After signing a one-year deal last winter to come to Milwaukee, Looper led the Brewers with 14 wins and tied for the National League lead by making all 34 of his starts, but he also ran up a 5.22 ERA and led the Majors by allowing 39 home runs. By declining the option, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin was left with $5.5 million to allocate elsewhere.
"I talked to Braden and I told him that we wanted to keep our flexibility, but we would still consider him," Melvin said. "You don't know if that will be at a lower [salary] number or a higher one because it depends on the market. That's the risk we take."
In August it seemed a foregone conclusion that the Brewers, who are short on pitching prospects at the top levels of the Minor Leagues, would bring Looper back. But a high-ranking club official indicated during the final week of the season that Looper's future with the team was thrown up for debate as he posted a 6.58 ERA over the season's final month with a .349 opponents' batting average. He did manage to go 5-2 over that span thanks to the Brewers' offense.
In the season's final days, Looper revealed that he pitched the entire season with a sore right knee that would need arthroscopic surgery.
"I tried the best I can to get the ball down because that's my whole game," Looper said. "I don't know [if the knee played a part in pitches staying up]. I know I haven't been a consistent this year. That's the thing that upsets me, I hope that [the knee] didn't cause that."
Looper turned 35 on Oct. 28 and the Brewers had until Saturday to decide on his option. Had they exercised it, Looper would have had three days to decide whether to accept.
Looper is a Type B free agent, but it's difficult to imagine the Brewers offering him arbitration, a necessary step to reap a compensatory Draft pick should he sign elsewhere. If Looper were to accept such an offer, he would earn more than the $6.5 million option the team just declined.
Melvin is focused on acquiring help this offseason for a pitching staff that ranked next to last in the National League with a 4.83 ERA and tied the Orioles for the worst starters' ERA in all of Major League Baseball at 5.37. The $5.5 million saved by declining Looper's option will presumably be spent on another arm.
Melvin has made a series of cost-cutting moves in recent days. Last week, he traded J.J. Hardy to the Twins for center fielder Carlos Gomez, who is a first-time arbitration-eligible player but will earn far less than Hardy, who made $4.65 million in 2009. That move cleared the way for rookie shortstop Alcides Escobar and meant the Brewers would all but pursue departing free agent Mike Cameron, who earned $10 million in 2009.
That same day, Melvin told a Milwaukee radio station that the team was considering using catching prospect Jonathan Lucroy behind the plate in 2010 over another free agent, Jason Kendall, who earned $5 million last season. Melvin met this week with Kendall's agent to inform him that the team would spend less than that at catcher next season.
Some of that savings will have to go to arbitration-eligible players who are getting more expensive, but Melvin may also be freeing payroll to make a play for a free-agent arm. He spoke this week with representatives for veterans John Lackey, Randy Wolf and Doug Davis, all of whom will seek multi-year contracts. The Brewers could also make a bid for Tigers right-hander Edwin Jackson, who may be available in a trade as Detroit manages its own payroll.
Say what you will about Looper's secondary numbers, he still won more games in 2009 than all of those pitchers. Davis was 9-14 with a 4.12 ERA for a poor Arizona team and Jackson was 13-9 with a 3.62 ERA for a Tigers team that lost a one-game playoff for the American League Central. Lackey was 11-9 with a 3.83 ERA for the 97-win Angels and Wolf was 11-7 with a 3.23 ERA for the 95-win Dodgers.
"I think Braden had more wins than all of the free agents out there, but the other guys had much lower ERAs," Melvin said. "It shows you the difficulty of predicting what pitchers can do for you. I don't want to downplay the year [Looper] had for us. He hit all of his incentives, so he did what we asked him to do.
"In the end, we felt we wanted to keep the flexibility to maximize the money we do have left."
With Looper out of the mix, the Brewers still have four returning starters in Yovani Gallardo, Dave Bush, Jeff Suppan and Manny Parra. Also under team control are Carlos Villanueva and Seth McClung, both of whom are arbitration-eligible and have made starts over the past three seasons.