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11/19/09 1:00 AM EST

Brewers on lookout for starting pitching

General manager Melvin set to dip into pool of free agents

MILWAUKEE -- Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said he's been working the phones all week to express interest in free agents, but baseball rules have prevented him from doing any negotiating. After 11 p.m. CT on Thursday, the shackles come off.

That's when the exclusive negotiating window between teams and their own free agents is set to expire, meaning Melvin is free to make offers to any of the dozens of players who filed for free agency over the past two weeks. Likewise, the Brewers' nine free agents are free to look at hard offers from other teams.

"I'll be touching base again with some agents," Melvin said.

Since the Brewers are set at every position but catcher and already have closer Trevor Hoffman back in the fold, most of the agents on the other end of Melvin's calls will be representing starting pitchers. By now, it's been well-documented that the Brewers' mound struggles pulled the team down in 2009, when injuries to Dave Bush and Jeff Suppan contributed to a 5.37 starters' ERA that tied the Orioles for the worst mark of all 30 Major League teams.

But as clear as the Brewers' needs may be, Melvin is still wary.

"There's obviously a lot of risk with pitching," he said. "A lot of it is not only performance, but the injury factor. That can be very risky."

At the moment, the Brewers have control over four of their five starters from 2009: Youngsters Yovani Gallardo and Manny Parra, the arbitration-eligible Bush and the veteran Suppan, who is entering the final season of his four-year contract. The team also owns the rights to swingmen Seth McClung and Carlos Villanueva, who have each spent time as Brewers starters in recent seasons.

But the team cut ties, at least temporarily, with Braden Looper, who led the staff with 14 wins but also posted a 5.22 ERA and allowed 39 home runs -- and would have cost $6.5 million to bring back. The Brewers opted instead for a $1 million buyout to maintain more flexibility to make other moves. Melvin didn't rule out making an offer to Looper at some later date.

That move capped a series of cost-cutting measures by Melvin, who figures to work under about the same payroll constraints as he did last year, when the Brewers began the season in the neighborhood of $80 million.

So who will Melvin target? He's already been linked to some of the top names on a free-agent market considered somewhat thin in the pitching department, like John Lackey, Randy Wolf and Doug Davis. Melvin will almost certainly touch base with Scott Boras, who represents left-hander and Wisconsin native Jarrod Washburn, especially after Washburn mentioned to FoxSports.com on Wednesday that Milwaukee is on his list.

"The Twins and Brewers are both on the radar for me," Washburn told the Web site. "The thought of playing close to home has always appealed to me, and I think both of those teams would be good fits for me.

"I don't know yet if either of those teams have mutual interest, but we will see."

Melvin tried to trade for Washburn in July before the Mariners instead sent him to Detroit. Hampered by a left knee injury that required what he called a postseason "cleanup," Washburn was 1-3 with a 7.33 ERA in eight starts for the Tigers.

The Brewers would be more interested in the Washburn who went 8-6 with a 2.64 ERA in 20 starts for the Mariners before the trade.

As for his own free agents, Melvin has refused to say who he would like bring back to avoid giving other teams any indications. The Brewers would certainly be open to keeping infielder Craig Counsell, who is a plus defender at three positions and coming off his best offensive season in eight years. Counsell, though, figures to see action on the open market from a number of teams -- a dozen, according to one recent report -- looking for veteran infield help.

Melvin, too, may have interest in reliever Claudio Vargas based on Vargas' strong finish with Milwaukee. But relievers are typically available later into the offseason.

"It's like college recruiting," Melvin said. "During the window [of exclusivity], teams call six different middle infielders and say they're interested. Colleges do the same with quarterbacks, even though they know they're not going to get all six."

Starting Friday, that window is closed and teams and players are free to get serious.

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