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Brewers holding pat entering Meetings

Crew holding pat entering Meetings

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MILWAUKEE -- It's fitting, on the eve of the Winter Meetings at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, that general manager Doug Melvin and the Brewers are holding their cards so close to the vest.

Melvin said he and his staff have been discussing free agents and trade opportunities all along, but the Brewers have been somewhat paralyzed by the slow-going CC Sabathia sweepstakes. Milwaukee submitted one of the two known offers (the New York Yankees put up the other offer) for the free-agent left-hander, who has been waiting for a number of West Coast teams to join the bidding.

At the same time, the Brewers do not have many obvious holes to fill. Melvin points out that all of the hitters who departed via free agency were either backups or platoon players, meaning new manager Ken Macha could field a viable 2009 lineup with players already in the fold. If Seth McClung were to rejoin the rotation after a successful end to last season in relief, the Brewers also have five starters, even if free agents Sabathia and Ben Sheets move on.

In the bullpen, assuming players such as Mitch Stetter and Tim Dillard are promoted to the Major Leagues permanently, there are only a handful of spots available, including the closer's role, and Melvin believes those can be filled later in the offseason. The Brewers also would need to restock the bench.

So Milwaukee's contingent headed to Vegas in a bit of a holding pattern, waiting for Sabathia's decision to help decide their course for the rest of the offseason. If he takes less money to remain in Milwaukee (reportedly $100 million over five years, compared to six years and about $140 million offered by the Yankees), then the Brewers' starting rotation is dramatically improved and Melvin can focus more of his efforts to add left-handed bats to a right-handed-heavy lineup.

But in the very likely event that Sabathia signs elsewhere, the Brewers would reap a pair of high Draft picks and Melvin would likely refocus on building depth in the starting rotation for 2009. Yovani Gallardo, Dave Bush, Jeff Suppan and Manny Parra are set to return, and McClung could be an option, but it's likely that Melvin would be more motivated to either pursue another starter on the free-agent market or try to add an arm via trade.

"We're meeting every day to go over things," Melvin said. "We know what we can do and what we can't do.

"The big thing for us is that it has changed somewhat from a year ago, when our younger players were not making money. Now a lot of our younger players are arbitration-eligible and that has changed our focus on what we can do free agent-wise."

At the head of that list is first baseman Prince Fielder, whose 2008 contract was renewed by the club at $670,000 but who now stands to make something in the neighborhood of 10 times that amount in arbitration. Right fielder Corey Hart and second baseman Rickie Weeks are also eligible for arbitration for the first time, and Hart in particular will get a big bump from his $444,000 salary.

Shortstop J.J. Hardy ($2.65 million salary in 2008) and starter Dave Bush ($2.55 million) can also expect bumps in their second years of arbitration.

Hot Stove
Melvin has been very clear that he cannot simply use Sabathia's $20 million -- his approximate 2009 salary should he accept the Brewers' offer -- on other free agents, calling Sabathia, "a special case." So in order to add an impact pitcher, the Brewers may be forced to dangle one of their young hitters, such as Fielder or Hardy, over the trade market -- Fielder, because of his changing salary structure, and Hardy because the Brewers have shortstop prospect Alcides Escobar nearing the Majors.

Even if they re-sign Sabathia, some of those players could still be dealt. The Brewers are also brainstorming ways to mix left-handed hitters into a lineup that currently has only one: Fielder.

Ready to go
The Brewers enter the Winter Meetings with enough players under control for the 2009 season to field a starting lineup and a full rotation without making a move.
Position
Player
CJason Kendall
1BPrince Fielder
2BRickie Weeks
3BBill Hall/Mat Gamel
SSJ.J. Hardy
LFRyan Braun
CFMike Cameron
RFCorey Hart
RHPDave Bush
RHPYovani Gallardo
RHPSeth McClung
LHPManny Parra
RHPJeff Suppan
"We're looking for left-handed hitters, but that's very difficult for our club unless you move some of our right-handed hitters," Melvin said. "So that would have to be a trade, more so than free agency."

One bat that has already been mentioned is the Yankees' Melky Cabrera, a 24-year-old switch-hitter. The Yankees expressed some interest in Cameron at last month's General Managers meetings in California, but the teams apparently had trouble identifying a second player -- likely a pitcher -- to join Cabrera in coming to Milwaukee, and Melvin said he had not spoken with Yankees GM Brian Cashman since then.

Cameron will earn $10 million next season after the Brewers exercised his option. He was productive in 2008 despite missing 25 games to a suspension and striking out a team-high 142 times, and he is arguably the best defensive center fielder the Brewers have ever had. But if Melvin deems center field the best spot to add a lefty bat, talks with the Yankees could be renewed in Las Vegas.

The Brewers' other area of need is in the bullpen, though Melvin has said he will wait until later in the offseason to address that area. Salomon Torres announced his intent to retire and left-hander Brian Shouse and right-handers Eric Gagne and Guillermo Mota are free agents, leaving some openings for late-inning roles. Carlos Villanueva (2.12 ERA as a reliever in 2008) figures to fill a more prominent role, and he and McClung have been mentioned by fans as possible closers. Asked whether either of those players could be a candidate, Melvin said, "We'll talk about that. No one last year thought Torres would be our closer, so you never know."

The free-agent market could provide some candidates. Kerry Wood could be particularly intriguing to the Brewers if his asking price falls. Melvin said most closers start by requesting "Francisco Cordero money," referring to Cordero's four-year, $46 million deal last November with Cincinnati.

Recent Internet reports have lined the Brewers to the top two closers on the market, Francisco Rodriguez and Brian Fuentes. But Melvin has said repeatedly that he does not intend to spend top dollar on a closer.

"Anybody who's out there and available, we'll have conversations about him," Melvin said.

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

{"content":["winter_meetings" ] }
{"content":["winter_meetings" ] }
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