Brewers have big business at hand

Brewers have big business at hand

MILWAUKEE -- So much for savoring the trip to the postseason. For the Brewers, it was back to work quickly at Miller Park just days after they were bounced from the National League Division Series, and the team has a long list of items on its offseason to-do list.

Among them:

• Settle the status of general manager Doug Melvin, who, with only one year left on his contract, is not in a good position to look into managerial prospects. Which leads to:

• Fill the managerial opening. Melvin traveled to Phoenix this week to meet with interim manager Dale Sveum, who skippered the Brewers for the final 12 regular-season games and four postseason games, but Melvin has remained mum on how the process will play out. With a manager in place, Melvin could:

• Move on to player issues. Most notable among them are decisions on the Brewers' top two free agents. Left-hander CC Sabathia will garner top-dollar on the open market, and the Brewers need to decide whether they can make a legitimate offer. Right-hander Ben Sheets, meanwhile, is talented when healthy, but another injury-marked year makes him an especially risky bet for a mid-market team like Milwaukee. The Brewers would receive multiple Draft picks as compensation should either pitcher -- or both -- move on.

• Then it's on to options. The Brewers hold club options on three notable players: center fielder Mike Cameron, closer Salomon Torres and infielder Craig Counsell.

The outcomes in those areas will clarify many of the uncertainties the Brewers face as they move toward 2009 Spring Training. A new manager, for example, would likely mean a new coaching staff. Sabathia and Sheets signing elsewhere would likely prompt the Brewers to actively seek at least one high-profile starting pitcher via free agency or a trade. And such a trade, particularly if it involves first baseman Prince Fielder or shortstop J.J. Hardy -- two players already being mentioned often in early rumors -- would leave another big hole to fill.

However the roster falls into place, the Brewers, for the first time in 27 years, will report to Spring Training in February looking to repeat as a playoff contender. The '08 squad captured the National League Wild Card but fell to the Phillies in four games in the best-of-five NLDS.

Among the returning players will be Ryan Braun, who thinks the returning players will be better for their postseason experience. He felt the benefit was, "playing in that atmosphere, playing in that environment, that intensity. There's an urgency to play games you have to win. ... There were a lot of things we experienced that we had never experienced before. Hopefully, we learn from it. And hopefully, we have a chance to get back to this position."

Sabathia thought Braun was right.

"I definitely feel that some of these guys -- Prince and Braun and Hardy -- getting the postseason experience is going to help be even better next time," Sabathia said.

Even with the NLDS loss to the Phillies, was the season a success?

"I think so," Braun said. "Once we got to the postseason, I don't think we were content just being here. But ultimately, from the outset, our goal as an organization was to make it to the postseason."

CONTRACT ISSUES
Free agents: 3B Russell Branyan, 2B Ray Durham, RHP Eric Gagné, OF Gabe Kapler, IF Mike Lamb, RHP Guillermo Mota, LHP CC Sabathia, RHP Ben Sheets, LHP Brian Shouse.

Eligible for arbitration: RHP Dave Bush, LHP Chris Capuano, RHP Todd Coffey, 1B Prince Fielder, SS J.J. Hardy, OF Corey Hart, RHP Seth McClung, 2B Rickie Weeks.

Player options: None.

Club options: CF Mike Cameron, ($10 million, with a $750,000 buyout), RHP Salomon Torres ($3.75 million, with a $300,000 buyout), IF Craig Counsell ($3.4 million, with a $400,000 buyout).

Non-tender possibilities: Capuano.

CATCHERS
Jason Kendall, .246, 2 HRs, 49 RBIs
Mike Rivera, .306, 14 RBIs in 21 games

The Brewers raised some eyebrows when they signed the then-free agent Kendall last winter after his worst big league season, but he was a success. Kendall led the Majors with 149 starts, the most by any catcher since Montreal's Gary Carter started 151 games in 1982, and he threw out 39.6 percent of would-be base stealers, up from 10.5 percent in 2007. With his 110th start, Kendall vested a contract option for 2008, so he will be back.

FIRST BASE
Prince Fielder, .276, 34 HRs, 102 RBIs

Most players would kill for a "down year" like this. Fielder's numbers fell back to Earth after his 50-homer season in 2007, but still ranked eighth in the NL in that category. Fielder's strikeout numbers rose slightly (121 in 2007 to 134 in 2008) and his walks fell (90 to 84), but he carried the Brewers through September as their only hot hitter (.316, six homers, 21 RBIs). He is entering his first season of arbitration eligibility and is due a huge raise from the $670,000 he earned after the Brewers renewed his contract last season.

SECOND BASE
Rickie Weeks, .234, 89 Rs, 14 HRs

Weeks did little in 2008 to convince his critics that he is a viable leadoff option, and he was finally bounced from that role in mid-September after Sveum took over as manager. Weeks struck out 115 times in fewer than 500 at-bats, and while his .342 on-base percentage was impressive given his batting average, it still ranked 15th of the 17 Major Leaguers who amassed at least 450 plate appearances in the leadoff hole. Among regular Major League second basemen, only Texas' Ian Kinsler (.974 fielding percentage) was a poorer fielder than Weeks (.975).

SHORTSTOP
J.J. Hardy, .283, 24 HRs, 74 RBIs
Alcides Escobar, .328, 95 Rs, 76 RBIs, 34 SBs (Double-A)

Shortstop could be the Brewers' most intriguing position this winter. Escobar is ready for the Majors defensively, and it's up to club officials to decide whether his bat is ready as well. If it is, then the team would either ask Hardy or Escobar to move to second or third base or consider trading Hardy to bolster the pitching staff.

THIRD BASE
Bill Hall, .225, 15 HRs, 55 RBIs
Craig Counsell, .226, 14 RBIs
Mat Gamel, .325, 20 HRs, 99 RBIs (Double-A and Triple-A)

Brewers third basemen combined to rank 22nd of the 30 teams with a .726 OPS and 26th with 68 RBIs. Changes are most likely afoot, but Gamel, who spent most of the year at Double-A Huntsville, probably will begin 2009 at Triple-A Nashville. He slumped badly in the second half, then revealed to the Brewers that he had been nursing a right elbow injury for some time. The Brewers had hoped to give the third base job to Hall, who now has had back-to-back disappointing seasons and is only entering year three of a four-year contract and is due $15.2 million over the next two seasons.

OUTFIELD
Ryan Braun, .285, 37 HRs, 106 RBIs
Mike Cameron, .243, 25 HRs, 70 RBIs, 17 SBs
Corey Hart, .268, 20 HRs, 91 RBIs
Tony Gwynn, Jr., .275, 47 Rs, 20 SBs in 93 games (Triple-A)

If the Brewers exercise Cameron's option, the outfield will return intact. Cameron is arguably the best defensive center fielder in club history, and his 20 homers and 70 RBIs look even better when considering he missed the first 25 games of 2008 to a suspension. Braun and Hart are cornerstones of the team's youthful core, though Hart will go through arbitration for the first time. Both Braun and Hart went through second-half slumps -- Braun's likely due to a back injury -- and could be poised for bumps in production in 2009.

ROTATION
Yovani Gallardo, 0-0, 1.88 ERA in four starts
Manny Parra, 10-8, 4.39 ERA, 147 K's
Dave Bush, 9-10, 4.18 ERA, 1.141 WHIP
Jeff Suppan, 10-10, 4.96 ERA, 90 K's
Seth McClung, 6-6, 4.02 ERA overall; 4-4, 4.24 ERA in 12 starts

Lots of questions here with the potential departure of Sabathia and Sheets, the Brewers' best two pitchers. Gallardo missed most of the year after suffering a torn ligament in his right knee, but he returned in September and was the Brewers' Game 1 postseason starter, so he will enter '09 with high expectations. Parra, the lone left-hander in the group, was very good in stretches and has the stuff to be a good Major League starter, but he went 2-7 with a 4.87 ERA after the All-Star break and was moved to the bullpen. Suppan and the underrated Bush will fit somewhere in the rotation, but it remains to be seen what the Brewers do with McClung, who was effective both as a starter and as a reliever in '07.

BULLPEN
Salomon Torres, 7-5, 3.49 ERA, 28 saves, 71 Gs
Carlos Villanueva, 4-7, 4.07 ERA, 93 K's in 108 1/3 IP
David Riske, 5.31 ERA
Todd Coffey, 0.00 ERA in 9 Gs for Milwaukee
Tim Dillard, 4.40 ERA in 13 Gs; 6-1, 1.99 ERA (Triple-A)
Mitch Stetter, 3-1, 3.20 ERA, 30 Gs

Torres tired at the end of the season but could close games again if the Brewers pick up his option, and free agents Brian Shouse and Guillermo Mota could rejoin this group if they sign back with the team. Riske was expected to play a key role but was dogged by an elbow injury, but two years remain on his contract. Villanueva seems to have found his niche as a reliever (2-2, 2.12 ERA in 38 relief appearances) and likely will be back in that role.

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