Brewers in favorable spot heading into Meetings
With club's offense not a concern, GM Melvin will likely target pitching in Nashville
MILWAUKEE -- Brewers officials will head to Nashville, Tenn., on Sunday night to scour the Winter Meetings for pitching. They need relievers and probably at least one starter, but it's just as notable what they do not need.
Milwaukee does not need any starting position players, assuming general manager Doug Melvin is content to field the same group that led the National League in runs, home runs and stolen bases last season. If the Brewers stand pat in the field, it will allow Melvin and his staff to focus on arms.
Here is a quick glance at the Brewers' situation heading into the Winter Meetings, which return this year to Nashville's sprawling Gaylord Opryland Hotel:
Rotation: Manager Ron Roenicke would like one established starter to pair with Yovani Gallardo, though Melvin has been clear he doesn't see the Brewers going for Zack Greinke, the top available free agent. There are plenty of second-tier candidates to choose from, like Edwin Jackson and Brewer-killer Ryan Dempster. An addition would leave three starting spots for candidates like Marco Estrada, Chris Narveson, Wily Peralta, Mark Rogers and Mike Fiers. Peralta and Fiers have options.
Bullpen: Closer John Axford is set, while Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler pitched themselves into consideration last season. After that, the options are wide open, and Melvin will have to make some additions via free agency or trades. The good news is that unlike last year, when most of the jobs were set before the start of Spring Training, the Brewers can sell opportunity this year. That should help them lure more quality arms.
Shortstop: The free-agent market is again thin at shortstop, so the Brewers may be more inclined to stick with 22-year-old Jean Segura, acquired in the Greinke trade. Segura batted .264 with a .321 on-base percentage and .652 OPS in 44 games with the Brewers last August and September. Jeff Bianchi is the in-house backup. Melvin may be inclined to seek an experienced Plan B, and Alex Gonzalez remains a candidate to return. He was impressive for the Brewers last April before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
Who they can trade if necessary
Outfielder/first baseman Corey Hart: Hart will earn $10 million in the final year of his contract and has been vocal about his desire to sign an extension to stay in Milwaukee. The Winter Meetings could present an opportunity for Melvin and Hart's agent Jeff Berry to chat about that possibility. If those talks do not progress, the Brewers might consider gauging Hart's trade value -- it helps that he's proficient in the outfield and at first base -- and going with last year's Opening Day starter, Mat Gamel, in Hart's place. Prospect Hunter Morris is expected to begin the 2013 season at Triple-A Nashville and looks like the real deal.
Catchers Jonathan Lucroy or Martin Maldonado: The Brewers have catching depth for the first time in years now that Maldonado has proven himself an able hitter. It would be nice to preserve that depth, given the risk of injury to catchers, but if a team came calling about either player, you can bet Melvin would listen.
Utility players Gamel or Taylor Green: Both are longtime prospects without a clear path to the Brewers' starting lineup. Both have struggled to produce in brief big league stints, but their Minor League numbers could tempt another team.
The Brewers' top 10 prospects, per MLB.com, are pitchers Tyler Thornburg, Peralta, Taylor Jungmann, Jed Bradley and Johnny Hellweg, second baseman Scooter Gennett, Morris, outfielder Logan Schafer, pitcher Jimmy Nelson and catcher Clint Coulter.
Brewers officials have gone to great lengths over the past two years to dispute the widely-held view that Milwaukee's farm system is weak, and the 2012 performances of pitchers like Fiers, Peralta and Rogers bolstered that argument. Note the number of pitchers in that top 10 -- pitching has been a recent focus of the club after years of having vastly more success with position players.
Rule 5 Draft
The Brewers have an opening on their 40-man roster but have shied away from making picks in the Major League phase of the Rule 5 Draft in recent years. Still, pro scouting director Zack Minasian compiles a list of potential targets, and that list is debated during Winter Meetings week.
Big contracts they might unload
Third baseman Aramis Ramirez's contract was backloaded, so his salary rises from $6 million in 2012 to $10 million in '13 and $16 million in '14. That makes him a potential trade candidate, but the Brewers were so impressed with Ramirez's season-long defense and late-season offense that they are unmotivated to move him. Second baseman Rickie Weeks is also earning eight figures, but it's probably too early to consider him a trade chip since Gennett played at Double-A last year.
The Brewers' payroll will come down from the club-record, $100 million-plus last season. How much it will come down remains to be seen. Current players account for $55-$60 million, and that figure will rise toward $70 million as arbitration-eligible players come to terms for 2013. Principal owner Mark Attanasio has always been willing to stretch the budget for the right player, but would probably be more comfortable in the $90 million range.