Left-handed bats: If new manager Ken Macha wrote out his lineup today, first baseman Prince Fielder would be his only everyday left-handed bat. The team was similarly righty heavy in 2008, and batted .246 with a .738 OPS against right-handed pitchers and .269 with an .806 OPS against lefties. The problem Melvin will face is finding a spot to add a lefty hitter; third base is the only position in limbo unless the Brewers trade another position player.
Closer: Salomon Torres retired and Eric Gagne is a free agent, so the Brewers once again will need a new ninth-inning arm. Melvin has said he will not spend big on a closer (though he gave Gagne $10 million last winter). But Milwaukee has partly addressed its bullpen situation, signing left-hander R.J. Swindle on Nov. 25 and right-hander Jorge Julio on Thursday. One big name to keep an eye on is former Cub Kerry Wood, who drew interest from Milwaukee last year and could again if his asking price falls.
Who they can or need to trade:
SS J.J. Hardy or Alcides Escobar: The Brewers have their best positional depth at shortstop, a position of need for a number of teams in baseball, so a trade could make some sense if it can net some pitching. Hardy has one of the National League's best shortstop arms and has hit 50 home runs over the past two seasons, but Escobar is even better defensively and batted .328 with 34 stolen bases at Double-A Huntsville in 2008. Hardy has only two seasons left before free agency. Given his youth and promise, it would be shocking to see Melvin trade Escobar.
If the Brewers do not trade either player, Escobar could begin the year at Triple-A Nashville. Or, he could play shortstop in Milwaukee and Hardy could be asked to move to third base. Both are right-handed hitters, though.
1B Prince Fielder: Trading Fielder could make sense if the Brewers strike out on the free-agent market and need to move one of their star players for a top-flight starting pitcher. Why Fielder? He's entering arbitration for the first time, and stands to see his salary rise from $670,000 in 2008 to something in the neighborhood of 10 times that for 2009. The Brewers could conceivably replace him with defensively challenged third-base prospect Mat Gamel or perhaps former top prospect Brad Nelson, who has reestablished himself in the organization. Either player would have a hard time replacing Fielder's production.
CF Mike Cameron: The Brewers exercised Cameron's $10 million option for 2009 but they still could move him to a team like the Yankees, who expressed interest during the General Managers Meetings last month, if it would mean getting pitching or a lefty bat in return. Melvin says he has not talked with Yankees GM Brian Cashman in some time, but it's conceivable that they could touch base again in Las Vegas.
3B Bill Hall: Hall was all over trade rumors last winter, but now his salary (he's guaranteed $15.7 million over the next two seasons, including a 2011 buyout for $500,000) and his two-year woes against right-handed pitching (.713 OPS in 2007 and .557 OPS in 2008) will be major obstacles to moving him. But he could be an option for a team in need of a shortstop, Hall's natural position and one he played extremely well in 2006 when Hardy was injured.
3B Gamel, SS Escobar, RHP Jeremy Jeffress: No way the Brewers part with Escobar or Jeffress, and Gamel seems just as unlikely given his left-handed bat and the fact the Brewers traded his Double-A hitting partner, Matt LaPorta, to get Sabathia from the Indians.
Catchers Angel Salome, Jonathan Lucroy and Brett Lawrie; OFs Lorenzo Cain and Cole Gillespie: All of these players come from areas of relative depth and thus could draw interest from other teams. The Brewers have a terrible record of developing catchers, but they need someone to step up now because incumbent big league starter Jason Kendall is in a contract year. Salome, who finished last season in the big leagues, has the best shot because he is ahead of the others, including Lawrie, Milwaukee's first-round Draft pick last June. Cain and Gillespie have the misfortune of being corner outfielders behind big leaguers Ryan Braun and Corey Hart. Gillespie played through a toe injury in '08 and still hit .281 with 14 homers, 79 RBIs and 17 steals for Double-A Huntsville.
Big contracts they might unload:
Fielder or Cameron, but only for the right return package. Hall, if they can find any takers.
RHP Dave Bush, LHP Chris Capuano, RHP Todd Coffey, Fielder, Hardy, Hart, RHP Seth McClung, 2B Rickie Weeks.
Capuano will almost certainly be non-tendered because he is coming back from Tommy John surgery, but the Brewers may work to re-sign him to either a lesser big league contract or a Minor League deal.
Payroll summation: Brewers officials have been quiet about plans for payroll, probably because their still-pending offer to Sabathia will have a major impact. The team began last season in the neighborhood of $80 million and pushed toward $90 million with their in-season acquisitions, most notably Sabathia and infielder Ray Durham. Given their key arbitration-eligibles, something in the area of $80 million is a reasonable expectation for 2009.