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Counsell returns to Milwaukee

Brewers sign Counsell to two-year deal

MILWAUKEE -- Craig Counsell passed on opportunities to play everyday for the opportunity to play at home.

Counsell, who grew up in the Milwaukee suburb of Whitefish Bay and just bought a new home there, inked a two-year contract with the Brewers on Wednesday to return as a backup infielder. It's his second stint with his hometown team.

"It just felt right to me," said Counsell, who played for the Brewers in 2004 before leaving as a free agent. "Sometimes you go with your gut and what feels right."

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Counsell's contract reportedly guarantees him $6 million. He will earn $2.8 million in 2007 and 2008, and the Brewers hold a $3.4 million option for 2009 with a $400,000 buyout. Counsell will turn 39 before the end of the 2009 season.

"Family was part of the decision, for sure," said Counsell, who married his high-school sweetheart, Michelle, and has three young children, including an infant daughter. "But another part of it was that this is where I grew up. I've always loved the Brewers, and the chance to play for them again was appealing."

It was so appealing that Counsell, 36, spurned at least one three-year contract offer and several other deals to play every day. Reports surfaced in San Diego on Tuesday that Counsell had agreed to a two-year deal with the Padres, where he would have been the starting second baseman. Counsell called those reports, "just wrong" and "premature." He also said the Cleveland Indians made a strong push.

With the Brewers, Counsell will serve as a left-handed bat off the bench and as the primary backup to shortstop J.J. Hardy and second baseman Rickie Weeks, two young players who have had injury issues. General manager Doug Melvin said the team would fax a one-year offer to free agent Jeff Cirillo in the next couple of days, hoping to bring back the veteran as a right-handed bench bat and a backup to third baseman Corey Koskie, who missed the second half of 2006 with post-concussion syndrome. But Melvin revealed on Wednesday that should Koskie have any major setbacks, the team would hand the third-base job to top prospect Ryan Braun.

"I have no problem coming here trying to win playing time," Counsell said. "This team will be better off if those guys are playing well. But I'm sure I'll get in there enough."

Originally acquired by Milwaukee in the December 2003 trade that sent slugger Richie Sexson to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Counsell batted .241 in '04; he later re-signed with Arizona. In 2006, he hit .255 with four home runs and 30 RBIs in 105 games, primarily as a shortstop. Counsell became expendable when the D-backs committed at that position to 23-year-old Stephen Drew.

The Brewers' pursuit of Counsell gained steam on Monday, when Melvin moved on from what he called a "similar" offer to free agent Tony Graffanino, who played well in Milwaukee following a midseason trade from Kansas City. Melvin has expressed frustration several times since the end of the season about troubles communicating with Graffanino's agent, Dan Lozano.

"I got a little concerned that it was dragging a little bit," Melvin said. "But they were in the same situation [as Counsell], weighing the opportunity to be a regular. ... I was waiting and waiting and waiting."

Lozano had a busy Monday. He was re-hired to represent free-agent catcher Rod Barajas, whose previous representation had reportedly agreed to terms on a contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. That deal was falling apart while Melvin was at home waiting for word from Lozano on Graffanino.

At the same time, the reports out of San Diego indicated that Counsell had settled on the Padres. But once the Brewers entered the picture, Counsell said, negotiations with agent Barry Meister went quickly. And Melvin insisted that he prefers Counsell because of his skills at shortstop, while Graffanino is considered primarily a second baseman.

"I think Craig will play for us more than Tony would have played," Melvin said. "I think that helped us sell Craig on coming back."

Counsell's signing comes four days after the Brewers completed a six-player trade with the D-backs to get catcher Johnny Estrada, starter Claudio Vargas and reliever Greg Aquino for three players, including steady left-handed starter Doug Davis. With baseball's Winter Meetings set to begin Monday, Melvin's biggest challenge remaining is straightening out his outfield, where the club has a number of options for the corners but no clear frontrunner for center field.

On Tuesday, Melvin shot down an Internet rumor that the Brewers were negotiating with free-agent outfielder Shannon Stewart. The team has a three-year offer on the table to Dave Roberts, but Melvin still expects Roberts to sign with the Giants, and Juan Pierre made it clear before he signed with the Dodgers that he had no interest in the Brewers.

The Roberts and Pierre situations highlight an ongoing problem for Melvin and assistant general manager Gord Ash -- convincing sought-after free agents to even consider coming to Milwaukee.

"When you go through the free-agent process you look at who can be good and who's going to make it," Counsell said. "But it's like, why can't the Brewers be that team next year? The team that won the World Series [St. Louis] won eight more games last year. And I don't think any free agents were saying last year, 'I'm going to Detroit because they're going to be in the World Series.' We have as good a shot as anybody, the way I see it."

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

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