MILWAUKEE -- After striking gold last season with Zach Duke, the Brewers are hoping for more of the same from another veteran left-hander.
On Friday, Milwaukee finalized a one-year, $3 million contract with free-agent reliever Neal Cotts, who turns 35 in March and will replace Duke as a second left-handed option alongside Will Smith. Duke parlayed his strong 2014 season into a three-year, $15 million contract with the White Sox earlier this offseason. The Brewers had interest in bringing back Duke, but they could not match that financial commitment and had been searching the market for left-handed relief ever since.
Injuries kept Cotts out of the Major Leagues for three seasons from 2010-12, but he proved durable over the past two years with the Rangers, making 131 appearances from late May '13 through the end of last season.
"I'm grateful to be able to still go out there and compete," Cotts said. "I put in a lot of work over those three years. There were times where it was tough trying to get motivated. My wife played a big role in [my perseverance]. She never asked, 'Why are you doing this?' It was always the other way, like, 'Keep trying.'"
Besides Smith and Cotts, the Brewers will take a Spring Training look at left-handed non-roster invitee Brent Leach and Minor Leaguer Mike Strong. The team also signed veteran Dontrelle Willis to a Minor League deal with an invitation to big league camp.
In his career, Cotts has actually fared better against right-handed batters (.703 OPS) than lefties (.753). Last season, right-handed hitters compiled a .680 OPS against Cotts, compared to .775 for left-handers. In his excellent 2013 season, right-handers had a .436 OPS against him and left-handers were at .565.
The Brewers' top options against tough left-handed hitters could include Smith (.516 OPS last season, .681 career) and right-handed reliever Brandon Kintzler (.648 OPS last season, .624 career).
"Like Zach Duke, we don't look at [Cotts] as a lefty specialist," assistant general manager Gord Ash said, pointing to Cotts' relatively even career splits against right-handed and left-handed hitters. "We think he'll give us better balance -- having that second left-hander, I think, is important -- but a true left-on-left specialist? No. He's got more weapons than just that."
Cotts underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010 and subsequently had four hip surgeries -- one for a torn labrum and three more to address a subsequent infection. He returned to the Majors in '13 to post a career year for the Rangers, sporting a 1.11 ERA in 58 appearances while striking out 65 batters in 57 innings. He regressed last season, posting a 4.32 ERA that was closer to his career mark of 4.05.
The Brewers and Cotts' agent, Joe Bick, began a conversation in December, after Bick and Brewers special assistant Dan O'Brien shared a delayed flight home to Ohio from the Winter Meetings. The sides struck a financial agreement on Jan. 21, but Cotts couldn't make it to Milwaukee for a physical exam until one week later. Despite Cotts' thick medical file, Ash referred to the exam as "straightforward."
Beyond the Brewers' need for a left-hander, Milwaukee was attractive for Cotts, a father of two, because of its proximity to his home in Chicago.
To make room on a full 40-man roster for Cotts, the Brewers designated utility man Elian Herrera for assignment. The decision to remove Herrera from the 40-man roster was influenced by Herrera's lack of Minor League options.
Also on Friday, Baseball America reported that the Brewers had re-signed right-hander Hiram Burgos to a Minor League contract. Burgos missed much of the 2014 season with a shoulder injury and he was released in the fall when Milwaukee needed 40-man roster space. He won't be in the Brewers' Major League camp.
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.