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Future is bright for young Brewers club

Future is bright for young Brewers club

MILWAUKEE -- The start of Spring Training about six weeks from now gives the Brewers an opportunity to finally put last July and August behind them.

An otherwise promising season was ruined by those two months in 2007, when the team went 20-34 and slipped out of first place in the National League Central. They ended up finishing in second place, two games behind the division-winning Cubs, setting a franchise attendance record and posting a winning record for the first time since 1992. But it was little consolation for a Brewers team that held at least a share of first place for 133 of 184 days and had its sights set on a postseason berth.

So general manager Doug Melvin moved quickly once the offseason began, making his first waiver claim (catcher Eric Munson) two weeks after the end of the regular season, his first free agent signing (left-hander Randy Choate) in mid-November and his first trade (catcher Johnny Estrada to the Mets for reliever Guillermo Mota) a few days after that.

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In general, Melvin has focused almost exclusively on the bullpen in preparation for 2008, an area that was exposed as a bit of a weakness during the second half of last season and then lost three veterans to free agency (closer Francisco Cordero and setup men Scott Linebrink and Ray King). Melvin has been quick to say that Brewers starters need to pitch deeper into games to avoid wear and tear on the bullpen, but he nonetheless has re-made the latter group with veteran, durable power arms.

The first to join the fold was Mota, who was booed often at Shea Stadium last season, but still has life in his arm, according to Melvin's scouts. Then free agent David Riske, who inked a three-year deal, followed by Salomon Torres, a workhorse acquired from the Pirates for two prospects. Those arms, with holdovers Derrick Turnbow and lefty-specialist Brian Shouse, will most likely help the Brewers get a lead to Eric Gagne, who inked a one-year, $10 million deal in mid-December.

Gagne no doubt is a risk, and Melvin conceded he was disappointed to see Gagne's name in the Mitchell Report. But if the big right-hander can pitch anything like he did for Texas in the first half of 2007 (2.16 ERA, 16 saves in 17 opportunities) it will be a good investment.

With young position players locked in at most spots on the diamond, Melvin has only one big hole yet to fill. It was created when the team declined the contract option on longtime Brewers left fielder Geoff Jenkins, but the solution could be more complicated. The Brewers want a low-strikeout, high on-base player to fill that spot in the lineup, and they are willing to consider third basemen or outfielders for the best fit. If a third baseman (Scott Rolen was a major topic of conversation at the Winter Meetings) were to join the fold, the team would move 2007 NL Rookie of the Year Ryan Braun to left.

 Season in Preview
A lot can change by Opening Day, but as 2007 becomes 2008, this is who is projected to take the field for the Brewers:
  2BRickie Weeks
  SSJ.J. Hardy
  3B/LFRyan Braun
  1BPrince Fielder
  RFCorey Hart
  CF Bill Hall
  CJason Kendall
  LF TBD
  SPBen Sheets
  SP Jeff Suppan
  SPYovani Gallardo
  SP Carlos Villanueva
  SPBush/Capuano/Parra/Vargas
  CL Eric Gagne
Schedules: Spring | Regular season
Tickets: Spring | Regular season
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Wherever Braun plays, he could be an MVP candidate if he puts up similar numbers to last year's (34 home runs in just 113 games). So could first baseman Prince Fielder, who finished third in MVP balloting in 2007 and will not turn 24 until May.

Braun and Fielder were obviously off-limits, but Melvin was also steadfast this winter in refusing to part with his other young position players including pitchers Yovani Gallardo and Carlos Villanueva, outfielder Corey Hart, shortstop J.J. Hardy and second baseman Rickie Weeks. That decision leaves the Brewers poised to be contenders for 2008 and a few years beyond.

Grading on a curve: There is still work to be done, and the way in which Melvin fills the void left by Jenkins could play a role in the success of the '08 team. On one hand, if they leave Braun at third base they risk the inconsistent defense that forced manager Ned Yost to make defensive switches late in games. On the other hand, what if Braun moves to left field and it affects his offense, in the same way Bill Hall was affected last season? It's a difficult decision, but one that has to be made. Give Melvin credit for making some risky bullpen moves that could offer big payouts, and coming up with big bucks to land Gagne. We'll call it a 6 out of 10 for now.

Arrivals: Cs Munson and Jason Kendall, RHPs Gagne, Mota, Riske and Torres, LHP Choate

Departures: C Damian Miller, IFs Tony Graffanino and Corey Koskie, OFs Jenkins, Kevin Mench and Laynce Nix, RHPs Cordero, Linebrink and Matt Wise, LHP King

The Road Ahead: At some point, you figure that teams will begin asking Milwaukee about its surplus of starting pitching. The team has as many as five viable starters for two spots behind Ben Sheets, Jeff Suppan and Yovani Gallardo, who have to be considered locks for the rotation. Some of the remaining chips could be used to fill the third base/left field opening. With a crowded bullpen, the Brewers are poised to have a heated competition for the 11 or 12 roster spots available to pitchers in Spring Training.

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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