Brewers may have new look in '10

Brewers may have new look in '10

MILWAUKEE -- Last winter, the Brewers tweaked the roster. This time, they face the prospect of wholesale changes.

"There are a lot of question marks," manager Ken Macha told reporters late in the season. "I think you'll have a lot to write about."

Macha himself was among those question marks before general manager Doug Melvin declared that Macha would be back in 2010. The coaching staff will see some changes -- including the key pitching coach position -- and the roster figures to see plenty.

It's nothing new for Macha.

"When I managed in Oakland, we had free agents going left and right," he said. "It was guys like [Jason] Giambi, [Miguel] Tejada, and all four years I was there I had a different closer. There was always movement there.

"Doug has looked ahead. He knows what's out there and he has a pretty good idea of what he wants to do to assemble the team."

Last year, Melvin had all eight regular position players under control and was able to focus his offseason efforts on the pitching staff. This year, center fielder Mike Cameron and catcher Jason Kendall are free agents, second baseman Rickie Weeks is a question mark after missing most of '09 with a wrist injury, shortstop is in flux with the expected transition from J.J. Hardy to Alcides Escobar and, at third base, the Brewers have to decide whether Casey McGehee can repeat his season as a full-time starter.

Those issues are on top of the annual pitching overhaul. Closer Trevor Hoffman is a free agent and would leave a huge hole at the back end of the bullpen if he did leave (he reported Sunday he believes he is near a deal to stay in Milwaukee), and while all five starters could return, that group had the second-worst ERA in the National League in 2009.

Melvin plans to be more aggressive this winter in his quest for pitching. That could mean taking some risks on bounce-back candidates, like the Cardinals did with Joel Pineiro and the Rockies with Jason Marquis. The Brewers will seek depth, though they believed they had it for 2009 only to see Plan Bs like Carlos Villanueva and Seth McClung fall short.

"We maybe took some things for granted," Melvin said. "We took the fact that a few guys pitched well and [assumed] that they would continue to pitch well, thought maybe they had turned the corner. That didn't work out when guys got hurt."

Financially, there should be room to move. Jeff Suppan will account for $12.5 million in the final year of his contract and Prince Fielder's salary will skyrocket to $10.5 million. But Cameron's $10 million is off the books if the Brewers opt not to re-sign him, and many of the team's key arbitration-eligible players had either down years or suffered injuries -- Dave Bush, Hardy, Corey Hart and Weeks among them -- and won't be as costly as they might have been.

What does Macha see as the priority?

"I think it would be nice to have somebody who can give you eight innings," he said. "I don't know if that person would be available, but somebody who can give you a complete game."

It will be Melvin's task to find that somebody during an offseason that won't provide much time to rest.

Contract issues
Free agents: CF Mike Cameron, OF Frank Catalanotto, IF Craig Counsell, C Jason Kendall, 2B Felipe Lopez, OF Corey Patterson, RP/SP Claudio Vargas.
Eligible for arbitration: SP Dave Bush, RP Todd Coffey, OF Jody Gerut, SS J.J. Hardy, RF Corey Hart, RP Seth McClung, C Mike Rivera (first time eligible), RP Carlos Villanueva (first time eligible), 2B Rickie Weeks.
Player options: None.
Club options: RP David Weathers ($3.7 million with a $400,000 buyout).
Mutual options: SP Braden Looper ($6.5 million with $1 million buyout. If club exercises option and Looper declines, no buyout.)
Non-tender possibilities: Gerut, McClung.

Catchers
• Mike Rivera, .228 BA, 2 HRs, 14 RBIs
• Angel Salome, .286 BA, 6 HRs, 44 RBIs at Triple-A

Kendall started 149 games in 2008 and 131 in 2009 but is a free agent this winter. Rivera has served as a backup in Milwaukee for four seasons and would provide an offensive component, but club officials question whether he would hold up as the everyday backstop. The club's top catching prospect is Angel Salome, who battled injuries through 2009 and was notably absent from the list of September call-ups. Double-A Huntsville's Jonathan Lucroy intrigues Melvin as a Terry Steinbach-type player, but he's probably another year away from the Majors.

First base
• Prince Fielder, .299 BA, 46 HRs, 141 RBIs

Fielder had a monster season, setting the club record for RBIs and walks, flirting with a .300 batting average down the stretch and winning the All-Star Home Run Derby. If there was any question whether he was a superstar-caliber player, he answered with authority. Now comes the tough part for the Brewers, who have to decide whether they have to trade Fielder to get the pitching help to get back to the playoffs. The problem with that idea is the dearth of power prospects at the upper level of the farm system. There's no one who could come close to matching Fielder's run production.

Second base
• Rickie Weeks, .272 BA, 9 HRs, 24 RBIs
• Brett Lawrie, .274 BA, 13 HRs, 65 RBIs in Minors

The Brewers appear committed to Weeks, who finally appeared poised for a breakthrough year when he suffered a season-ending wrist injury in early May. He needed surgery to repair a sheath that surrounds a tendon in the joint, the same injury he suffered in the other wrist three years earlier. For a player who relies on his tremendously quick hands, it's a concern. Lawrie is another offense-first, defense-second player who could be about two years away.

Shortstop
• Alcides Escobar, .304 BA, 1 HR, 11 RBIs
• J.J. Hardy, .229 BA, 11 HRs, 47 RBIs

Hardy is coming off the worst season of his career, a long fall for a 2007 All-Star and a cornerstone of the Brewers' resurgence since 2005. Escobar left no doubt that he's ready, hitting .298 with 42 stolen bases at Triple-A Nashville before continuing that success in Milwaukee after Hardy's Aug. 12 demotion. The Brewers will try to trade Hardy this winter, but they will get nothing close to what they could have fetched a year ago or even ahead of the 2009 Trade Deadline.

Third base
• Casey McGehee, .301 BA, 16 HRs, 66 RBIs
• Mat Gamel, .242 BA, 5 HRs, 20 RBIs in 128 at-bats

The Brewers will pay Bill Hall around $7 million next season to play for the Mariners, leaving third base up for grabs between McGehee and Gamel. By all appearances, McGehee has the edge after a fabulous 2009 season in which he led Major League rookies in RBIs despite playing on a bum knee that will require an offseason cleanup. It's an inspired rise for a player plucked off waivers from the Cubs in October 2008 who had to win a roster spot with the Brewers in Spring Training, but now the question becomes whether he can repeat his success in 2010 against pitchers who have a better feel for his tendencies.

Outfield
• Ryan Braun, .320 BA, 32 HRs, 114 RBIs
• Corey Hart, .260 BA, 12 HRs, 48 RBIs
• Jody Gerut, .230 BA, 9 HRs, 35 RBIs
• Jason Bourgeois, .316 BA, 36 SBs at Triple-A

Cameron's potential departure creates a big hole between Braun, an average defender, and Hart, who is statistically below average. The Brewers had hoped to see prospect Lorenzo Cain have a big 2009 season to jump into consideration for 2010, but he missed time with a knee injury and then played tentatively upon his return. The center-field options on the free-agent market are thin, so the Brewers may be forced to go to Gerut, who played dramatically better late in the season when he started getting regular playing time. He would be a drop from Cameron in terms of defense and power, but would provide another left-handed bat in the lineup.

Rotation
• Yovani Gallardo, 13-12, 3.73 ERA, 204 Ks
• Manny Parra, 11-11, 6.36 ERA, 116 Ks
• Dave Bush, 5-9, 6.38 ERA in 21 starts
• Braden Looper, 14-7, 5.22 ERA, 39 HRs
• Jeff Suppan, 7-12, 5.29 ERA
• Chris Narveson, 2-0, 3.83 ERA in 4 starts

Losing Bush to a triceps injury in June and Suppan to a rib-cage injury in July threw the rotation into disarray and sent the Brewers tumbling down the standings. Gallardo set the franchise record for strikeouts, but needs to work more efficiently with his pitches to work deeper into games. Parra has the pure stuff to be one of the league's best left-handers, but like many lefties has been slow to put it together. After watching former Brewer Jorge De La Rosa blossom for the Rockies this season, Melvin is extremely hesitant to give up on Parra just yet. If Bush stays healthy, he can be extremely effective. Suppan has one more year left on his deal, but the Brewers are still likely to exercise their half of Looper's option, even though he allowed more home runs than anyone in baseball in 2009. Narveson pitched well down the stretch and could be a Plan B, but Melvin will almost certainly make some changes to this group.

Bullpen
• Trevor Hoffman, 1.83 ERA, 37 saves
• Todd Coffey, 2.90 ERA, 78 games
• David Weathers, 3.92 ERA with Reds/Brewers
• Carlos Villanueva, 5.34 ERA
• Mark DiFelice, 3.66 ERA before shoulder injury
• Mitch Stetter, 3.60 ERA, .178 avg. vs LHPs
• Seth McClung, 4.00 ERA in 38 relief app.
• Chris Smith, 4.11 ERA, 35 games
• Mike Burns, 5.75 ERA in eight starts, seven relief app.

This is one area that could see fewer changes this winter compared to last, when the Brewers faced the departure of their top four relievers (Salomon Torres, Eric Gagne, Guillermo Mota and lefty Brian Shouse). The Brewers wasted no time in re-signing Hoffman, who turns 42 next week but showed few signs of age in his first season with the Brewers. Coffey was an effective eighth-inning man and the Brewers had two lights-out specialists -- Mark DiFelice against right-handed hitters and Mitch Stetter against lefties -- until both faded a bit after the All-Star break. Villanueva is also good against left-handers when his changeup is working, and was solid after the Brewers abandoned him as a starter in August. He's likely a reliever for good now.

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