MILWAUKEE -- The very good news for Brewers general manager Doug Melvin is that he will head to Dallas for next week's Winter Meetings with a starting rotation already in place. Few of the men in Melvin's job can say the same, and that puts him at an advantage as the Brewers build a team to defend its National League Central banner. He can instead focus on other areas. History says all of the team's needs can be addressed for a reasonable price in free agency, which appears to be the preferred route considering Melvin has made it clear he doesn't intend to trade from his stable of starting pitchers to fill another need. "If you're trading to fill one hole and you open up another one, I don't necessarily feel that's a solid trade," Melvin said. "Pitching is not the area you want to create a hole."
Melvin's challenge is not just filling holes -- free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder would create a big one if he signs elsewhere -- but improving a team that set a franchise record with 96 wins and played to within two games of the World Series. It helps that National League MVP Ryan Braun is already signed through 2020, and that All-Stars Yovani Gallardo, Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart are all locked up through at least 2013.
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Club needs:Setup men: LaTroy Hawkins, Takashi Saito and Francisco Rodriguez all played key roles in the second half of 2011 while pitching in front of closer John Axford, and all are free agents. They leave a huge void at the back end of the bullpen that Melvin has hinted is his top priority. He has already engaged with Hawkins and Saito about returning (Rodriguez has been clear he wants to be a closer). Melvin will be patient in this area, because bullpens typically come together late. Lineup depth: At his season-ending news conference, Melvin said the club needed more production from the fifth and sixth spots in the lineup. Brewers five-hole hitters (mostly third baseman Casey McGehee) ranked 15th of 16 NL teams with a .627 OPS. The team's six-hole hitters (mostly shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt) were 14th at .639. Those are two positions at which Melvin could theoretically add offense. Barring changes, the club would have to count on a bounceback season from McGehee, who drove in 104 runs as the primary No. 5 hitter in 2010. Shortstop: Besides the setup role, shortstop is the organization's most glaring hole. The only in-house option is Triple-A Nashville's Edwin Maysonet, who has already re-signed a Minor League deal for 2012 that includes an invitation to big league Spring Training camp. He played 46 games in the Majors for the Astros in '08 and '09. So the Brewers will have to acquire someone, and have already contacted agents for all of the available players, including Jose Reyes, Jimmy Rollins, Rafael Furcal and Betancourt, who became a free agent when the Brewers declined his option. The possibility certainly remains that Betancourt is back for 2012. First base? The question mark is there because the Brewers have a viable in-house option to man first should Fielder depart via free agency. Mat Gamel is 26, a .301 hitter with an .873 OPS in parts of four Triple-A seasons and is out of Minor League options. But if a proven first baseman becomes available for a can't-pass-it-up price later this winter, the Brewers could be tempted. Bench: Veterans Craig Counsell, Jerry Hairston Jr. and Mark Kotsay became free agents after playing big roles in the clubhouse during the Brewers' division title run. The team is trying to re-sign Hairston, who is versatile enough to play everywhere from shortstop to center field, but Kotsay already signed with the Padres and the Brewers informed Counsell they won't bring him back. Who they could trade: Catcher George Kottaras: Jonathan Lucroy is set as the starter and 25-year-old Martin Maldonado appears ready for a backup role after a breakthrough offensive season earned him a September callup. Kottaras, a left-handed hitter with power who has been left-hander Randy Wolf's personal catcher the past two seasons, is arbitration-eligible and might be nontendered if he is not dealt. A third baseman: The Brewers have decisions to make at third. Might they platoon McGehee and rookie Taylor Green, the organization's Minor League Player of the Year? Or do they hand the job to one of those players and explore trading the other? McGehee is arbitration-eligible for the first time and due a raise based on his excellent 2010 season. Green, 25, who batted .336 with 22 homers and 88 RBIs at Nashville last season, has lots of club control ahead of him. Top prospects: Right-handers Wily Peralta, Taylor Jungmann, Tyler Thornburg, Kyle Heckathorn, Cody Scarpetta and Jorge Lopez; left-hander Jed Bradley; infielders Green, Eric Farris and Scooter Gennett; outfielders Kentrail Davis and Logan Schafer. Brewers officials spent the past year arguing the strength of a farm system that helped them trade for starters Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke a year ago. Peralta is the consensus top prospect, and along with Farris, Green and Schafer, are either Major League ready or right on the brink. Jungmann and Bradley were the team's first-round picks in last year's First-Year Player Draft. Overall, Milwaukee has more depth than blue-chip talent in its system, and Melvin has shown in the past that no one is ever "untouchable." Big contracts they might unload: None. Arbitration-eligible: OF Carlos Gomez, Kottaras, RHP Kameron Loe, RHP Shaun Marcum, McGehee, OF Nyjer Morgan, LHP Manny Parra. Payroll summation: The Brewers' payroll topped $90 million last season after acquiring Greinke over the winter and Rodriguez and Hairston in July trades, and it will probably remain in the same range for 2012. Fielder's $15.5 million will probably be off the books, but Melvin probably has less than that total to spend on offseason acquisitions, because players like Braun, Gallardo, Hart and Weeks are all getting raises.