MILWAUKEE -- With the Hot Stove season set to begin, the biggest question in Milwaukee is not who will join the Brewers for 2012, but who will be gone.
And that discussion, of course, begins with Prince Fielder, who has been one of baseball's most talked about free-agents-to-be for more than a year. The Brewers held Fielder longer than most baseball folks -- including the first baseman himself -- expected, but this time, it will be official. After 10 seasons in Milwaukee's organization and parts of seven years in the Majors, Fielder will be available to the highest bidder.
Fielder isn't the only one. Relievers LaTroy Hawkins and Takashi Saito, second-half hero Jerry Hairston Jr. and veteran bench hands Craig Counsell and Mark Kotsay are also scheduled for free agency. Reliever Francisco Rodriguez and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt would join the list if the Brewers decline their options.
"Playing here was awesome," Fielder said after the Brewers were eliminated from World Series contention by the Cardinals. "I'm just glad I was able to have the amount of fun I had. It was cool.
"I've kind of grown up a little bit. My kids have gotten older. That's about it, really. Just gotten older. Every year has been a learning experience. I don't know, it's been cool, man, and hopefully, I'm here for more years to come. But if not, it's been cool."
The Brewers and Fielder's agent, Scott Boras, have not had recent discussions about a contract extension. Both sides determined before the start of Spring Training this year that the focus should simply be on winning games, a message Melvin imparted to Boras, who imparted it to Fielder.
With one minor exception -- Fielder unwittingly created a stir in September when he admitted he was "probably" in his final season with the Brewers -- that philosophy worked. Fielder had one of his best seasons in 2011, batting .299 with 38 homers and 107 RBIs, and the Brewers set a club record with 96 victories, winning their first division title in 29 years. They made it to a Game 6 of the National League Championship Series before the ride came to an end.
After that Game 6 loss, Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio indicated the club would be in touch with Boras.
"The fans love Prince here, the organization loves Prince and we'll do everything we can to get him back while recognizing, with good reason, he's going to have a lot of teams competing with him," Attanasio said. "One of the great things about Prince is he played 162 games, and if it were up to him, he would play every inning of every game. You're talking about a bedrock out there."
He added: "We are planning on participating in the sweepstakes."
Attanasio and general manager Doug Melvin will meet in Los Angeles during the first week of November to formulate a plan for that participation.
Realistically, Brewers officials have been operating for some time under the assumption that Fielder will be playing elsewhere beginning in 2012. Since the club's last acknowledged talks with Boras about an extension, the Brewers have agreed to long-term deals with right-hander Yovani Gallardo, second baseman Rickie Weeks and outfielders Corey Hart and Ryan Braun. Braun's agreement was an extension on top of an existing extension, making him a Brewer through at least 2020.
Melvin also traded for two top starters in Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, who together will cost nearly $20 million in 2012.
So the Brewers' participation in the free-agent market is likely to be on a smaller scale. Melvin expressed a willingness to bring back Hairston, Hawkins and Saito, and he will talk with Kotsay and Counsell about whether they intend to play in 2012.
CONTRACT ISSUES Free agents: INF Counsell, 1B Fielder, INF/OF Hairston, RHP Hawkins, 1B/OF Kotsay, RHP Rodriguez and RHP Saito
Eligible for arbitration: OF Carlos Gomez, C George Kottaras, RHP Kameron Loe, RHP Marcum, 3B Casey McGehee, OF Nyjer Morgan and LHP Manny Parra
Options: SS Betancourt $6 million (club) and RHP Rodriguez $17.5 million (mutual)
Non-tender possibilities: Kottaras, Parra
AREAS OF NEED First base: Asked how the Brewers plan to fill first base in the event of Fielder's departure, Melvin named Triple-A Nashville's Mat Gamel, a longtime prospect who has struggled in his limited opportunities in the Majors.
"I look at guys like [the Rangers'] Nelson Cruz and [the Cardinals'] David Freese," Melvin said, referring to a couple of late bloomers. "Mat Gamel has had as good of years as they have in the Minor Leagues. He just hasn't had the chance [in the Majors] because we haven't given him the chance. David Freese is 27 years old, Nelson Cruz is 31. Mat Gamel is 26, so is it the time to give Mat Gamel the chance? That's something we have to seriously consider."
If they do not intend to give Gamel the job, the Brewers could look to the market. Michael Cuddyer, Casey Kotchman, Derrek Lee and Carlos Pena are the most notable free-agent first basemen after Fielder and the Cardinals' Albert Pujols.
Setup man: Hawkins, Saito and Rodriguez combined to fill this role in the second half of 2011 and could depart via free agency. Given Melvin's comments at a season-ending news conference, the Brewers have interest in bringing back either Hawkins (39 in December) or Saito (42 in February).
Five- and six-hole hitters: Last year at this time, the Brewers were clearly focused on adding starting pitching. This year, Melvin said his priority is improving these two spots in the lineup, which gave the team trouble in 2011. The options are wide open -- adding an upper-tier first baseman, for example, or making a change away from McGehee after his down year. Melvin is the rare GM not in need of starting pitching, so he can keep his options open this offseason in terms of adding depth to the lineup.
Fielder's $15 million 2011 salary could come off the books, but other players are due raises from their existing contracts (Braun, Hart, Weeks and Gallardo are due $9.25 million more in 2012 than their earnings in '11) and other players, most notably Marcum, are eligible for raises in arbitration.
"It's not as easy as, 'His salary is off, so you have that much to spend,'" Melvin said. "It doesn't even come close to working that way."
The website MLB Trade Rumors estimated that, barring major trades to clear payroll, the Brewers will have about $9 million to work with this winter.
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.