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02/22/10 6:27 PM EST

Strength in numbers found in 'pen

Experienced relievers provide Brewers depth

PHOENIX -- Brewers general manager Doug Melvin didn't plan to make a bullpen splash over the winter. It just sort of happened.

It happened at the Winter Meetings in Indianapolis, where Melvin was focused hard on improving the team's starting rotation. He was working on a deal with Randy Wolf when a reliever -- LaTroy Hawkins -- literally came calling.

Hawkins, a free agent coming off a fine year for the Astros, attended the Meetings in person and met with Melvin and other Brewers officials. Melvin was impressed enough to make a two-year offer.

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"I never had contact with him prior to Indianapolis," Melvin said, "but I had a chance to meet him and thought, 'You know what? The starting pitching thing is moving a little bit slow, so why don't we take a look and see if we can add a good, quality arm to the bullpen."

The Brewers appear to have those types of arms in relative abundance this spring, with Hawkins joining a bullpen that returns largely intact from 2009 and is heavy on experience.

Closer Trevor Hoffman is back on another one-year deal and will try to be the first man to reach 600 saves this season (he's nine shy after notching 37 saves with a 1.83 ERA in an All-Star debut with the Brewers). Todd Coffey returns after leading National League relievers with 83 2/3 innings last year and will likely set up Hoffman alongside Hawkins. Claudio Vargas and Carlos Villanueva are back as right-handed middle men and Mitch Stetter now has a full season under his belt as a left-handed specialist. Assuming that nobody has a Spring Training setback, it might leave only one bullpen spot up for grabs this spring.

"There's a lot of familiarity here, which is good," said Hoffman, already Major League Baseball's all-time saves king. "Now the key is to stay healthy and go at it."

This was not a group that needed a major overhaul last season, when the Brewers ranked a respectable 16th of the 30 Major League teams with a 3.97 bullpen ERA. Of the five returnees likely to make the 2010 roster, only Villanueva had an ERA above 3.60.

Hawkins' availability came as a surprise to Melvin, who figured the now-37-year-old Hawkins was headed back to Houston. But the Astros would only offer one year guaranteed, and the Brewers' two-year offer was alluring.

Melvin was able to go to a second year for Hawkins because he has been durable, averaging 65 appearances per year in the 10 seasons since switching from the starting rotation to relief for the Minnesota Twins. Hawkins has pitched in at least 57 games in all 10 of those seasons.

Hawkins also has closing experience, with 87 saves including 11 last season as a fill-in for Houston's Jose Valverde. That experience could be key for the Brewers considering that Hoffman is 42 years old and likely to need a day off from time to time.

"It's a bonus," Hoffman said of adding Hawkins. "You want to have as many good arms as you can, and Hawkins' track record speaks for itself. Power arm. Durable. Any time you can add something like that, you do it.

"It has a tendency to have a calming effect. He provides a lot of stability there."

The admiration, Hawkins said, is mutual. They have crossed paths as opponents throughout the years, probably most often in 2007, when Hoffman was still with the Padres and Hawkins was with the NL West-rival Rockies.

Those two teams squared off in a play-in game for the NL Wild Card, and Hoffman suffered a blown save and the loss in the 13th inning of a thriller. Hawkins hates to say it, but he had some mixed emotions.

"Honestly, I felt a little bad," Hawkins said. "Being a pitcher, you feel for the other pitcher sometimes. He's such a class act that you never want to see him fail."

That's especially so now that they are teammates.

"There isn't a chink in his armor," Hawkins said. "His reputation is impeccable and I'm looking forward to pitching with him."

At least one other bullpen spot appears up for grabs. The Brewers would love for it to go to David Riske, who is guaranteed $4.5 million in the final year of his contract, but he's limited at the start of camp while continuing rehabilitation from reconstructive elbow surgery.

That last spot could also go to a starting pitcher who doesn't crack the rotation (the Brewers have at least six and maybe seven starters competing for five spots) or perhaps to a second left-hander to go with Stetter. The Brewers signed veteran Scott Schoeneweis to a Minor League deal earlier this month and he'll get a look, as will Rule 5 Draft pick Chuck Lofgren. One of the starting candidates -- Chris Narveson -- is also left-handed, and prospect Zach Braddock is moving fast through the system.

"We'll see how it plays out," Melvin said. "I think it's important to have one [left-handed reliever] and I know a lot of people would like to have the second lefty, but it all comes down to how deep your starting pitchers go."

In general, Melvin is well aware of the fickle nature of relievers, who often follow a particularly good year with a particularly poor one. But he believes the Brewers have strength in numbers this season.

"If you have a deep bullpen, you have a better chance of guys having good years because guys complement each other," Melvin said. "If you have a guy like Hawkins coming in, you don't have to overwork a guy like Coffey. When they have a bad year, sometimes it's because they were overworked."

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