MILWAUKEE -- Once he picks a manager, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin's next task will be to once again go to work improving a shaky starting rotation. But he's leaning away from the free-agent market this time. "The free-agent market for pitching hasn't proved to be very beneficial for most clubs, not just ours," Melvin said. "That's why we have to develop our own and maybe make a trade. We might have to look at someone who has been let go. We have to look at everything." That would actually be something of a change for the Brewers, who have been relatively active in free agency in recent seasons considering their rank in the middle of the Major Leagues in terms of payroll.
They signed left-hander Randy Wolf to a three-year deal worth nearly $30 million at last year's Winter Meetings. They offered CC Sabathia more than $100 million in 2008, but lost him to the Yankees. They gave right-hander Jeff Suppan a four-year, $46 million deal in December 2006. If the Brewers look to the trade market, they do have a very moveable piece in first baseman Prince Fielder, who has one more year of arbitration-eligibility remaining before he reaches free agency following the 2011 season. Even in a down year, he led the Brewers with 32 home runs, drove in 83 runs, led the Major Leagues with 114 walks and reached base at a .401 clip. According to reports, the Brewers turned down a deal in July that would have landed right-hander Daniel Hudson from the White Sox because they wanted two pitchers for Fielder. Hudson was 7-1 with a 1.69 ERA in 11 starts after he was traded to Arizona instead. Whether the Brewers are able to top that offer this winter, with Fielder two months closer to free agency, remains to be seen. What is clear to Melvin and everybody else is that Milwaukee's rotation needs help -- Brewers starters ranked last in ERA among NL clubs in 2009 and moved up only one spot in 2010 with a 4.65 clip -- and the organization's pitching prospects need more time. That point was driven home by principal owner Mark Attanasio in August, when he made some particularly candid comments to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "It's pretty obvious we have some holes in our starting pitching and we don't have anybody [immediately] coming up," Attanasio told the newspaper. "I think free agency is not the perfect answer. That leaves the potential to trade one of our position players for pitching. "Maybe we've been more risk-averse in the past than we should have been because we felt we had a playoff contender and had 3 million fans to answer to. That's not an excuse, just a comment on how you address pitching. We've had two seasons now of having a top offense and extremely poor pitching. We must upgrade our pitching. It is a necessity." Even one-year free-agent contracts for pitchers can be risky, as the Brewers discovered this season with Doug Davis. But multi-year deals carry the most risk, and in Melvin's view the cost often outweighs the reward. Melvin is fond of using the 2006-07 offseason as an example. That's when Suppan signed his big deal with Milwaukee after a successful three-run with the Cardinals in which he went 44-26 with a 3.95 ERA and starred in the '06 postseason. Suppan's performance deteriorated in each of his four seasons with Milwaukee. But what were the other options? Melvin rattled them off: Jason Schmidt signed for three years and $47 million with the Dodgers. Barry Zito got seven years and $126 million from the Giants. Gil Meche signed with the Royals for five years and $55 million. Miguel Batista took three years and $25 million from the Mariners. The Cubs gave Jason Marquis three years and $25 million. Vicente Padilla signed for two years and $20 million with the Rangers. In each of those cases, the teams ended up with buyer's remorse. In Melvin's view, only one deal worked in the team's favor -- left-hander Ted Lilly's four-year, $40 million deal with the Cubs that just expired. "When you enter into free-agent contracts, it's one of the riskiest things to do," Melvin said. "I know in the offseason, media, fans -- myself included -- we all get excited about the free-agent people who are out there. But there are not a lot of free-agent contracts with pitchers where you get the full [value]." Melvin called it "a learning experience." Former Brewers manager Ken Macha learned the same lesson. "Looking at my years in Oakland," Macha said earlier this year, "our top three guys [Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder] all came out of the system. And in the same era the Toronto Blue Jays had three guys coming through their system -- Kelvim Escobar, Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter. With the free-agent market, you hope to catch lightning in a bottle like San Diego did with [Jon] Garland. Pitchers tend to be really good around contract time." There's another factor: The Brewers don't necessarily get to pull from the entire pool of free agents. Many players, especially pitchers, won't come to Milwaukee. "You look back at our decision-making process," Melvin said. "We've gone back over all the trades and [free-agent] pitchers that were available. That's the thing people don't understand -- the availability of guys. They say, 'Why didn't you go out and get this guy?'" For example, the Brewers' top free-agent target entering last offseason would have been the Braves' Hudson, had he reached the open market. But he elected instead to sign an extension with Atlanta. The Brewers also expressed interest in two Braves on the trading block -- Javier Vazquez and Derek Lowe -- Melvin said, but both players had no-trade clauses and Vazquez, in particular, would only approve a deal to certain cities. He eventually was dealt to the Yankees. The Brewers put together a legitimate package for Roy Halladay, but he approved a trade from the Blue Jays to the Phillies instead because Philadelphia spends Spring Training near his Florida home. "I'll take the heat on all the pitching," Melvin said. "But the toughest part is to be criticized on people you had no chance to get. ... That's why it's so important to draft and develop our own pitching, and why you don't want to give away a guy like Manny Parra and the Jorge De La Rosas of the world, Grant Balfour, guys we had short leashes on."