December 2009

Counsell on Wednesday agenda?

The Brewers were so focused on pitching Tuesday that they never had a chance to meet with the agent for infielder Craig Counsell to discuss Milwaukee’s contract offer. Both sides say they would like to sit down before the end of the Winter Meetings, so that probably means they would have to clear time in the schedule on Wednesday.

I’m updating this post after reading what agent Barry Meister told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel late Tuesday, that Counsell is OK with a one-year deal. I heard earlier in the day from someone else that he was hoping to parlay his strong 2009 season into a two-year deal, but it appears that may not be the case.

Counsell will turn 40 before the end of next season but coming off a 2009 in which he batted .285 with a .357 on-base percentage while appearing at three infield positions for the Brewers. He’s an important offseason target for Milwaukee because the team has an injury-prone second baseman in Rickie Weeks, a rookie shortstop in Alcides Escobar, a sophomore third baseman coming off minor knee surgery in Casey McGehee and no experienced in-house bench options outside of Minor Leaguer Hernan Iribarren, who is mostly limited to second base. The Brewers did add versatile infielder Adam Heether to the 40-man roster since the end of the season, but he has never played in the Majors.

Meister was expected to meet with a number of other teams interested in Counsell on Tuesday. 


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Wolf rules late-night rumor mill

Officially, the Brewers downplayed their contact with free agent left-hander Randy Wolf on Day 1 of the Winter Meetings. Unofficially, the sides appeared close to a deal.

The Brewers emerged Monday as the leading candidate for Wolf, a 33-year-old coming off a career year whose appeal was heightened last week when the Dodgers declined to extend him an arbitration offer. Because of that move, Wolf, despite being a Type A free agent, would not cost Milwaukee a Draft pick. That’s key for a team trying to build a winner today but also trying to sustain some long-term success. 

A Brewers official late Monday night downplayed reports that the Brewers’ signing of Wolf to a three-year deal was “imminent,” but those reports persisted nonetheless. AOL Fanhouse first reported that the Brewers were close to signing Wolf and it was later confirmed by and the New York Post. 

Brewers general manager Doug Melvin was asked earlier in the day about his interest in Wolf, and he declined to offer specifics because such proclamations hinder negotiations. He did say that as of Monday afternoon, Wolf’s agent, Arn Tellem, was not in Indianapolis. 

Starting pitching is the top priority for the Brewers, who tied the Orioles for the worst starters’ ERA in the Majors (5.37) and finished next-to-last in the National League in team ERA (4.83). The top available free agent is John Lackey, but he would cost Milwaukee more money over more years, and his former team, the Angels, would also get the Brewers’ second-round pick in next year’s Draft because Lackey was offered arbitration. 

Wolf is coming off a career season in which he went 11-7 with a 3.23 ERA in 34 starts with the Dodgers after signing a one-year deal worth $5 million last offseason. The left-hander struck out 160 batters in 214 1/3 innings. 

Wolf has been solid throughout his career when healthy, with a 101-85 record and a 4.13 ERA in 11 Major League seasons. 

But Wolf also comes with some red flags. He’s only pitched more than 200 innings four times in his 11-year career, and before last season he hadn’t reached the 200-innings plateau since 2003. The Brewers are wary of a repeat of 2006, when they bestowed a four-year deal upon right-hander Jeff Suppan after Suppan excelled for the Cardinals in the postseason. 

“Your experience always influences your future decisions,” assistant GM Gord Ash said last week, ahead of the Winter Meetings. “If you were to look at that decision in retrospect, it probably served us well for two years and if you want to take a shot at a third year, that’s fine. But giving a fourth, that’s probably not something you want to do again.

“At the same time, you have to react to the market conditions. It’s easy to look back [at the Suppan deal] and say, ‘You shouldn’t have done it.’ But at that time, if you wouldn’t have done it, you wouldn’t have got him.”

If the Brewers finalize a deal with Wolf on Tuesday, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be announced. Teams are restricted from announcing signings until a player passes a physical, and that step can extend the process several days. Melvin isn’t scheduled to meet with reporters until 4 p.m. CT on Tuesday.


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DiFelice: 'I don't want it to end like this'

Brewers reliever Mark DiFelice succumbed to surgery last week to repair the torn labrum and rotator cuff in his right shoulder, a procedure that will sideline the right-hander next season and could threaten his Major League career. 

Dr. William Raasch performed the surgery in Milwaukee on Dec. 3, the Brewers announced Monday. DiFelice, 33, who also had major shoulder surgery back in 2001, expects to miss all of next season but hopes to pitch in the Majors again.

“I’m going to give it a shot,” he said. “It took me 10 years in the Minors to get to the big leagues, and I don’t want it to end like this.”

The Brewers placed DiFelice on the disabled list on Sept. 15 with what they first called “wear and tear” in his shoulder. An MRI scan didn’t reveal any significant damage, and a second opinion from Dr. Lewis Yocum at the end of the season confirmed Raasch’s suggestion of rest and rehab.

DiFelice was working with a physical therapist in Philadelphia but didn’t feel any improvement in the shoulder so he asked for further tests. An arthrogram revealed the damaged labrum and rotator cuff.

“Would we have been better doing surgery back in September or October? From what the doctors say, it probably didn’t make a difference,” DiFelice said. “I would have missed most of next season either way.”

Raasch inserted three tacks to secure the labrum and two sutures in the rotator cuff. 

DiFelice has made a miracle comeback before. It took him 2 1/2 years to fully recover from his first surgery, a procedure in 2001 to repair a fully-torn labrum, and by 2005 his career was fizzling. Released from organized baseball, DiFelice pitched in the Independent Atlantic League and then went to Mexico, where he discovered one pitch — the cut fastball — that gave him a second life.

He drew the Brewers’ interest the following season and then pitched at a pair of Milwaukee affiliates in 2007. By 2008, DiFelice was a 31-year-old Major League rookie. In 74 Brewers appearances over the past two seasons, he posted a 3.44 ERA and, working almost exclusively with that cutter, held right-handed opponents to a .218 batting average.

Now he’ll need to make another comeback.

“The good thing is that I’m not a guy who needs to throw 95 mph, because that probably wouldn’t come back after surgery,” DiFelice said. “I throw 84, 85, 86, and the thing I’ll have to do is find my location again. The doctor says that my chances of rehabbing and pitching again are pretty good; it just won’t happen in 2010, probably.”

DiFelice hopes to follow a path similar to left-hander Chris Capuano, who was nontendered at this time last year but re-signed with the club on a Minor League contract to rehabilitate from Tommy John surgery. He has yet to discuss his future with general manager Doug Melvin.


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Source: Brewers claim Pirates IF

luis cruz.jpgA baseball source told’s Jennifer Langosch that the Brewers claimed infielder Luis Cruz off waivers from the Pirates on Monday. Cruz could provide a bit of insurance for the Brewers against the departure of versatile free agent Craig Counsell

Cruz, 25, appeared sparingly for the Pirates in each of the past two years, batting .219 as a shortstop and a second baseman. He’s a .250 hitter over parts of nine Minor League seasons in the Red Sox, Padres and Pirates chains, topping-out with 12 home runs and 65 RBIs at Double-A Mobile (Padres) in 2006.

The Pirates placed Cruz on waivers on Saturday to clear a spot on their full 40-man roster ahead of Thursday’s Rule 5 Draft. 

Counsell, though, remains a top target of the Brewers. General manager Doug Melvin submitted a contract offer to agent Barry Meister ahead of this week’s Winter Meetings and planned to meet face-to-face in Indianapolis. The Brewers are particularly focused on having depth on the infield behind injury-prone second baseman Rickie Weeks, rookie shortstop Alcides Escobar and somewhat-unproven third baseman Casey McGehee.


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Quiet start to the meetings

By now, everyone has a feel for the set-up here at the Marriott and the adjoining Westin, which along with a convention center across the street are serving as the setting for this year’s Winter Meetings. The Starbucks have all been identified and so have the bars. Now all we need is some action to occupy the dozens of scribes, scouts and baseball officials milling around the lobby.

Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik and fellow former Brewers associates Tony Blengino and Tom McNamara spent some time in the lobby this morning, as did Cubs skipper Lou Piniella (who probably has Milton Bradley on his mind) and his White Sox counterpart, Ozzie Guillen. No sign of the Brewers’ crew this morning.


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Brewers open discussions with Counsell

The Brewers found their starting catcher on Friday and at the same time opened negotiations with a key member of the bench. 

Melvin signed catcher Gregg Zaun but also had time for an afternoon telephone conversation with Barry Meister, the representative for free agent Craig Counsell, and submitted an initial contract proposal. The sides will have a chance to meet face-to-face during next week’s Winter Meetings in Indianapolis to discuss whether Counsell will remain in Milwaukee. 

Melvin was mum about whether the Brewers are willing to offer anything beyond a one-year deal for the versatile 39-year-old. Counsell batted .285 for the Brewers in 2009 with 34 extra-base hits, a .357 on-base percentage and a .408 slugging percentage in his best all-around season since he helped the D-backs win the 2001 World Series. 

Counsell lives in a suburb just north of Milwaukee and might want to stay close to home. His solid season, however, has led to interest, according to an report earlier this offseason, from as many as a dozen teams. A few may be able to offer a multiyear contract, and it’s unclear whether the Brewers, who plan to spend as many of their available payroll dollars as possible on pitching, could match such an offer.

If Counsell departs, the Brewers would need middle-infield help. Top prospect Alcides Escobar is taking over at shortstop in 2010, but he’s a rookie. Rickie Weeks is on track to return from left wrist surgery to start at second base, but he’s injury-prone. Casey McGehee is the favorite to start at third base, but he’s still somewhat unproven in the Majors and had minor knee surgery after the season. Counsell can play all three positions well. 

The Brewers added versatile infielder Adam Heether to the 40-man roster this fall but he has no Major League experience. 

The Brewers owned exclusive negotiating rights with Counsell for the 15 days following the World Series, but did not take advantage of that opportunity. 

“We were just doing our work at that time, and I don’t think they would have signed, anyway. Not many guys sign before [testing the open market],” Melvin said.


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Minors deal for former D-back Oeltjen

The Brewers added some outfield depth on Monday when they signed former D-backs outfielder Trent Oeltjen to a Minor League contract with an invitation to big league camp. 

The 26-year-old spent most of 2009 at Triple-A Reno, where he batted .303 with 10 home runs and 64 RBIs in 114 games. He then made his Major League debut with Arizona and batted .243 with three homers and four RBIs in 24 games. He became a free agent on Nov. 4 when the D-backs outrighted Oeltjen from their 40-man roster.

A native of Sydney, Oeltjen played for Australia in the 2009 World Baseball Classic and batted .500 (6-for-12) with one RBIs in three games. He’s a .293 hitter in parts of nine Minor League seasons, mostly in the Twins’ chain. 

Oeltjen bats and throws left-handed.


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Brewers sign catcher Zaun

The Brewers didn’t wait for the start of next week’s Winter Meetings to make their first Major League free agent signing.

The team on Friday inked switch-hitting catcher Gregg Zaun to a one-year deal with a club option for 2011 in a move that signaled the end of Jason Kendall’s tenure in Milwaukee. The sides reached terms late Thursday night and Zaun traveled to Milwaukee early Friday morning for a physical exam.

“It was an opportunity to play every day and I’m excited about that,” Zaun said. “I’m 38 years old and a lot of people have made assumptions about how much I can play, but I like that challenge. I’ll have to earn it every day, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.” 

The Brewers were the most aggressive of Zaun’s suitors, and the financial package they offered didn’t hurt. Zaun, who earned $1.5 million last season from the Orioles and Rays, is guaranteed $2.15 million in his contract with the Brewers. 

He’ll get a $1.9 million salary in 2010 with the opportunity to earn $600,000 more in bonuses based on games started. The Brewers hold a $2.25 million option for 2011 with a $250,000 buyout.

“They were aggressive early,” Zaun said. “It made me feel important to them.” 

He will play an important role in 2010. Kendall had been Milwaukee’s regular catcher the past two seasons but he earned $5 million in 2009 and Brewers officials decided to go with a cheaper option. 

The Brewers now have to decide how to line up Zaun’s backups. The incumbents include Mike Rivera, who has been Milwaukee’s back-up since 2006 but he’s arbitration-eligible this winter and can expect a bump in pay. The Brewers also claimed left-handed hitter George Kottaras off waivers from the Red Sox this fall and have a pair of catching prospects in Angel Salome and Jonathan Lucroy. If the team decides to promote Lucroy all the way from Double-A, a possibility already raised by general manager Doug Melvin, the experienced Zaun could help him break into the Majors.

Zaun has already played for eight teams in a 15-year career that began with the Orioles in 1995. He split 2009 between Baltimore, where he mentored stud catching prospect Matt Wieters, and Tampa Bay, where he finished the year after an August trade. In 90 games he was a .260 hitter with eight home runs and 27 RBIs.

Zaun is a Type B free agent and Tampa Bay offered him arbitration. Because he signed before Monday’s deadline for players to accept or decline the offer, the Rays will receive a compensatory pick between the first- and second rounds of next year’s Draft.


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Brewers don't have prospects for Halladay push

halladay.jpgThe Brewers need starters and one of the game’s best is available by trade. Seems like a good match, right? Don’t hold your breath.

Their pipeline of Minor League talent is not exactly dry, but the Brewers do not have enough top-level prospects to get into the Roy Halladay derby at next week’s Winter Meetings. 

The Blue Jays are listening to offers for their ace, who, with apologies to free agent John Lackey, will be the most sought-after pitcher on this winter’s market. Starting pitchers are at the top of Milwaukee’s wish list, but it’s clear to club officials that they won’t be able to match other teams’ offers to Toronto. 

“The Eric Arnett’s and Kentrail Davis’ of the world are too far away,” said Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash, referring to the Brewers’ top two picks in last year’s First-Year Player Draft. “They [the Blue Jays] are going to be looking for Double-A and Triple-A help.” 

And at those two levels, the Brewers are admittedly thinner, especially in the pitching department. It’s widely believed that the Blue Jays want at least one Major League-ready pitcher in a Halladay trade, and that’s why Ash believes that Halladay more likely will land with a team like the Phillies or the Yankees or perhaps the Red Sox, all of whom have young pitching studs either in the Majors or the top levels of the farm system. 

There’s also the matter of Halladay’s no-trade powers. He has the right to veto any deal, and Ash is convinced that he would do just that if presented with a chance to move to Milwaukee. Halladay, who is set to earn $15.75 million in 2010 in the final year of his contract, has more starts than any other active pitcher without a postseason appearance. 

“He has control of his destiny, and we’re not a part of his criteria.” Ash said. “For one, we’re not a Florida [Spring Training] team. I also don’t think he’s looking for a chance to win, he’s looking for a guaranteed win.” 

The Phillies and Yankees train in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, mere minutes from Halladay’s house.
So the Brewers are looking for pitching help elsewhere, and club officials have been huddling for weeks pouring over every free agent possibility. If they seek pitchers via trade, then that Minor League pipeline could come into play.

For more on which prospects could come into play in 2010 for the Brewers, see my story on later today.


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No arbitration offers

As general manager Doug Melvin forecast on Monday, the Brewers did not extend arbitration offers to any of their ranked free agents ahead of Tuesday’s deadline to do so. That means the club won’t reap any Draft compensation in the event that outfielder Mike Cameron, catcher Jason Kendall, infielder Felipe Lopez or pitchers Braden Looper and David Weathers sign with other clubs.

All five players were Type B free agents. Had the Brewers extended arbitration offers and the players declined, the team would have received a compensatory pick between the first and second rounds of next June’s First-Year Player Draft. Since no offers were made, the Brewers won’t reap any extra picks in 2010.

That’s disappointing for amateur scouting director Bruce Seid, who is already deep into preparation for the Draft. But the risk in extending such offers is that the player can accept, making him signed for the following season at a salary to be determined either in negotiation, or if talks prove unsuccessful, in an arbitration hearing. Players almost always get raises through the process, and that would have certainly been the case for all five of the Brewers’ ranked players.

Four of the decisions were likely easy ones. Melvin has already made it clear he wouldn’t pursue Cameron (who earned $10 million in 2009) or Kendall ($5 million), and the Brewers already paid buyouts to Looper and Weathers instead of exercising club options. The options ($6.5 million for Looper and $3.7 for Weathers) could have cost than what the players would have earned via arbitration, so an offer didn’t make sense.

Lopez, though, was a matter for debate as late as Monday afternoon, when Melvin and his assistants met to finalize their decisions. Lopez earned a reasonably $3.5 million base salary in 2009 and had a career year, batting .310 for the D-backs and Brewers with nine home runs, 57 RBIs, 88 runs scored and a .383 on-base percentage. He was at his best after a July trade from Arizona to Milwaukee, batting .320 for the Brewers with a .407 on-base percentage and filling the void atop the lineup that had existed since second baseman Rickie Weeks was lost to season-ending wrist surgery.

Based on that strong finish, Lopez, who is represented by Scott Boras, will almost certainly seek a multi-year contract. But the Brewers’ decision to not offer him arbitration on Tuesday was a sign that Milwaukee officials, after analyzing which teams will be looking for second basemen this offseason, aren’t convinced he’ll get it.

That left open the possibility that Lopez could accept the offer, and a multimillion dollar bench player probably wouldn’t fit Melvin’s plans. The Brewers are committed to Weeks at second base and are set elsewhere on the infield with first baseman Prince Fielder, shortstop Alcides Escobar and either Casey McGehee or Mat Gamel at third base. Lopez has some outfield experience, but Ryan Braun is a fixture in left field for the Brewers and Corey Hart is the incumbent in right. Hart earned $3.25 million last season and is arbitration-eligible once again.

Payroll is tight for the Brewers despite recent cost-cutting measures because Melvin intends to use the bulk of his remaining resources to fix the team’s starting rotation.

“You would love to have that depth,” Melvin said Monday in previewing his looming decisions. “But is [Lopez] going to want to be a part-time player? He’s going to want to be an everyday player, and Rickie is going to want to be an everyday player. In some sense, you also ask, are you willing to trade the possibility of [acquiring] a pitcher for Felipe Lopez? That’s the question.”

On Tuesday, Melvin answered his own question. He’d prefer to save resources for the pitcher.


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