The jumble is quite a change from a year ago. When Melvin and assistant GM Gord Ash headed to Dallas for the '05 meetings they were set in the outfield with Clark, Jenkins and Carlos Lee, who combined to be the Majors' most durable outfield the previous season. But in 2006, Lee was traded, Clark settled into a reserve role and Jenkins underachieved in the next-to-last year of his contract, leaving the team in limbo.
"We're going to have to look at our outfield and determine the right mix so we can get it straightened out a little bit," Melvin said. "We've talked about Billy and Corey as two of the main guys, and I think we'll go with that. But it's finding the right combination around those two."
Hart, 24, seems a fit for right field and Melvin has said he prefers Hall, 26, who came up as a shortstop and is most comfortable on the left side of the diamond, in left field. Hall is coming off a career year in which he led the team in home runs, runs scored and RBIs while filling in at shortstop for an injured J.J. Hardy.
But it is more complicated than simply finding a center fielder to play between those two. Jenkins is due $7 million in 2007 and his contract includes a $9 million club option for 2008, and Mench is eligible for salary arbitration after receiving $2.8 million in 2006, when he was traded from Texas to Milwaukee and struggled with his new team. Both Jenkins and Mench are corner outfielders, and Melvin said both have drawn inquiries from other teams.
The Brewers could fill the opening in center field with Gwynn, but the 24-year-old may need another year of offensive seasoning in the Minors. Clark and Gross are also options, but the Brewers would like more speed from that spot, and Nix has to prove he can stay healthy before he's tabbed an everyday option.
The team made a strong offer for free agent Dave Roberts and also reportedly had contact with Juan Pierre. Both are more prototypical leadoff men who can play center field, but Pierre signed with the Dodgers and Melvin expects Roberts to sign with the Giants.
"With the guys we were looking at off the market, I'd say it's 50-50 that Billy Hall will be the center fielder," Melvin said. "But it is going to take a lot of work. He's not blessed with great speed, and even if you do have great speed, it's not easy to play center field. Wherever he ends up [in the outfield], it's going to take a lot of work."
Why move Hall in the first place? The Brewers appear committed to Hardy at shortstop alongside second baseman Rickie Weeks and first baseman Prince Fielder, and 2005 first-round draft pick Ryan Braun, a third baseman, is charging through the Minor League system. Meanwhile, the team has gotten good reports on veteran Corey Koskie, who missed the second half of 2006 with post-concussion syndrome but provides solid third base defense and a capable left-handed bat near the bottom of the order. The Blue Jays will pay most of Koskie's 2007 salary, leaving the Brewers on the hook for a relatively modest $2 million and giving Braun time to get some Triple-A at-bats.
Melvin has already addressed one area of concern, acquiring former All-Star catcher Johnny Estrada from the Diamondbacks in a six-player trade. For now, veteran Damian Miller becomes the backup with Mike Rivera and J.D. Closser at Triple-A, but Miller recently said he would be surprised if Melvin hung on to a $2.25 million backup.
The outfield is not the only area Melvin will look to bolster at the meetings. The Brewers showed interest in infielder Tony Graffanino but probably will not be able to promise enough playing time to entice his return, so Melvin may look for backup infield options. The team made a splash by signing Cuban shortstop Yohannis Perez to a Minor League contract and invited him to Spring Training, and Melvin has left open the door to bring back popular veteran Jeff Cirillo, who can play all four infield spots.
The Brewers will also look to bolster their starting pitching, though Melvin will not be in the market for blue-chip free agents like Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt. The team traded steady left-hander Doug Davis and promising lefty Dana Eveland to Arizona in the Estrada deal, but got starter Claudio Vargas and reliever Greg Aquino in return. Vargas will join Ben Sheets, Chris Capuano and Dave Bush, and Melvin would love to find a mid-priced veteran for the final slot.
"I think you always go to these meetings looking at getting better with your pitching," Melvin said. "In general, we'll be looking to add some depth to our club."
Melvin will have some financial flexibility, especially if he trades Jenkins or Mench. The team plans to boost payroll to the $60 million range for 2007, and even after arbitration-eligibles Capuano, Estrada, Hall, Mench and Vargas are under contract, there will be some room to add.