Thursday, November 4, 2010

Brewers to be cautious in free-agent market

The Brewers have some big salaries coming off the books but are planning a more cautious approach when the free-agency signing period begins this weekend.
General manager Doug Melvin has been a big player in recent seasons, going hard after CC Sabathia in the 2008-09 offseason and then signing Randy Wolf and LaTroy Hawkins to multi-year contracts at last year's Winter Meetings. This winter, he's more likely to scour the trade market for ways to improve the team's pitching situation than jump headfirst into the market for top arms.
"The free-agent market for pitching hasn't proved to be very beneficial for most clubs, not just ours," Melvin said during the season. "That's why we have to develop our own and maybe make a trade. We might have to look at someone who has been let go. We have to look at everything."
That's not to say he will not look at free agency, because Melvin's staff has been looking ahead at the market for months. But it does mean that, unlike two years ago when he made a $100 million-plus play for Sabathia, he's almost certainly not going to be a player for this year's top free-agent pitcher, Cliff Lee.
Instead, Melvin will weigh trading a position player -- all eight of his regulars are under team control for 2011 -- to get pitching in return, and those moves will help dictate where the Brewers dip into free agency. First baseman Prince Fielder is already a fixture of the trade rumor mill.
Fielder is due a raise in his final season of arbitration-eligibility, as is second baseman Rickie Weeks. Ryan Braun's salary will jump from $1 million last season to $4 million in 2011, per his multi-year contract.
But those expenditures will be balanced by big numbers coming off the books. Jeff Suppan, Bill Hall and Claudio Vargas combined to draw just over $20 million from the Brewers in 2010 while playing for other teams, but their contracts expire as of this month. Trevor Hoffman, Gregg Zaun, David Riske, Doug Davis and David Bush combined for another $24 million or so in salaries in 2010, but will be free agents.
The Brewers will pay just over $4 million in buyouts for Suppan, Hoffman, Zaun, Riske and Davis to decline options. But the savings remains significant. When the website MLB Trade Rumors added up each team's guaranteed contracts for 2011, the Brewers came in at $32.4 million, 11th-lowest in baseball. That figure does not account for arbitration-eligible players like Fielder and Weeks, who would push the total much higher, but it does represent some flexibility for Melvin and his aides.
The free-agent period began Monday night when the Giants recorded the final out of the World Series. Pitchers Dave Bush and Chris Capuano and infielder Craig Counsell immediately became free agents, and, per new rules instituted just last month, the Brewers have until midnight ET on Saturday to negotiate with them exclusively.
Three others -- Davis, Hoffman and Zaun -- finished the year with the Brewers and have 2011 options that, according to assistant GM Gord Ash, must be resolved by Thursday. The Brewers are very likely to decline all three.
2011 payroll

The Brewers pushed the payroll over $90 million for 2010, but fell out of contention early in the season and slipped back under three million in attendance. That could mean some modest budget cuts for 2011, though principal owner Mark Attanasio is aggressive and usually allows Melvin to spend if the right player becomes available. Whatever the final number, the Brewers will probably remain in the middle of baseball's spending in 2011.

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