Pitching on agenda for Brewers' offseason

Pitching on agenda for Brewers' offseason

MILWAUKEE -- Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said he may need to sacrifice some of the team's offense this winter to improve the pitching staff, so he was asked the obvious follow-up. Is he willing to trade Ryan Braun or Prince Fielder?

"Wow. That would be a tough one," Melvin said. "I didn't mean it that way. I don't see that happening."

The comment came Wednesday during Melvin's annual year-end meeting with local reporters at Miller Park. Both Melvin and assistant GM Gord Ash said what they have been saying for weeks, that in order to improve a team that finished 80-82 they will have to bolster a pitching staff that finished next-to-last in the National League with a 4.87 ERA and at the bottom with a 5.37 starters' ERA. Melvin said he wants to add at least two established starters.

The team's most valuable pieces at the moment are Braun and Fielder, who combined in 2009 for more RBIs (255) than any duo in the Majors this season. Braun hit 32 home runs, joining Albert Pujols as the only players in history to belt at least 30 homers in each of their first three seasons. Fielder finished second in the NL with 46 home runs and tied Howard for the Major League lead with 141 RBIs.

"But it's a 25-man -- and, really, a 30-35 man -- team," Melvin said. "In fantasy baseball, you can dream about what you could get back for Prince or Braun. In reality, there's not too many teams that can give up the package that we would really want that would guarantee you to be competitive."

Assistant general manager Gord Ash said there have been spirited internal debates on the topic. Is there more value in a bona fide No. 1 starter who makes 30-plus starts and affects perhaps 20 other games by leaving the bullpen fresh? Or in an MVP candidate like Fielder who plays every inning of every game and has the potential to affect all 162?

"I'm going with the hitter," Ash said.

In fact, Brewers officials have had internal discussions about whether Fielder could be locked into a longer-term deal, according to Melvin. He's entering the second season of two-year contract through 2010 that buys out the first of Fielder's three arbitration years. He will still be under Brewers' control in 2011, but would hit the free-agent market following that season.

Compare that to Braun, whose contract runs through 2015. If the Brewers could convince Fielder and agent Scott Boras to take an extension, it would give the Brewers a larger window in which to put the right pieces around their slugging duo.

"That's something we have talked about with Mark [Attanasio, the team's principal owner]," Melvin said. "We don't have a plan for doing that at this time. You can say it's in the back of your mind or whatever, but it's coming more forward as a decision we have to make in two years' time. ...

"Mark, from an ownership standpoint, knows that's a major decision that's down the pike. It's not next week, it's not next month, but it probably comes up in our conversation every time we get together."

In the short term, the Brewers' focus is on pitching. Melvin knows that it won't be easy to find solutions.

"There's not any downtime this offseason, but I'm looking forward to it," Melvin said. "It's a challenge. I've got a lot of energy and I'm ready to improve the ballclub."

Other topics from Wednesday's media session:

• The Brewers officially announced their new deal with closer Trevor Hoffman, who re-signed for one year plus a mutual option for 2011. The contract guarantees $8 million and could pay as much as $16.5 million over two years.

"By signing Hoffman, that was a big splash for us," Melvin said. "If our pitching is going to improve, we have to keep the success we had at the back end of our bullpen. And also, to attract free-agent starting pitchers, one of the first questions that [we] always want to know is, 'Who is the closer?'"

• Melvin hinted that the focus on pitching could make it difficult for the team to re-sign its key free agents, including center fielder Mike Cameron and catcher Jason Kendall. Rickie Weeks is the second baseman, Melvin reiterated, making it likely that free agent Felipe Lopez will also be let go.

• Jeff Suppan, the Brewers' 2009 Opening Day starter, is not guaranteed a spot in the 2010 starting rotation despite his $12.5 million salary. It will be the final season of his four-year contract, and he projects to be the team's highest-paid player for the second consecutive year.

"I think Jeff is a professional and he knows that he will come into camp and [compete]," Melvin said. "You have to give him some credit for the fact he's been given the ball a lot of years. He's very seldom injured. ... I don't think there will be very many guarantees about who will be in the rotation. We probably have to make it more competitive to get better."

• Ben Sheets, who missed all of 2009 following right elbow surgery, is still on the Brewers' radar.

"Sheets is somebody who would have to be on anybody's list when it comes to improving your pitching staff," Ash said. "We're not up to date with his physical condition right now since he's no longer in our care, so that would have to be step 1. But from our point of view, we enjoyed Sheets as part of the Brewers and there's been once-in-a-while conversations with his agent to remind him that we still have that ongoing interest. It hasn't been followed up yet."

• Melvin already interviewed one potential pitching coach on Monday and was to travel with Ash on Thursday to interview another candidate. He wouldn't say whether he had already spoken with former A's and Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson, an early favorite for the position because of his past working relationships with Brewers manager Ken Macha and bench coach Willie Randolph.

"We don't want to advertise who we're looking at," Melvin said. "The cat's out of the bag on one guy. I interviewed him on Monday and another team interviewed him the next day."

• Ash shed more light on the options that faced third baseman Casey McGehee, who underwent successful surgery on Tuesday. McGehee has a lesion in his knee, Ash said, that caused fragments of bone to break away. He could have had a more intensive procedure to inject healthy cells into the knee to promote re-growth, but it was a riskier procedure that could have sidelined McGehee weeks or even months into the 2010 season.

"He elected, after consulting with a couple of surgeons, to have kind of the intermediary procedure done, and that was to take out all of the fragments and hope that area of his knee remains intact," Ash said. "We don't have a 100 percent guarantee on that. What we do know about McGehee is that he's an excellent worker and he's motivated."

• Melvin did little to dispute the notion that shortstop J.J. Hardy will be traded this winter to make room for Alcides Escobar. Hardy's value is down both because of his poor 2009 season (he batted .229 and was optioned to the Minors in August) and because the rest of the league knows that the Brewers are ready to install Escobar.

"It might be down a little bit," Melvin said of Hardy's value. "But there are still clubs that have interest in him. Shortstop is a big hole to fill."

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