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Decisions abound for Brewers in 2010

Decisions abound for Brewers in 2010

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MILWAUKEE -- Last season on Sept. 10, the Brewers were 20 games over .500 and owned a four-game lead in the National League Wild Card race. This season, their fans are already thinking ahead to 2010.

There are plenty of issues to fill the void. Of the 34 players on the team's expanded September roster or the disabled list, eight face free agency, two have club options and nine are arbitration-eligible, meaning general manager Doug Melvin and his staff won't have much time to enjoy an offseason.

"We've got a lot of decisions, and none of them will be discussed until the end of the season," Melvin said.

The list of Brewers free agents includes closer Trevor Hoffman and resurgent reliever Claudio Vargas, three positional starters in center fielder Mike Cameron, second baseman Felipe Lopez and catcher Jason Kendall, super-utility man Craig Counsell and reserve outfielders Frank Catalanotto and Corey Patterson.

Two others could reach free agency pending the outcome of their options. The Brewers hold a $3.7 million option for reliever David Weathers, acquired in an August trade with the Reds. If they decline it, Weathers gets a $400,000 buyout. Starter Braden Looper, meanwhile, has a mutual option for 2010 that the Brewers will almost certainly pick up for $6.5 million. If the club exercises the option and Looper declines his option to seek a multi-year deal elsewhere, he gets no buyout. If the club declines the option, it owes Looper a $1 million buyout.

Then there are the arbitration-eligibles, many of whom present interesting cases either because of injury or down years. Those who lost time to the disabled list include pitcher Dave Bush ($4 million in 2009), outfielder Corey Hart ($3.25 million), second baseman Rickie Weeks ($2.45 million), and swingman Seth McClung ($1.6625 million). Shortstop J.J. Hardy ($4.65 million salary in 2009) is another tough case because he is having the worst season of his career. Outfielder Jody Gerut ($1.775 million) is a question mark, though he could become more valuable should the Brewers let Cameron get away.

The biggest raises, percentage-wise, figure to go to reliever Todd Coffey (who is earning $800,000 this season and has served as Hoffman's setup man) and the team's two first-time eligibles: Carlos Villanueva and Mike Rivera.

Brewers active roster and DL as of 9/10 (34 players)
FREE AGENTS
Mike Cameron
Frank Catalanotto
Craig Counsell
Trevor Hoffman
Jason Kendall
Felipe Lopez
Corey Patterson
Claudio Vargas
OPTIONS
Braden Looper (mutual)
David Weathers (club)
ARBITRATION
Dave Bush
Todd Coffey
Jody Gerut
J.J. Hardy
Corey Hart
Seth McClung
Mike Rivera (first time)
Carlos Villanueva (first time)
Rickie Weeks
MULTI-YEAR DEALS
Ryan Braun (through 2015)
Prince Fielder (through 2010, plus '11 arbitration)
David Riske (through 2010)
Jeff Suppan (through 2010)
"ZERO-TO-THREE" PLAYERS
John Axford
Jason Bourgeois
Mark DiFelice
Alcides Escobar
Mat Gamel
Yovani Gallardo
Casey McGehee
Chris Narveson
Manny Parra
Chris Smith
Mitch Stetter

"We probably have more pitchers under control than position players," Melvin said. "Our entire starting rotation is really under control because we have control of [Looper's] option to some extent. There's still a lot of decisions to make, but we have to wait to play these [23] games."

The Brewers are back in action on Friday night in Arizona for their 140th game of the season. Over those final 23 games, here are some of the areas for Melvin to ponder:

1. Starting pitching

The Brewers have fewer holes to fill than last year, when they faced the free agent losses of CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets. But the urgency to improve this group is much higher. The Brewers went into their off-day on Thursday with the National League's worst starting rotation -- a 5.22 ERA -- and Melvin promised this week that he would be much more aggressive this winter in his search for answers.

"We might take a little more chances and risks than we're accustomed to taking," Melvin told columnist Michael Hunt.

When it was pointed out that the team also has holes in the field, Melvin responded, "We cannot be distracted by that. Our focus has to be pitching."

2. Up the middle

If it's true that championship teams are built around pitching and up-the-middle defense, the Brewers have work to do. They must decide between Hardy and Alcides Escobar at shortstop, and whether to pursue Lopez in free agency or restore second base duties to Weeks. Center fielder Cameron and catcher Kendall may be the Brewers' most oft-critiqued hitters, but both play positions nearly impossible to replace and are the kind of clubhouse enforcers that a manager needs.

Both have been very clear that they want to return -- Kendall even hinted that he approached management at some point this season to broach the idea of an extension -- but the decisions will wait for the winter. Cameron will be a particularly difficult call. He says he would "make sacrifices" to come back, but he is earning $10 million this season and might be able to fetch a multi-year deal on the free-agent market, making the definition of "sacrifices" open to interpretation.

Kendall said he's been impressed with the Brewers' effort, even as the team has fallen out of the race.

"This is still a team here," Kendall said. "Nobody is going through the motions. If anything like that does happen, it's taken care of behind closed doors in two seconds."

3. Infield corners

In one corner, the Brewers will have to decide whether prospect Mat Gamel is ready for the third base job or whether Casey McGehee proved this season that he deserves the job for himself. Both have Minor League options, Melvin points out, and at the moment the Brewers are leaning toward making McGehee the everyday man.

In the other corner, the Brewers have superstar Prince Fielder, who sits one RBI shy of Cecil Cooper's 26-year-old franchise record. Fielder is already under contract for 2010 and then has one more year of arbitration-eligibility before he hits free-agent riches, so the clock is ticking for Melvin and principal owner Mark Attanasio to decide the best course of action. Hold Fielder and try to win a championship in the next two seasons, or consider trading him for the kind of young pitching the Brewers have struggled to develop themselves.

It's an incredibly tough call, and Melvin isn't sure whether even a player of Fielder's caliber would fetch the kind of pitching he would demand.

"Teams don't have enough pitching," he said late last month.

4. Manager

Eyebrows raised when the Brewers gave Ken Macha a two-year contract last fall, versus the three-year deal that Ned Yost signed when he joined the team in the fall of 2002. Now Macha faces a lame-duck season in 2010, and Melvin is fielding questions about whether he is considering another change.

"We'll wait until the end of the year," Melvin said. "I knew that was going to get thrown out some time."

The Brewers' disappointing season has been particularly so for Macha.

"I had 12 years in a row -- four managing in the Minor Leagues and eight years [coaching and managing] in Oakland where we're in September, and every one of those games, you're on the edge of your seat," Macha said. "Every one of those games meant something, because you're in the pennant race. This is a little different territory from my recent past."

Said Melvin: "He's been in a pennant race his whole career. This is the first time he's not. I think that eats him up a bit."

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

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