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11/12/09 11:47 AM EST

Brewers meet with Lackey's agent

Righty likely to be most sought-after starter on market

MILWAUKEE -- Brewers general manager Doug Melvin may be downplaying his club's chances of landing the top pitcher on this year's free agent market, but don't count Milwaukee out of the John Lackey sweepstakes just yet.

According to a Major League source, Melvin did speak with Lackey's agent, Steve Hilliard, this week at the General Managers Meetings in Chicago. It was one of a series of sit-downs between Melvin and representatives for the top available free agent arms.

Pitching is the priority this winter for the Brewers, despite the fact they could have all five of their primary starters under contract again in 2010 -- the team must decide by Saturday whether to exercise its half of Braden Looper's $6.5 million option. Milwaukee's starters combined last season for a 5.37 ERA, tying the Orioles for the worst mark of the 30 Major League teams.

Lackey will command top dollar and the Brewers are working on a tight budget, something in the neighborhood of the $80 million payroll with which the team opened 2009. That means Melvin would have to move some other expensive pieces to make room for a pitcher like Lackey.

That process began last week, when Melvin traded J.J. Hardy to the Twins and opened shortstop for rookie Alcides Escobar, who will earn something close to the Major League minimum while Hardy makes upward of $5 million. In return for Hardy the Brewers got center fielder Carlos Gomez, who is arbitration-eligible for the first time but will still come much more cheaply than what the team would have paid to lure back free agent Mike Cameron, who earned $10 million last year.

The Brewers cleared another $3.3 million that day by declining reliever David Weathers' club option, and Melvin has given indications that he also intends to save money at the catcher's position instead of trying to re-sign Jason Kendall, who cost $5 million last season. Another $5.5 million could be freed if the team chooses to pay a $1 million buyout over exercising Looper's option.

Those savings will be offset somewhat by a raise for first baseman Prince Fielder, whose salary jumps from $7.5 million last season (which included a $1 million signing bonus) to $10.5 million under the terms of a two-year deal struck last December, and by pay raises for some of the Brewers' other arbitration-eligible players. Among them are some key contributors, including starter Dave Bush, setup man Todd Coffey, right fielder Corey Hart, reliever Carlos Villanueva and second baseman Rickie Weeks.

After the season, Melvin said he would like to add two starters this offseason, either in trades or free-agent signings. He also reportedly met in Chicago with the representatives for free-agent veterans Randy Wolf and Doug Davis, and reached out earlier this offseason to the agent for left-hander Mark Mulder, who missed all of 2009 following shoulder surgery.

Lackey, 31, has pitched all eight of his Major League seasons for the Angels and is 102-71 with a 3.81 ERA. He missed the start of each of the past two seasons with arm injuries, but nonetheless has made at least 24 starts in all seven of his full Major League seasons.

Lackey and Wolf are both Type A free agents, so the Brewers would have to surrender a pick in next year's Draft for either player. Since the Brewers own the 14th selection, their first-round pick is protected and they would have to give up a second-rounder to the Angels (for Lackey) or the Dodgers (for Wolf).

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.