Brewers not expecting any big free-agent splashes
Club's biggest need is at first base, where few options are available on open market
MILWAUKEE -- The World Series is in the books, so the offseason officially begins Monday with the start of free agency.
Brewers officials predict they will mostly stay away, though they said the same thing last year and wound up signing Kyle Lohse to a three-year, $33 million contract in the final week of Spring Training.
With an aggressive owner in Mark Attanasio, the small-market Brewers are difficult to predict.
"Well, we can never have enough pitching, so we're always going to look at pitching," Attanasio said as the team played its final series in New York. "We've already been through the free-agent list; there's not a lot of obvious candidates. Other than that, for a team that still ranks pretty low in terms of won-loss record, we have a lot of positions already filled for next year, and, in fact, in some cases, overflow.
"The budget is fluid. It depends on opportunity -- trades can come up and you can increase budget through trades, too. You don't only do it through free-agent signings."
First base is the club's most glaring hole, and after rebuilding the bullpen last winter, general manager Doug Melvin will have to do so again. But elsewhere, the Brewers are set, most notably up the middle with young, under-club-control catcher Jonathan Lucroy, shortstop Jean Segura and center fielder Carlos Gomez.
Melvin was asked in the aftermath of a 74-88 season whether he believed his team was close to returning to contention.
"You have to have a lot of talent," Melvin said. "You look over in the other dugout and we were a little short on talent at times. Everything has to go right for you. You can't afford injuries, you can't have things happen. That may be next year, too, but we're going to work hard at it. We are going to be smart.
"We'll keep working at it. We have a great fan base here, ownership support. The one tough thing is that the free-agent market can get out of whack at times, but we can't worry about that. We have to worry about the players we can find to get better. We have to embrace our younger players that we have in our system because they have to be a big part of our success."
Free agents: Infielder Yuniesky Betancourt, reliever Michael Gonzalez, first baseman Corey Hart
Arbitration-eligible: Right-handers Burke Badenhop and Marco Estrada, infielder Juan Francisco (Super Two).
Non-tender candidates: Francisco.
Club options: Outfielder Norichika Aoki's option was exercised on Oct. 8.
Areas of need
First base: With Hart out for 2013 with knee injuries, Brewers first basemen combined for a Major League-worst .629 OPS this past season -- and barely included any true first basemen. Francisco, acquired from Atlanta in June, was a third baseman. Betancourt and Alex Gonzalez were shortstops.
Hart is a free agent and Mat Gamel was claimed off waivers by the Cubs, so the options for 2014 are wide open.
"First base is probably the biggest area if we can improve on some of the production there," Melvin said. "Replacing Prince Fielder was a big loss. Corey stepped in last year [in 2012] and did a great job. Unfortunately, injuries prevented that from happening this year. Obviously, that's a big hole in our lineup and an area we can improve on. Whether we do it internally or externally, that will be determined."
The external options are surprisingly scant. Mike Napoli and Justin Morneau are the biggest names in free agency.
Bullpen: Melvin set out last winter to improve the bullpen and succeeded; Brewers relievers were fifth-best in baseball with a 3.19 ERA. But former closer John Axford was traded away and the Brewers will need a situational lefty, so another retooling lies ahead.
"Bullpens turn over, you see it all around baseball," Melvin said. "There's more bullpen pieces available, but I was encouraged by guys like Rob Wooten, who came up here and pitched well, encouraged by Brandon Kintzler, [Jim] Henderson. Mike Blazek has a good arm. But you need bullpen help because nobody completes games anymore. That will be one of the areas we have to look at."
The Brewers worked with a payroll in the $85 million neighborhood for much of the season and will probably stay there. With commitments of close to $80 million for players already on the roster, that means money will be tight barring a trade that brings financial relief. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez, whose salary jumps to $16 million next season, could be one player dealt.