get Detroit's first-round pick in the 2012 Draft (27th overall), plus a sandwich pick between the first and second rounds. Because the Brewers already owned the 28th overall pick by virtue of their 2011 regular-season record, they will own back-to-back selections in next year's first round.
But the Major League club has a huge hole to fill. Fielder was a three-time National League All-Star, three times finished in the top four in NL MVP balloting and bashed 230 home runs, second in Brewers history to Hall of Famer Robin Yount.
Fielder is also the Brewers' all-time leader with a .390 on-base percentage, ranks second (to longtime teammate Braun) with a .540 slugging percentage and third with 566 walks. He's sixth in club history with 656 RBIs, though every member of the top five played at least 150 games more in a Brewers uniform than Fielder's 998.
"He's been our franchise," said Hart. "He's a star. He's a game-changer. Having him made our team scary."
The Brewers had not seriously discussed a contract extension with Fielder since 2010 Spring Training, when Melvin, assistant GM Gord Ash and principal owner Mark Attanasio met with agent Scott Boras in Los Angeles.
Melvin called it Milwaukee's "best pitch," though he would not reveal once and for all the terms of that pitch. It's been reported in some places as five years and $100 million, and other places as six years at $120 million or more.
Since then, the Brewers have allocated resources elsewhere, including contract extensions for Braun, Hart, Rickie Weeks and Yovani Gallardo.
"We had to go on and do our business," Melvin said.
Unable to find common ground on an extension, the Brewers and Fielder avoided arbitration last winter with a $15.5 million, one-year deal and tried to win in 2011 with a remade pitching rotation. It worked to the tune of 96 regular-season wins -- a franchise record -- and a five-game series win over the D-backs in the NL Division Series. The Brewers went as far as Game 6 of the NL Championship Series before falling to the eventual World Series champion Cardinals.
Fielder, who had been admittedly frustrated in 2010 after his contract talks did not progress, bounced back in 2011 with one of his finest all-around seasons. He batted .299 in the regular season with 38 home runs and 120 RBIs, and played all 162 games for the second time in three years.
After the Brewers' NLCS ouster, Attanasio promised the Brewers would be part of the Fielder "sweepstakes," and indeed Melvin had a handful of sit-downs with Boras this winter. But they focused mostly on other clients, and never, according to Melvin, discussed a one-year deal that would have allowed Fielder to re-enter free agency next winter.
"We never had that conversation, and if we did, it was way, way back, so far I don't even remember it," Melvin said. "He was never going to sign a one-year contract. Whoever put that [rumor] out there was obviously not involved in it."
The next time Fielder sees the Brewers, he will be an opponent. The Brewers play three American League Central teams in 2012, but the Tigers are not one of them.
"I think everybody saw how our fans feel about Prince Fielder," Attanasio said in October. "The entire stadium was standing for his [final] at-bat, and it's clear that the fans love Prince, and the organization loves him, too.
"One of the great things about Prince, and there are a lot of them, is that the guy plays 162 games, and if it was up to him, he would play every inning of every game. You talk about a bedrock out there, who is out there every single day bringing emotion, that's Prince."
The Brewers will have to find a new bedrock at first base. At the moment, longtime prospect Mat Gamel is penciled in at that position. He batted .310 with 28 home runs and 96 RBIs last season at Triple-A Nashville.
Milwaukee will also rely on its pitching, including a five-man starting rotation that returns intact from 2011. Also back are setup man Francisco Rodriguez and closer John Axford, giving the Brewers, on paper, an extremely competitive staff.
"We have our pitching back," Hart said as the Brewers packed their bags in October. "Our pitching was the difference, and we're excited that they're all going to be back. We'll have 95 percent of our team back next year, and I'm sure Doug will do what he always does, and go out and find guys that fit in. I don't expect us to be anything less than we were [in 2011]. Hopefully, the experience will make us better."