MILWAUKEE -- Brewers general manager Doug Melvin will lead a contingent to baseball's Winter Meetings with two goals, one specific and one more general:
1) Find a first baseman.
2) Find ways to add more talent.
"What can we do to make the ballclub better?" Melvin said. "That's the priority."
His ballclub is coming off a 74-win season, its poorest finish since Melvin was still in the building process in 2004. First base is the most glaring position in need of improvement, but Brewers staffers will discuss countless other ideas amongst themselves and with other teams over the four days of the Meetings.
Melvin & Co. will begin arriving at the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on Sunday evening, and here are some of the topics that could come up:
First base: It does not take a degree in sabermetrics to see that this is a position screaming for an upgrade. The Brewers never were able to fill the void last season left by Corey Hart's injured knees, ranking last of the 30 Major League teams with a .629 OPS from first base. Hart is a free agent now, and there is mutual interest in bringing him back, if the sides can agree on that "discount" Hart mentioned in September. He received full medical clearance just this week, and interest in him is said to be strong, so strong that a multiyear offer is not completely out of the realm of possibility. Would the Brewers be willing to go beyond one year, with Hunter Morris waiting in the wings and Hart coming off double knee surgery?
Relievers with closing experience: Melvin has a history of stacking potential closers. Think 2008, when Salomon Torres was there to step in for a faltering Eric Gagne, and the more recent tenure of Francisco Rodriguez. With Rodriguez traded to Baltimore in July and John Axford sent to St. Louis in August, Melvin is looking at experienced options to back up closer Jim Henderson and setup man Brandon Kintzler, each of whom will be entering their first full season in those particular roles.
Relievers in general: Henderson and Kintzler were steady throughout the season, but the rest of the bullpen was made and remade, and now it's in flux again. Tom Gorzelanny is the only other reliever assured a spot. When Melvin traded Burke Badenhop to Boston last month in a cost-cutting move, it was a show of confidence in less-experienced options like Donovan Hand, Rob Wooten, Michael Blazek, Alfredo Figaro and others. There is room to add here, for the right price.
Young starting pitching: Is this ever not a club need? If the Brewers can acquire more of it, like they did Thursday by trading outfielder Norichika Aoki to the Royals for left-hander Will Smith, they will consider it.
Who they can trade if necessary
Yovani Gallardo or Kyle Lohse: Asked this week whether he would be willing to consider offers for one of his established starting pitchers, Melvin said he would consider anything. Gallardo will earn $11.25 million in 2014, the final guaranteed season of his contract, and has a $14 million club option for '15. Lohse is due $11 million each of the next two seasons. The problem with trading either of them is it depletes a starting rotation that is not exactly brimming with depth, but for the right return, it is possible. The Braves seem to be the club most linked to Brewers starters in recent years.
Aramis Ramirez: The 35-year-old third baseman is entering the final season of his contract and has a $16 million salary, $6 million of which is deferred. Despite the fact he's coming off a season hampered by a knee injury, Ramirez would be difficult to trade because he brings power, something Melvin covets and the Brewers need in order to win at Miller Park. Ramirez has no intention of retiring after next season, so he will be a very motivated player in 2014.
Ryan Braun: A long, long, long shot to be traded, especially since the Aoki deal means Braun will move to right field. That switch is motivated by the belief that, in the long term, it is easier to fill left field than right. If the Brewers did not view Braun as part of their long-term plan, despite his lapses in decision-making over the past two years, they would probably not move him around.
MLB.com's latest list of the top Brewers prospects is led by right-hander Jimmy Nelson, then fellow right-handers Taylor Jungmann and Johnny Hellweg, outfielder Tyrone Taylor, infielders Nick Delmonico, Orlando Arcia and Morris, outfielder Victor Roache and pitchers Devin Williams and Blazek.
After dipping into his stable of prospects in recent years for trades that netted CC Sabathia, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, Melvin has mostly been adding young talent over the past two years. It would take a lot to convince him to start raiding the farm again.
Rule 5 Draft
One benefit to the Badenhop trade was that it freed a spot on what had been a full 40-man roster. The Brewers have not been active in recent Rule 5 Drafts, the event that annually closes the Winter Meetings, but pro scouting director Zack Minasian will nonetheless compile a list of potential targets. With the bullpen in a state of flux, a selection in the Major League phase of the Draft is not out of the question.
Big contracts they might unload
Ramirez, Gallardo or Lohse: See above.
Rickie Weeks: The oft-injured second baseman is recovering from hamstring surgery and due to earn $11 million in 2014, with an $11.5 million option for '15 that will vest if Weeks compiles 600 plate appearances and is healthy at the end of the season. With Scooter Gennett's performance in Weeks' absence last August and September, it is difficult to envision how Weeks fits. But that big contract will be very difficult to move, especially considering Weeks finished the 2013 season on the disabled list. A trade next spring seems much more plausible.
It's tight. Last year, the Brewers began the season with a payroll in the neighborhood of $85 million, a figure not expected to move dramatically in either direction. Even after parting with Aoki and Badenhop, the club currently has about $68 million in 2014 payroll already committed to eight players (Braun, Gallardo, Gorzelanny, Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, Lohse, Ramirez and Weeks), and is projected to spend another $5 million on Marco Estrada and Juan Francisco in arbitration. Barring a boost in payroll, that leaves $11 million to $13 million for 14 other players on the Opening Day roster.