December 2012

That’s a wrap for Winter Meetings

Last year, a quiet Winter Meetings set the stage for a flurry of Brewers activity, from the Alex Gonzalez signing as the Brewers departed to the Aramis Ramirez deal and a trade with the Pirates for reliever Jose Veras the following week.

This winter might not be as active, Brewers officials have forecast. But roster moves are coming.

“We were busy,” assistant general manager Gord Ash said before club officials checked out of the Opryland Hotel. “It just didn’t result in anything — yet.”

Instead of new players, Brewers GM Doug Melvin departed with information, about which free agents are off the board — relievers of interest Sean Burnett and Randy Choate signed with clubs and Jason Grilli appeared close — and which of the remaining options have mutual interest in Milwaukee. On the relief side, Tom Gorzelanny and J.P. Howell look like the top left-handed options for Milwaukee. On the starting pitcher front, Melvin checked in with the agents for both Ryan Dempster and Edwin Jackson.

For any addition, the price will have to be right. It became clear during these Winter Meetings that the Brewers are serious about making a significant payroll cut from their $100 million level last season, perhaps as much as 20 percent.

“We said we weren’t going to get into the free agent frenzy,” Melvin said. “There’s 37-year-old guys getting three year contracts.”

That 37-year-old was Choate, who was a nonroster invitee to Brewers camp in 2008 but suffered a hand injury in an off-the-field incident and was eventually released. He has been excellent for the Rays, Marlins and Dodgers since then, and Wednesday received a three-year contract from the Cardinals.

On the trade front, it is even quieter for the Brewers.

“We met with certain teams, but I don’t necessarily see trades happening with us,” Melvin said. “Because if you trade a player, you have to replace a player. You’re just creating another hole. So nothing [is imminent] in that regard.

“We still believe in our team. We believe in our younger players. We believe in the guys from last August on, it’s just a matter of [covering] a 162-game season. That’s the risk factor that we take.”

The starting pitching market should come unfrozen when Zack Greinke signs. On the relief front, it sure looks like the Brewers need a left-hander, but Melvin downplayed the urgency of that need.

“We’re not chasing left-handers,” Melvin said. “If there’s a left-hander who is available, [fine], but we’ve found them in the past with Brian Shouse and Mitch Stetter. It’s hard to commit to a left-hander sometimes in the National League. You may have to carry 13 pitches if you’re carrying one situational lefty. Ron [Roenicke, the Brewers manager] said, too, ‘I don’t have to have a lefty just to have a lefty. I want a guy who can get people out.’”

The Brewers are also in the shortstop market. They would like an experienced backup to 22-year-old starter Jean Segura and have strong interest in bringing back Alex Gonzalez, though he is seeking a starting job and is in a good position to get one, even though he is coming off knee surgery. The Brewers are also looking for a Double-A shortstop after Hector Gomez suffered a serious groin injury that will require surgery. Gomez was examined in Milwaukee on Thursday by Dr. William Raasch and could miss four months in one scenario or as much as eight months in another, Ash said.

I’m off to the airport. It was a quiet week here, but trust me, there are moves to come.

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Melvin met with agent for E-Jax, Howell

It’s been a quiet Wednesday so far for the Brewers at the Winter Meetings, but GM Doug Melvin did meet with one high-powered agent, Greg Genske, though Melvin would not reveal the content of that discussion. Among Genske’s free agents this winter are right-handed starter Edwin Jackson and left-handed reliever J.P. Howell, both potential players of interest for Milwaukee.

Jackson, 29, was 10-11 with a 4.03 ERA in 31 starts for the Nationals last season while earning $11 million on a one-year deal. He and fellow right-hander Ryan Dempster could be good targets for the Brewers if they are willing to take a two-year deal.

The starting pitching market is still frozen, though, while Zack Greinke picks his new home. Once Greinke signs, you can expect players like Dempster, Jackson, Kyle Lohse and Shaun Marcum to follow.

Howell, 29, made 101 appearances over the past two seasons for the Rays. In 50 1/3 innings in 2012, he had a 3.04 ERA and limited left-handed hitters to a .200 average (17-for-85). Howell might be the best free agent lefty available after Sean Burnett and Randy Choate signed with teams on Wednesday.

Genske, by the way, also represents Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks and pitching prospect Jef Bradley.

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Lefty relief options shrinking for Brewers

A pair potential Brewers targets fell off the open market on Day 3 of the Winter Meetings on Wednesday when left-handed relievers Sean Burnett and Randy Choate chose new homes and further shrunk the Brewers’ options for that area of need.

Burnett, who signed for two years with the Angels, and Choate, who got three years (!!!) from the Cardinals, were among a number of lefty relievers under consideration by the Brewers, who created a need by nontendering Manny Parra last week.

Among the free agent lefties still available are Mike Gonzalez, Tom Gorzelanny, J.P. Howell, Will Ohman and Hideki Okajima.

But general manager Doug Melvin said that as of Wednesday afternoon, he had yet to make any offers.

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Counsell says it wasn’t time to coach

Brewers special assistant Craig Counsell cited family considerations for last week’s decision to withdraw his name from consideration for the hitting coach position in Boston. The Red Sox subsequently hired Greg Colbrunn.

“It just wasn’t the right time for me,” Counsell said.

Counsell, who has worked as an aide to Brewers general manager Doug Melvin since January, said he made clear to the Red Sox that he was interested but had some “family reservations.” Counsell lives with his wife and three boys just north of Milwaukee.

On the other hand, Counsell’s parents live in Ft. Myers, Fla., where the Red Sox have Spring Training, and he was interested enough to travel to Boston for an interview.

“Family-wise, I just wasn’t ready to do something like that,” Counsell said. “I was interested in it as a challenge. That’s what was attractive. And it is Boston, and that’s attractive.”

Getting back into uniform also has its draw. The Brewers are actually in the market for a backup shortstop, and Melvin joked that Counsell could be the first player/front office official. But Counsell has been clear that his playing days are over.

“I phrase it like this: If you spend 20 years playing and with a uniform on, the field always has its pull,” Counsell said.

He remains open-minded about his future. In his current front office role, Counsell has taken on a myriad of different tasks, learning all phases of the business from scouting to player development to medical care to player procurement. He could be a future general manager.

Or, he could be a terrific field manager.

“I don’t have to define what the future is,” Counsell said. “I enjoy working with good people, which I am [doing] right now. I enjoy having a chance to win, which we [have] right now. So, that’s satisfying.”

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Brewers, Mets discussed Dickey

Brewers and Mets officials met at the Winter Meetings to discuss New York knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner being dangled in trade talks. But Brewers GM Doug Melvin said there was no match.

“I just talked to them briefly, but there is nothing to that,” said Melvin, who was Rangers GM when that team drafted Dickey in 1996. “We never got into [exchanging names]. It doesn’t appear to be a match.”

The Mets’ asking price for Dickey is said to be high. He pitched for the Brewers’ Triple-A club in 2007 and was Pacific Coast League pitcher of the year while tinkering with his now-famous knuckleball.

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Roenicke says Greinke would be fine in big market

Just because I can’t get enough Zack Greinke, here’s the exchange between  Brewers manager Ron Roenicke and reporters this afternoon about the former Milwaukee right-hander:

Q. Ron, a lot’s been made of Zack Greinke’s, I guess, unique personality and some of the issues he’s had in the past with anxiety and depression. What was the guy that you got to know like?

RON ROENICKE: Zack was one of the most interesting players that I’ve had and one of the most enjoyable players that I’ve had. There was a couple things there. He’s brutally honest. And he’s going to make some comments at times that you’re not going to be happy about, and then he turns around a couple days later, and you talk, and all of a sudden you’re laughing and really enjoying the guy.

Most of the cases, all the conversations we had were something that, when it was done, I was like, ‘Wow, that was impressive.’ And he’s like that. He’s interested in a lot of things. He doesn’t care for a lot of fluff talk. He doesn’t care how the weather is outside, he wants to know how his slider can get nastier. That’s what he wants to know.

When you talk to him about those things that interest him, you’re in for a great conversation.

Q. How do you see that translate on the field, that personality? Obviously … the Dodgers have been linked to him, the whole big market issue. I guess it’s kind of being thrown out there again. How do you think his personality is reflected in the way he plays?

RON ROENICKE: Well, I think we tried to‑‑ we tried to go out of our way to make him comfortable. We did.

Q. How so?

RON ROENICKE: Just making sure that he was in all conversations on what we were going to do, whether it was his workout routines, whether it was his bullpens, whether it was where he was going to stay in town. There was a lot of things I wanted him to make sure that he felt comfortable with the front office, with the staff, and with his teammates.

He fit in right away. It didn’t take long. Spring Training, he was‑‑ we have a lot of conversations of Spring Training before we start for the day. Zack was very vocal in some things, which I thought was great. So it didn’t take long for him to fit in. And we’ve got an easy bunch of guys to get along with. But he liked it there. We certainly liked him and what he did for us as a team.

He’s a lot of fun. You can talk to our guys that would chuckle at every quote that he would make and some of the ones in Spring Training, and there’s not too many guys that are brutally honest to where it’s kind of refreshing.

Q. Do you remember any favorite conversation you had with him on any topic, or you just walked away and kind of said, ‘Wow.’

RON ROENICKE: I can’t remember favorite conversations, but I can remember one [instance] where I talked about a certain way he was pitching and he didn’t agree with me and basically told me that. I was a little upset with him for a couple days, and he came back in, and we talked about it again.

By that time, he agreed with me. But I can remember the quotes in Spring Training. They’re classics. They are.

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Roenicke: Tight budget means tough choices

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke has not changed in his desire to see the team add a veteran starting pitcher this winter, but he understands that you don’t always get when you want.

“There’s lots of things that I think I would like,” Roenicke said with a smile on Day 2 of the Winter Meetings on Tuesday.

The Brewers need relievers and are looking hard at starters this week, but Roenicke said he understands that general manager Doug Melvin’s task is complicated by the fact the club is paring its payroll, from more than $100 million last season to as low as $80 million for 2013.

So Melvin is shopping with limited funds, some of which will have to be directed to a bullpen that currently has at least three vacancies.

“We’ve talked about both [starters and relievers],” Roenicke said. “It’s more as to who’s available that fits in. Obviously, any time you can get a good quality starter, that’s important. But if what we’re looking at isn’t that much better than what we have with the young guys, then all of a sudden it becomes more important to look at the bullpen.

“Because, there are holes in the bullpen. There aren’t holes in our starting rotation. We’ve got actually one too many starters.”

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What if Brewers don’t add a starter?

While everyone waits for the Zack Greinke domino to fall and the starting pitching market to open up, here’s a thought:

What if the Brewers decide to stay out of that market?

General manager Doug Melvin was sure to raise that possibility during his daily briefing with reporters on Monday, undermining the notion that the Brewers must add a starter this offseason.

“We like the starters that we have,” he said. “You’ve got [Yovani] Gallardo, you’ve got [Marco] Estrada and [Mike] Fiers, [Wily] Peralta, Mark Rogers, [Chris] Narveson. Is it time to give our young guys a chance and find out about them?”

He also mentioned Hiram Burgos and Tyler Thornburg as reserves.

I understand that posturing is as much a part of the Winter Meetings as the actual deals. But what if the Brewers indeed stayed away from the likes of Ryan Dempster and Edwin Jackson and fielded a starting rotation from that group of in-house options above, plus an assortment of late-winter signings of a more minor nature, including non-roster invitees?

Would you be satisfied with that group? Considering the Brewers are returning the National League’s best offense and are working to rebuild the bullpen, do you think they could challenge the Reds and Cardinals with that group?

We have time with Brewers manager Ron Roencike at 2 p.m. CT, and I am eager to see what he thinks about this possibility.

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Quiet Day 1 for Brewers

It was a quiet Day 1 of the Winter Meetings for GM Doug Melvin and the Brewers contingent, who met with a handful of representatives for free agents but did not progress into any hard negotiations. Here are some notes from Melvin’s briefing with reporters:

– The Brewers are understandably hesitant about entering longer-term contracts with starting pitchers after recent experiences with Jeff Suppan and Randy Wolf soured at the end, but Melvin did not entirely rule out going past two years for the right player.

“It’s up to the individual player, who it is. It’s up to the dollars” he said. “I’ll do a 10-year deal if the money is right. If you want $1 million a year, I’ll do 10.”

Melvin said little when asked about the Brewers’ level of interest in right-hander Ryan Dempster, a fellow Canadian who makes great sense for Milwaukee because he’s an innings-eater and has had success at Miller Park. As of Monday evening, Melvin and Dempster’s agent, Craig Landis, had no plans to meet, though that could change in the coming days.

“While he’s here, we might as well [talk about Dempster],” Melvin said. “We like the starters that we have, though. You’ve got [Yovani] Gallardo, you’ve got [Marco] Estrada and [Mike] Fiers, [Wily] Peralta, Mark Rogers, [Chris] Narveson. Is it time to give our young guys a chance and find out about them?”

Melvin also mentioned Hiram Burgos and Tyler Thornburg in the depth department.

– Melvin was more open about his interest in some of the available relievers, saying he had spoken recently to agents for players including Sean Burnett and Jason Grilli. The Brewers have significant interest in both of those players, among others.

Burnett is left-handed a priority for the Brewers since they non-tendered Manny Parra last week. Melvin said he would prefer to fill that hole via free agency rather than a trade, saying, “You don’t like to trade guys for left-handed relievers if you can help it.”

Mike Gonzalez, Randy Choate and Hideki Okajima are among the other lefty relievers on the market.

Melvin said Burnett’s agent, Jim Munsey, is not at these Winter Meetings, and Burnett and his wife just had a baby, “so you can tell we talked to them,” Melvin joked.

– Grilli’s agent is familiar to Brewers fans: Former shortstop Gary Sheffield.

“I talked to Gary about [Grilli],” Melvin said. “There’s a long list of relievers still available.”

Grilli, 36, missed all of 2010 with a serious knee injury but has returned to post the two best seasons of his career. He has a 2.76 ERA in  92 games for the Pirates over the last two years.

“Maybe he’s just adjusted to the bullpen. Maybe he’s better conditioned,” Melvin said. “Sometimes when guys miss years and they’re rehabbing, they get their entire body in better condition. I heard Cliff Lee say that once, that when he was out with an injury, he came back [better] because all of the conditioning and physical therapy that they do. He said his core was stronger, his legs were stronger, and the ball came out of his hand 2-3 mph faster.”

– Other right-handed relievers on Milwaukee’s radar: Kevin Gregg, Jon Rauch, Jason Frasor. There’s also going to be terrific opportunity for in-house options, like Jairo Asencio, Fautino De Los Santos, Johnny Hellweg, Arcenio Leon and Michael Olmsted.

– Not of interest: Matt Capps and Diasuke Matsuzaka. Melvin also said it’s unlikely the Brewers bring back recently-nontendered Kameron Loe because they subsequently acquired a similar pitcher in Burke Badenhop.

– Asked whether he he prioritized starting pitching over relief, or vice versa, Melvin said, “No, not really. I don’t think there was anything new today that we didn’t know coming into the day.”

– As if there were any doubt, the Brewers view Estrada and Narveson as starting pitchers at this time.

– He said he had no active trade talks, and that the trade market in general was quiet. That should pick up after some of the top free agents sign.

– Melvin said some of his meetings with agents were at the agents’ request, to run through their stable of available players. That’s standard operating procedure during the Winter Meetings.

– On the general volatility of free agent contracts, Melvin said, “Look at some of the top free agent players over the past few years and they’ve all been traded. You go back to the Carl Crawfords and Heath Bells. You can go through a bunch of those guys.”

– Melvin hasn’t had any recent inquiries about Corey Hart, nor has he had talks with agent Jeff Berry about an extension. Melvin wouldn’t say whether he believed recent deals signed by Justin B.J. Upton with the Braves (five years, $75 million) and Angel Pagan with the Giants (four years, $40 million) had driven up Hart’s price.

“I don’t know what the price is. I haven’t met with them,” Melvin said.

The Brewers have had some teams ask about their catchers, Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado. But Melvin likes the idea of retaining depth behind the plate, and said a team would have to come to him with a strong offer. The Brewers would then have to find a Major League backup catcher.

– The Brewers have one opening on the 40-man roster at the moment, and a need for relievers, but Melvin said he didn’t expect to make a selection in Thursday’s Rule 5 Draft. The Brewers will review their options anyway — a process led by pro scouting director Zack Minasian.

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Will Brewers stretch for Dempster?

The Brewers have interest in free agent right-hander Ryan Dempster and Dempster has interest in the Brewers. The question as baseball’s Winter Meetings began on Monday was whether the sides could meet in the middle to make a deal.

Dempster’s agent, Craig Landis, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Dempster is seeking at least a three-year deal, a common floor for established starters this early in the offseason.

But the Brewers have a strong preference for shorter-term contracts after being burned in the later seasons of long-term agreements struck in December with veterans Jeff Suppan (a four-year pact signed in 2006) and Randy Wolf (three years plus an option in 2009). They wound up releasing both pitchers during the final season of those contracts, including Wolf this past August.

Adding to the Brewers’ caution with Dempster is his age — 35; four years older than Suppan at the time he signed with Milwaukee and two years older than Wolf — and the fact the team is in the process of paring payroll.

Dempster is particularly intriguing to Milwaukee because of his positive clubhouse reputation and his career success at Miller Park, where he owns a 2.66 ERA in 26 games, including 14 starts.

If the risk is deemed too high for the likes of Dempster, Edwon Jackson or any of the other second-tier free agent starters available on this year’s market, the Brewers may be content to fill their rotation with internal candidates behind top starter Yovani Gallardo. Current options include young right-handers Mike Fiers, Wily Peralta and Mark Rogers, plus the moderately more established Marco Estrada and Chris Narveson.

If the Brewers went young, they would be using last year’s Oakland A’s as a model. General manager Doug Melvin could then funnel his available resources to the bullpen, which is in the process of a total makeover. Among the Brewers’ needs there is a left-hander, and they are already being linked to the top available free agents including 30-year-old former Washington National Sean Burnett.

You can also expect the Brewers and Josh Hamilton to be linked all week, though, logically, that’s still a stretch. If Hamilton doesn’t get any mega-offers on the open market, would the Brewers make sense? Definitely, because of the presence of hitting coach Johnny Narron, who was Hamilton’s “accountability partner” for years in Cincinnati and Texas. But what are the odds Hamilton doesn’t get any monster offers? I’d say slim.

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