MILWAUKEE -- The Brewers have been silent observers of the free-agent market, but have had communication with "a few" available relievers, general manager Doug Melvin said this week. He did not rule out making an addition before Spring Training to address the most inexperienced facet of his ballclub.
Since Milwaukee traded Francisco Rodriguez to the Orioles in July rather than lose him in free agency after the season, and sent John Axford to the Cardinals in August because the plan was to non-tender him, the Brewers have only one pitcher on the 40-man roster with any experience closing Major League games. Jim Henderson gained virtually all of that experience in 2013, when he took over for Axford one week into the season and went 28-for-33 in save opportunities with a 2.70 ERA.
Henderson is expected back in that role to start 2014, but the rest of Milwaukee's 40-man roster accounts for all of three big league saves -- two in veteran Tom Gorzelanny's career and one for Alfredo Figaro in 2013. Henderson's projected setup man, Brandon Kintzler, logged 36 saves over parts of nine Minor League seasons, including a career-high 16 in 2010 between Double-A Huntsville and Triple-A Nashville. Rob Wooten has 78 Minor League saves, including 20 for Nashville in 2013 before his promotion to Milwaukee.
Melvin said at the Winter Meetings he is seeking late-inning insurance and would like to add at least one or preferably two more relievers who have closed games in the Majors. But he is hesitant to overpay a free agent, pointing to the year-to-year volatility of relief.
"Right now, we're just going to [fill the bullpen] internally, unless that changes," Melvin said.
If that changes, there are still options out there. Twenty of the pitchers on MLB.com's Free Agent Tracker have logged at least 10 Major League saves, some of whom could fit the Brewers' tight budget.
In alphabetical order, here is a rundown of those options:
David Aardsma (69 career saves): The 32-year-old Aardsma had a nice comeback with the Mets last season after rehabbing from July 2011 Tommy John surgery. He made 43 appearances with a 4.31 ERA. But he has not been a closer since he saved 38 games in 2009 and 31 games in 2010 for the Mariners.
Luis Ayala (19 saves): He logged nine of his saves for the Mets in 2008 and has only one save since then, but has been a steady big league reliever since bouncing between three teams in a dismal 2010. Over the past three seasons, Ayala has made 157 appearances for the Yankees, Orioles and Braves with a 2.58 ERA and a solid ground ball rate. He spent time on the disabled list last season because of an anxiety disorder and turns 36 next week, but is seeking a Major League contract.
Andrew Bailey (89 saves): Non-tendered by the Red Sox in December, Bailey is the first of the comeback candidates on this list. He made 30 appearances and logged eight saves before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery shortly after the All-Star break, the latest of a series of medical concerns that have dogged his career. Bailey probably will not be healthy by the start of the season.
Grant Balfour (72 saves): He is the best closer left on the market and the most familiar name on this list because Balfour briefly pitched for the Brewers in 2007. The price tag is a big problem. The 36-year-old, who has posted an ERA of 2.59 or better in four straight seasons, agreed to a two-year, $15 million contract with the Orioles before Christmas, but it reportedly fell apart when Baltimore had concerns about Balfour's shoulder. He insists he is healthy.
Rafael Betancourt (74 saves): The right-hander, 39 in April, was to undergo Tommy John surgery in September in attempt to save his career. He probably will have to wait until his age 40 season in 2015 to give it a try.
Manny Corpas (34 saves): Corpas preceded Betancourt as Rockies closer, but has not logged a save since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2011. He pitched for the Cubs in 2012 before returning to the Rockies in 2013 for 31 appearances and a respectable 1.344 WHIP. The Rockies outrighted Corpas from the 40-man roster in October.
Octavio Dotel (109 saves): Missed most of the 2013 season with a right elbow injury. As of last check in September, Dotel was trying to avoid Tommy John surgery and planned to pitch in winter ball, but has not appeared in any box scores.
Kyle Farnsworth (54 saves): Farnsworth turns 38 on April 14 and his fastball velocity has come down a bit in the last three years, but he finished last season strong for the Pirates (one run on six hits and three walks with nine strikeouts in nine appearances) and would be available on a one-year deal. MLB Trade Rumors reported last week that six to eight clubs have some interest in Farnsworth, who saved 25 games with a 2.18 ERA for Tampa Bay in 2011.
Frank Francisco (73 saves): The former Rangers, Blue Jays and Mets closer missed most of 2013 recovering from an elbow injury. The season before, he made $5.5 million and had a 5.53 ERA.
Michael Gonzalez (56 saves): He signed with the Brewers for 2012, was well-liked by teammates and led the club with 75 appearances, but allowed a.274 average against left-handed hitters and a 1.035 opponents' OPS after the All-Star break. The Brewers are not interested in bringing Gonzalez back.
Kevin Gregg (177 saves): Gregg signed a Minor League deal with the Cubs in April after the Dodgers released him, and eventually helped Chicago overcome Carlos Marmol's struggles. He logged 33 saves with a 3.48 ERA in 62 games, including two saves and one blown save against the Brewers. The Brewers have been linked to Gregg before.
Joel Hanrahan (100 saves): Another rehabber. Hanrahan, traded from the Pirates to the Red Sox in December 2012, underwent Tommy John surgery in May and reportedly will throw for teams in Spring Training to try to find a job.
Brandon Lyon (79 saves): The 34-year-old right-hander has a pair of 20-save seasons on his ledger, but has been a setup man since 2010. He made 37 appearances for the Mets last season with a 4.98 ERA and was released in July. His average fastball velocity fell from 90.2 mph in 2012 to 87.8 mph in 2013, according to data from FanGraphs.com.
Ryan Madson (52 saves): A shutdown setup man turned quality closer for the Phillies, Madson has not pitched since 2011. He signed with the Reds for 2012, but needed Tommy John surgery in Spring Training, then signed with the Angels for 2013, but never made it to the mound.
Marmol (117 saves): He was all but run out of Wrigley Field, but Marmol is only 31 (of pitchers on this list, only Bailey and Corpas are younger) and could be a good fit for a Brewers team willing to take a flier. He was very close in Chicago with Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who is entering the final season of his contract with Milwaukee and is represented by the same agent, Paul Kinzer. He was still throwing a 93.7 mph average fastball in 2013, when Marmol made 52 appearances for the Cubs and Dodgers with a 4.41 ERA, including a 2.53 ERA in 21 regular season games with the Dodgers. Melvin and Kinzer met at the Winter Meetings to discuss Marmol.
Brett Myers (40 saves): A serious elbow injury limited Myers to four appearances with the Indians in 2013, but he is looking to pitch in 2014, according to reports.
Jon Rauch (62 saves): The Brewers explored signing the 6-foot-11 right-hander last winter, but he went to the Marlins and posted a 7.56 ERA in 15 games before being released in May.
Fernando Rodney (172 saves): Life is good when a 37-save, 3.38 ERA season qualifies as a "down year," but such is life after Rodney's remarkable 2012 campaign. The fact he is seeking a multiyear deal probably puts him out of the Brewers' price range.
Rodriguez (304 saves): The Brewers have already acquired K-Rod twice; in a trade with the Mets the night of the 2011 All-Star Game, and via a Minor League free agent contract last April. Rodriguez made it back to Milwaukee and helped stabilize the bullpen, posting a 1.09 ERA in 25 games before Melvin dealt him to the Orioles for third base prospect Nicky Delmonico. Rodriguez, who turned 32 on Tuesday, is represented by Scott Boras. Another return is quite possible; Melvin said he's talked to Boras about Rodriguez this winter.
Jose Valverde (286 saves): Thirty-six in March, it appears Valverde's best days are behind him. He pitched to a 5.59 ERA in 20 appearances for the Tigers last season before the team released him in August.