LAS VEGAS -- With CC Sabathia out of the picture and the lineup mostly set, the Brewers officials who have been gathering for brainstorming sessions in the team's Winter Meetings suite all agree that the team's top need is pitching. But with no depth in the starting rotation and uncertainty at the back end of the bullpen, there was some debate on Day 3 of the Meetings about which area deserved priority status.
"I think the camp is, like, split in half on that one," said new Milwaukee manager Ken Macha, who sat in on meetings Tuesday and Wednesday before returning home to Pittsburgh. Macha, for his part, hinted that he might make finding a closer the priority. "I always thought that it was difficult to play an entire game and then get to the ninth inning and lose," Macha said. "I always thought a closer was very important. "Of course," he added, "if you get to the ninth inning and you never have a lead, what good is having a closer? Pitching in general is our priority." Which does general manager Doug Melvin view as the priority: A starter or a reliever? "Ideally, we need one of each," Melvin said, adding that he would focus on "whatever becomes available that fits at the right price." So Melvin & Co. moved on from the disappointment of Sabathia's record, seven-year agreement with the Yankees and focused on alternatives. Melvin met with Rangers GM Jon Daniels and discussed veteran Kevin Millwood, whose departure could clear a spot for Texas to pursue former Brewers hurler Ben Sheets. But Melvin called back later to say the Brewers "were going to look elsewhere." Melvin said he had nothing cooking with either the Mariners or Giants, teams that could match up, but did say he had one trade offer on the table with another club that probably would not be resolved before the Winter Meetings end Thursday. That mystery matter aside, Melvin said Milwaukee's pursuit of pitching was more likely to find success via free agency than a trade. "Trades are tough," Melvin said. "Teams just aren't willing to give up pitching." He confirmed the Brewers' interest in free-agent starter Randy Johnson but was told that Milwaukee fit only four of Johnson's five criteria (he wants to sign on the West Coast). Melvin planned to keep those lines of communication open anyway. On the closer front, the Brewers were quite interested in former Cub Kerry Wood, but Wood was finalizing a two-year deal with the Indians on Wednesday. Melvin informed Trevor Hoffman's agent that the Brewers would not extend the all-time saves leader an offer, but the team remains a player for former Rockies closer Brian Fuentes. Agent Rick Thurman represents both Fuentes and Hoffman, and Melvin said he may touch base again regarding Fuentes "in the next few days." The Brewers believe Fuentes wants a three-year contract, and he would cost a first-round Draft pick because he's a Type A free agent. The latter cost would be somewhat mitigated for the Brewers, because they will receive Draft compensation for both Sabathia and Sheets when those players sign with other teams. Replacing Sabathia and Sheets will be a tall order for the '09 Brewers, especially since they are expected to begin the season with a payroll below the level at which they ended 2008, near $90 million. With Sabathia off the market, Melvin expects other free agents to start signing. That could have a trickle-down effect that helps Milwaukee identify targets. Even with a somewhat tight budget and a number of players due raises in arbitration, "we have some flexibility," Melvin said. The Rule 5 Draft is scheduled for Thursday morning and the Brewers, who have three open spots on the 40-man roster, could make a move to add a pitcher, Melvin said. They own the 25th selection, but will pick much higher as teams pass. At least five teams ahead of the Brewers have full 40-man rosters. Assistant general manager Gord Ash said the Brewers had also reached their decisions in advance of Friday's non-tender date, though he wouldn't reveal the decisions. The most likely non-tender is left-hander Chris Capuano, who underwent the second Tommy John elbow surgery of his career last season. Ash said the medical reports on Capuano were positive, though it's unknown whether he will be healthy for the start of Spring Training. If the Brewers tender him a contract, they couldn't cut his salary more than 20 percent off the $3.75 million Capuano earned last season. The Brewers are expected to tender contracts to all of their other arbitration-eligible players.
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.