December 2009

Brewers sweeten Counsell offer

The Brewers upped their offer for free agent infielder Craig Counsell on Thursday morning and departed the Winter Meetings feeling good about Counsell’s chances of returning to Milwaukee in 2010. 
“I’m confident we’ll get it done,” general manager Doug Melvin said. “Craig is a big part of our organization, a big part of our city. I’d like to have him back.”
Counsell, who grew up in Milwaukee and still lives there, turned 39 in August but enjoyed his best season since he helped the Arizona Diamondbacks win the 2001 World Series, batting .285 for the Brewers in 2009 with 34 extra-base hits, a .357 on-base percentage and a .408 slugging percentage. Counsell also went 5-for-16 as a pinch-hitter.
Melvin wouldn’t say whether the team had extended anything beyond a one-year offer. Counsell’s agent, Barry Meister, said Wednesday night that negotiations were going in a good direction. 
“He had a good year last year and I don’t want to sell that short,” Melvin said. “He has an impact with our other players. He knows how the game is played, how to prepare for the game. I told him that someday, if he wants to, he could manage or be a coach. He still wants to play, and he had a good year last year.”
 
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Encouraging word on Counsell

Barry Meister, the representative for free agent infielder Craig Counsell, said he had a positive meeting with Brewers brass today about Milwaukee’s initial contract proposal and expected to speak with GM Doug Melvin again before the end of the Winter Meetings, perhaps even another chat on Wednesday night. 

Meister said he preferred to keep negotiations private and wouldn’t specifically say whether he presented a counteroffer. But the fact that the sides will continue talking is a good sign that the Brewers could get Counsell back. He’s a Milwaukee-area resident who proved extremely valuable to the team in 2009, batting .285 with a .357 on-base percentage while appearing at three infield positions.
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Melvin visited Wolf in L.A.

Stop us if this sounds familiar: Brewers GM Doug Melvin lured his latest free agent starter in part by taking the time to visit him in person in Los Angeles.

That’s how Melvin and principal owner Mark Attanasio courted Jeff Suppan in 2006 (a four-year, $42 million contract didn’t hurt that effort) and how Melvin helped sell Randy Wolf ahead of these Winter Meetings. On Wednesday, Wolf agreed to a three-year contract with the Brewers that guarantees just shy of $30 million.

“I’m excited to reach this deal and I’m excited with the possibility and the future with Milwaukee,” Wolf told Sirius XM Radio. “It was really cool that Doug Melvin came out to L.A. and visited me and made it well known that I was his priority and he really wanted me there. 

“‘That’s a good feeling as a free agent pitcher, or any ballplayer really, when you have a team that really wants you there and wants to win and feels that you can help the team do that.  That’s a good feeling.”

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Agent confirms: Hawkins signs with Brewers

Free agent reliever LaTroy Hawkins and agent Larry Reynolds met with Brewers officials on Wednesday morning and had the framework of a two-year, $7.5 million deal in place just after lunch. 
Reynolds confirmed via Twitter that Hawkins will sign with the Brewers pending a physical, giving Milwaukee its second significant pick-up of the day. The team also agreed to terms of a three-year contract with left-handed starter Randy Wolf, a deal Wolf confirmed in an appearance on Sirius XM Radio.  
Hawkins attended the Winter Meetings in person hoping to find a multi-year offer. The Astros had interest in re-signing him after free agent closer Jose Valverde declined arbitration, but Milwaukee made a strong push for Hawkins on Wednesday.   
Hawkins will turn 37 on Dec. 21, but he is coming off his best season since he saved 25 games for the Cubs in 2004. In 65 appearances for Houston, he posted a 2.13 ERA and 11 saves as a fill-in closer when Valverde was hurt or unavailable.  
Hawkins could particularly help the Brewers as an additional option (along with lefty specialist Mitch Stetter) to face left-handed batters, who managed just a .203 batting average against Hawkins last season; righties hit .303. For his career, lefties have hit him at a .282 clip and righties .281.  
Hawkins has pitched parts of 15 seasons for seven different teams. He earned $3.5 million from the Astros last year.  
Among the other relievers under consideration by the Brewers this week were former Cubs closer Kevin Gregg (a right-hander who has been particular tough on left-handed hitters the past three seasons) and left-hander Mike Gonzalez, who notched 10 saves with the Braves this past season. Gonzelez is a Type A free agent who declined the Braves’ arbitration offer, so he would cost the Brewers a second-round Draft pick. 

General manager Doug Melvin already has his closer in all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman, but likes the idea of stockpiling multiple relievers with ninth-inning experience. 

“It helps,” Melvin said.  “We did that with Solomon Torres [in 2008]. If someone falters, you have somebody who’s done it before.” 

The Brewers acquired Torres in a trade with the Pirates just after the 2007 Winter Meetings and he began the year as a set-up man to $10 million closer Eric Gagne. When Gagne failed in the role, Torres stepped in notched 28 saves. 

Hawkins could be the final major addition to Milwaukee’s bullpen. Hoffman re-signed for $7.5 million right after the season, and Brewers assistant GM Gord Ash said Tuesday that the team had a tentative deal with right-hander Claudio Vargas to return. Cost-effective lefty Stetter should also be back along with arbitration-eligibles Todd Coffey and Carlos Villanueva. Seth McClung is also arbitration-eligible but can pitch as a starter or a reliever and recovered from an elbow injury before the end of last season. 

Other candidates include right-hander Chris Smith and left-hander Chris Narveson, both of whom are on the 40-man roster and had stretches of success in 2009. David Riske may return at some point in the season from Tommy John surgery. John Axford impressed in a late-season stint with the Brewers last season and Macha mentioned him Tuesday as an option. And a number of Brewers officials, including Macha, have touted left-handed pitching prospect Zach Braddock as an option to help the big league team at some point in 2010.

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Wolf confirms deal with Brewers

Last winter, Randy Wolf watched a three-year offer disappear and then had to wait until February to find work. This time, he won’t have to worry. 

Wolf agreed to terms on a three-year contract with the Brewers on Wednesday that according to numerous reports includes a fourth-year club option and guarantees $29.75 million. Yahoo! Sports was first to report the deal.

The Brewers can’t confirm it because Wolf has yet to pass a physical, but Wolf himself went on Sirius XM radio and said he was “excited” to be a Brewer.

Not to mention relieved to have some job certainty.

“It was only natural to be a little bit apprehensive about where the market is considering what happened last year,” he said in the interview. “It was a crazy offseason last year, especially with me.  It made it really easy the way the Brewers came in very aggressive and made it really clear they wanted me there.  So I kind of knew things were going to happen with them.” 

When finalized, it will be the third-richest pitching contract in Brewers history to Jeff Suppan’s four-year, $42 million deal that expires after next season and Ben Sheets’ four-year, $38.5 million deal from 2005-08.

For more on the signing, see my story on Brewers.com

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Macha can't promise spots for Bush, Suppan

In a sit-down with reporters at the Winter Meetings on Tuesday, Brewers manager Ken Macha identified only two ‘locks’ for next year’s starting rotation: Right-hander Yovani Gallardo, of course, but also left-hander Manny Parra, who was 11-11 with a 6.36 ERA in an inconsistent 2009.

“I think he’s going to be there, yeah,” Macha said. 

He didn’t name right-hander Jeff Suppan, who has one year left on his contract and will be the Brewers’ highest-paid player, or Dave Bush, who is arbitration-eligible following an injury-plagued season. Those decisions could be impacted by the team’s other offseason additions. 

“I couldn’t answer 100 percent that all those guys are going to be in there,” Macha said.

Suppan missed time with a rib-cage injury in 2009 but still reached the 30-start plateau for the 11th consecutive season. He was 7-12 with a 5.29 ERA. Bush was struck by a batted ball in early June and only made 21 starts and one relief appearance,going 5-9 with a 6.38 ERA.

The Brewers must decide on Saturday whether to tender contracts to Bush ($4 million salary last season) and their other arbitration-eligible players. Players who are nontendered join the pool of free agents.

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Macha says he'll let 'em run

After a season spent extolling the virtues of staying put, Brewers manager Ken Macha said he’ll embrace the running game in 2010. 

The philosophical shift is driven by personnel changes this winter, particularly a Nov. 6 trade that sent shortstop J.J. Hardy to the Twins for speedy center fielder Carlos Gomez, freeing shortstop for top prospect Alcides Escobar and closing the door on a pursuit of outgoing free agent Mike Cameron

Hardy had a down year in 2009 but he still averaged 20 homers over the past three seasons, and Cameron has topped 20 homers eight times in his career including both of his two years in Milwaukee. Gomez, meanwhile, stole 33 bases as the Twins’ regular starter in 2008, and Escobar swiped 42 bases in 109 games last season at Triple-A Nashville. 

The Brewers also expect speedy second baseman Rickie Weeks to return after a 2009 season lost to wrist surgery, and right fielder Corey Hart (assuming the trade rumors don’t turn into an actual trade) should “have his legs under him” after missing time last year following an appendectomy. There’s also left fielder Ryan Braun, who stole 20 bases in 2009 despite hitting in front of slugger Prince Fielder

“We’ve got some guys that can run this year, so it’s going to be a little different,” Macha said on Tuesday at the Winter Meetings. “The games may be a little more exciting with the guys who do get on base. … We’ve got five guys in the lineup who are definite stolen base threats.” 

Macha conceded that he’s concerned about losing Cameron’s and Hardy’s power, but Weeks’ return should help in that area and the Brewers also picked up veteran catcher Gregg Zaun, who’s no Johnny Bench but should provide more homers than outgoing free agent Jason Kendall

In 2009, Macha’s first season at the helm, the Brewers swiped only 68 bases, third-fewest in the Majors ahead of the Braves (58) and Cubs (56). Macha said he discussed the topic with general manager Doug Melvin near the end of the regular season, when Macha was offered assurances that he would be back for the second year of his contract. 

Macha pushed back against the notion that he favored a station-to-station approach.

 “I think you’re branding me as, ‘This is your type of baseball,’ but, no,” Macha said. “I try to do what’s best for the players that we have there. I think you look at the club we have [for 2010] and there’s going to be a little more activity on the bases this year.”

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Brewers say Vargas deal is close

The Brewers believe they are close to bringing back reliever Claudio Vargas on a one-year contract, assistant general manager Gord Ash said Tuesday. 

Vargas, acquired from the Dodgers in July for a second stint with the Brewers, boosted his value by posting a 1.78 ERA in 28 relief appearances down the stretch. He was a Brewers starter in 2007, but the team now views him primarily as a relief option. 

Ash is handling negotiations with agent Martin Arburua and said the Brewers were awaiting formal acceptance of an offer. 

“We’re talking and have been for several weeks,” Ash said. “We’re close. I’ve got what I would describe as a tentative deal with the agent. The agent doesn’t have the A-OK from the player.” 

Vargas, 31, is pitching for Aguilas in the Dominican Winter League. He made his debut on Sunday with 1 1/3 scoreless innings.

Last winter, he signed a Minor League deal with the Dodgers and earned a Major League minimum salary during his time in the big leagues.

The Brewers have 38 players on their 40-man roster and Vargas would make 39. But another player, injured reliever Mark DiFelice, is likely to come off following Saturday’s nontender deadline.

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Still waiting on Wolf

The Brewers’ contingent didn’t just sit around the Winter Meetings on Tuesday waiting around for an answer from Randy Wolf.

While Wolf and his representatives mulled the proposal Milwaukee reportedly made Monday night — multiple reports said it was for three years and something like $30 million — Brewers general manager Doug Melvin met in his suite at the Westin with four or five agents about other pitchers. One of them, according to SI.com, was Gregg Clifton, the rep for left-handed starter Mark Mulder, and whether or not agent Scott Boras actually stopped by the suite, Brewers officials at least spent part of their day debating the merits of Mike Gonzalez, the left-handed former Braves closer who will cost his signing team a Draft pick because he’s a Type A free agent who declined arbitration.

The Brewers have also talked about former Cubs closer Kevin Gregg, who is also a Type A free agent but wouldn’t cost a pick because Chicago declined to offer arbitration. At the same time, the team is close to re-signing one of its own free agents, reliever Claudio Vargas.

Vargas and someone like Gregg or Gonzalez would help the Brewers solidify the innings in front of closer Trevor Hoffman, but it’s the early innings of games that continue to dominate the discussions. To that end, the Brewers were waiting to hear back from agent Arn Tellem on Wolf.

Asked whether he had more than one outstanding offer to free agent pitchers, Melvin said. “I would say that we have a narrow focus at this time on the starting pitching group. We have them ranked, we have them listed, because you have to be prepared.

“We’ve done our part,” he added. “We’ll continue to meet. We might meet again [Wednesday] with people.”

Rumors that the Brewers were nearing a deal with Wolf spread quickly as midnight approached on Monday, the first day of these Winter Meetings. Since the Brewers are unlikely to offer the kind of length of contract or dollars that John Lackey is looking for, it made perfect sense that their top target could be Wolf, a 33-year-old who was 11-7 with a 3.23 ERA in 34 starts with the Dodgers last season after signing a one-year deal worth $5 million.

Wolf is another Type A free agent but the Dodgers didn’t offer him arbitration. That fact made him more attractive to the Brewers.

The late-night reports said a deal with Wolf was imminent. Melvin wouldn’t say whether that was the case.

“Deals aren’t done until they’re done,” Melvin said. “I was telling Mark [Attanasio, Milwaukee's principal owner] the story today today that in Anaheim a few years ago [in 1999, when Melvin was still the Rangers' GM] we swear we had Todd Zeile signed. All he wanted was a no-trade [clause] in the contract and we didn’t want to give it, and then we finally gave it, but he and [his agents] went to dinner and they came back and told us they were going with the Mets, after we gave them what they wanted. I was ticked.”

Without naming Wolf, Melvin said he thought there was a desire on both sides to leave Indianapolis on Thursday with a resolution. But he has not put a deadline on any offers.

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Gregg, Gonzalez, Mulder getting a look?

Two sources said that right-hander Kevin Gregg and left-hander Mike Gonzalez are among the relievers being at least internally discussed by the Brewers, who were also reportedly to meet Tuesday with representatives of free agent starter Mark Mulder.

Gregg or Gonzalez are among a number of names being debated by Brewers officials as they look to bolster a bullpen that will be without injured right-hander Mark DiFelice next season. The Brewers already have their closer in all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman, who finalized a one-year deal soon in the days following the regular season to return for a second year in Milwaukee, and a reliable right-handed setup man in Todd Coffey, who posted a 2.90 ERA while leading the NL with 83 2/3 relief innings.

The 31-year-old Gregg began last season as the Cubs’ closer and went 5-6 with a 4.72 ERA and 23 saves while pitching in 72 games, his third straight season of at least 70 appearances. He suffered seven blown saves before the Cubs lifted him from the closer’s role in August.

Gregg would probably not be the right-handed specialist that DiFelice was. Right-handed hitters batted .257 against him in 2009 with 11 home runs in 144 plate appearances. Lefties only hit him at a .195 clip, with two home runs in 118 at-bats. For his career, right-handers have batted .252 against Gregg versus .277 by left-handers.

Gregg was a Type A free agent but the Cubs didn’t offer him arbitration. That means Milwaukee would not have to forfeit a Draft pick to sign him.

They would, however, have to make that sacrifice for Gonzalez, who declined the Braves’ offer of arbitration to seek employment on the open market. Because the Brewers’ 2009 record put them in the bottom half of baseball’s 30 teams, they would only have to surrender a second-round pick.

Gonzalez split closer duties in Atlanta last season with right-hander Rafael Soriano and posted a 2.42 ERA and 10 saves in 80 games. He’s tough against hitters on both sides of the plate, holding left-handed batters to a .201 average and left-handers to .213.

The Brewers already have one in-house left-hander in Mitch Stetter, who had a 3.60 ERA in 71 appearances last year.

Another left-hander on Milwaukee’s radar for some time is Mulder, whose representatives were to meet with Brewers officials on Tuesday, according to SI.com. Mulder could be a bounce-back candidate to help Milwaukee’s starting rotation.

Mulder has been limited to four starts since 2006 because of shoulder injuries and did not pitch at all in 2009. He did work during a summer of rehab with his former Oakland A’s pitching coach, Rick Peterson, who was hired by the Brewers earlier this winter. According to SI.com, Peterson was to take park in Tuesday’s sit-down.

Brewers general manager Doug Melvin was to meet with reporters at the Winter Meetings after 4 p.m. CT.

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