Brewers remain on the free-agent prowl
Lineup returns intact, but pitching a priority with vacancies
MILWAUKEE -- It's back to work for Brewers officials on Monday following their holiday break, with only 39 days before pitchers and catchers formally report for the start of Spring Training.General manager Doug Melvin, who spent the holiday with his family on a Caribbean cruise, returned to the cold of Wisconsin over the weekend expecting things to -- metaphorically if not meteorologically -- heat up. "I expect to be a little more active, and I think you're more likely to get calls returned [from agents] at this time of the year," Melvin said via telephone during his trip. "I think this week will see a lot of stuff going on [around baseball]. "Players start to get a little nervous after [New Year's Day] if they don't have a place to play." Brewers fans are themselves getting a little nervous. The thrill of the team's 2008 finish has faded away to some extent, and so have several of the key players on that team. The Brewers went hard after CC Sabathia only to lose out to the big-spending Yankees, and it remains very possible that fellow free-agent starter Ben Sheets and relievers Eric Gagne, Guillermo Mota and Brian Shouse will depart. Also gone -- to retirement -- is reliever Salomon Torres, who took over for Gagne midway through last season and served well as Milwaukee's closer. If all of those players are elsewhere, the Brewers will have lost six key contributors to their late-season run for the Wild Card. Melvin, though, points out that the lineup is intact, a fact few other teams could boast as 2008 turned into 2009. And he also believes that enough arms are in place to field a team for 2009. "We've got a pitching staff we can go and play with," Melvin said. Would that be good enough to repeat the team's postseason bid? Maybe not, so Melvin will get serious this week about adding to his stable of pitchers. In terms of relief, the team already inked former Orioles closer Jorge Julio, who could have a Mota-like bounce-back, and former Phillies lefty R.J. Swindle, who could be called on to replace the reliable Shouse. Barring any more moves, the Brewers would count on younger players like Mitch Stetter, a lefty, and Tim Dillard, a righty with an excellent sinking fastball, to fill more prominent roles. The team would also need more from David Riske, who signed a three-year contract prior to 2008, posted a 5.31 ERA and underwent elbow surgery. Asked last week who would close for the Brewers if the season started today, Melvin demurred. The top candidates would probably be Julio, who has not been a closer since 2004 in Arizona, or Carlos Villanueva, who has never filled that role. "We may have to wait until Spring Training to answer that question," Melvin said. "There is still a long ways to go before we are at that point." He was also quick to point out that, "Our closer at the end of last season wasn't the same guy as at the beginning of the year."
Another closing candidate is Seth McClung, but as the Brewers are currently comprised, they would need McClung in the starting rotation. That group would also feature right-hander Yovani Gallardo, who turns 23 in February, and left-hander Manny Parra, who just turned 26 this offseason, in the perches previously occupied by Sabathia and Sheets. Veterans Dave Bush and Jeff Suppan could be steady in the middle with McClung, who was solid both as a starter and a reliever in 2008, rounding out the intended five.No other pitcher on Milwaukee's current 40-man roster has made more than 21 big league starts. That body of work belongs to Villanueva. So far this offseason, Melvin has had little luck in free agency. The Brewers went all-in for Sabathia, offering a contract that would have been more than double Ryan Braun's club-record, $45 million deal, only to be blown away by the Yankees. Melvin had some contact with the agent for closer Brian Fuentes, but never got an indication that the interest was mutual before Fuentes picked the Angels on New Year's Eve. The same situation could prove true of Trevor Hoffman, the last marquee closer left on the market. Hoffman is represented by the same agent as Fuentes, but Melvin has yet to get a feeling that Hoffman is interested in Milwaukee. The Brewers entered the final week before Christmas showing interest in free-agent starter Braden Looper, but after a Dec. 21 conversation with agent Alan Hendricks, Melvin said, "I don't think we're going to get him." The search will go on. "We have a lot of young, power arms," Melvin said earlier in December. "We just don't have the experience factor like we had last year. And right now, we don't have the depth."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.