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Hot Stove Preview

Ebert
on 11/06/2005

 

Coming off of the first non-losing season since 1992 many to most fans of the Milwaukee Brewers are entering the offseason with an excitement not felt in quite some time. General Manager Doug Melvin has led the team to that magical mark, and now he is shouldered with the load to take the team to the next level. New owner Mark Attanasio may be just as important if he provides Melvin with the financial resources necessary for the Brewers to make any necessary improvements for the team to take the next step. This feature will point out specific dates to look forward to this offseason while breaking down some of the areas the team may be looking to improve.

Important Dates
The biggest question is when? When does free agency start? Free agency starts after a 15-day period that allows potential free agents to officially declare their eligibility. Once that period is over, free agency begins. That date this year is Friday, November 11th.

Friday November 11th also marks the first day of the new waiver period. Waiver wire acquisitions are of particular interest to the Brewers, since this is how notable reclamation projects such as Scott Podsednik and Derrick Turnbow were acquired. It should be noted that in the past few years the Brewers have had close to first dibs on players since the waiver priority order is determined by the reverse standings in Major League Baseball from the start of the last waiver period. Starting November 11th, as the 15th best team in all of baseball, they have to wait until the 15 teams worse than them have had the chance to make their waiver claims.

Teams must align their 40-man rosters and minor league rosters in preparation for the Rule 5 draft by November 18th. The Rule 5 draft will take place on Thursday, December 8th, the final day of the Winter Meetings.

The Winter Meetings, the big annual event that is often pointed to as the pinnacle for offseason transactions, takes place December 5-8.

December 7th marks the last day teams may offer their own free agents arbitration. If the team declines to offer one of their free agents arbitration they lose the rights to sign that player until May 1st of 2006. Also by declining to offer a free agent arbitration, the team forfeits the ability to receive draft pick compensation should that player sign with another team.

Offering or declining arbitration also pertains to players that aren't free agents yet whose 2006 contracts can be determined by an arbitrator if they can't come to a deal with their parent team. Players that are denied arbitration are non-tendered, and therefore they become free agents. Tomo Ohka has been identified as a possible non-tender target should the Brewers deem he isn't worth the $3.5-4 million dollars he will likely command for the 2006 season.

December 19th marks the last day in which a free agent can accept or decline an arbitration offer made by their previous team (this obviously only applies to free agents that have not yet signed). If a player accepts arbitration they can still sign with another team or negotiate a new contract with their previous ballclub. If no contract is reached, the player will enter the arbitration hearings in which his 2006 contract will be in the hands of the arbitrator. If the player declines arbitration, his previous ballclub may only negotiate with the said player until January 8th, 2006.

Brewers Free Agents
The Brewers have already picked up the 2006 option on outfielder Carlos Lee, so the Brewers only have three players that are eligible for free agency: Wes Helms, Rick Helling and Jeff Cirillo. According to reports, Helms and the Brewers have mutually agreed that it would be best for Helms to test the free agent waters, as the Brewers likely wouldn't want him back for money close to the $2.7 million he made this past year. He could serve as a valuable backup providing depth to the infield corner positions while offering a proven bat, particularly against left-handed pitchers.

Rick Helling on the other hand is a player the Brewers would very much like to have return. He proved to be quite valuable over the last month of the season, filling in admirably for the injured Ben Sheets. Adding a cutter to his repertoire seemed to give Helling a new life in the big-leagues. He could be a very valuable swing-man, filling in the rotation when needed while offering a solid, veteran arm in the bullpen that can pitch more than a few innings when needed. Helling could be sought out by other teams as a cost-effective solution to round out a rotation, and might be offered a contract more than what the Brewers are willing to spend to keep him in Milwaukee.

It is possible that the Brewers will offer both Helms and Hellling arbitration. They would do so with Wes Helms in the event that another team signs him and he brings a compensatory draft pick in return. He likely wouldn't be rated higher than a Type C free agent (the Elias Sports Bureau ranks all players and assigns a letter grade to them based on their production from the previous two seasons), but that would still give the Brewers an extra pick after the second round (a Type C free agent does not cause the signing team to lose a draft pick). The Brewers may choose not to offer Wes Helms arbitration, since they would have to pay him no less than 80% of the money he received from the previous season, or $2.16 million. While that may not seem like much money, it's a lot to pay a part-time player. The only other hitch with Type C free agents is that they can not have been a free agent in a previous year, which isn't an issue with Helms who is a free agent for the first time in his career.

The Brewers would probably be willing to gamble on arbitration with Rick Helling, if it goes that far. Doug Melvin has a history with Helling dating back to their days with the Texas Rangers, and Helling likely is grateful to the Brewers for giving him another chance to prove himself. By offering Helling arbitration, who made the league minimum in 2005, they can continue to negotiate with him into 2006.

Cirillo is expected to return for close to the league minimum after joining the Brewers as a minor league free agent last season.

Trent Durrington, Victor Santos, Chris Magruder and Julio Santana also became free agents after declining outright assignments to AAA Nashville. Don't look for any of those four players to return unless they sign a minor league deal with an invite to spring training.

Team Needs
Unless the team chooses to upgrade one of their current positions on the field, the starting lineup for the Brewers likely will be relatively the same in 2006. First base really is the only position expected to change, with Lyle Overbay a popular candidate to be traded with Prince Fielder waiting in the wings. Bill Hall may continue to serve as a super-utility player, but he seems poised to get the majority of the playing time at third base.

The Brewers could use some added depth, particularly in the outfield. Chris Magruder didn't deserve to be on the big-league roster last year, as the team needs to find a way to improve their fourth (or fifth) outfielder. That may be addressed in-house if the team decides to carry Corey Hart, Nelson Cruz and/or David Krynzel on their opening day roster. I have a feeling Doug Melvin may look outside of the organization for a proven outfielder that bats left-handed and can play a centerfield when needed to give players like Carlos Lee and Brady Clark much deserved days off. A few possibilities on the free agent market that fit this description include Orlando Palmeiro, Todd Hollandsworth and Terrence Long.

The Brewers may also decide to upgrade their catching depth. Chad Moeller is your typical backup catcher that doesn't do any one thing particularly well and doesn't provide much thunder in the lineup with his bat. Don't expect the Brewers to throw a lot of money to upgrade their backup catcher, but they may have their eyes on a few players that could provide a modest improvement.

Every team in baseball could upgrade their bullpen, and the Brewers are no exception. However, the Brewers have proved over the last several years that they have been able to assemble a group of quality pitchers that make up a productive bullpen. From Dan Kolb to Matt Wise to Derrick Turnbow, the team has always been able to benefit from taking on other team's castoffs.

Ideally the team could use a situational lefty if Dana Eveland is returned to the starting rotation as expected, either with the big-league club or at AAA Nashville, even though the team didn't use Eveland in that strict of a role. Jorge de la Rosa's numbers prove that he is actually more effective versus right-handed hitters than lefty sluggers, so he isn't made to be a specialist. The team hasn't had a lefty specialist since they dealt Ray King a few years ago, and have survived well enough without one, so it remains to be seen if Melvin plans to get that picky this offseason while piecing together his 2006 team.

It would seem unlikely that the Brewers would spend a lot of money to upgrade the bullpen. A name to watch is Dan Kolb, who is expected to be non-tendered by the Braves this offseason and may be interested in returning to the Brewers given his success with the team in 2003 and 2004. In-house options that may move up from the minor leagues to contribute include two members of the 2004 bullpen, Mike Adams and Jeff Bennett, as well as southpaw Mitch Stetter.

The biggest team need for 2006 is a starting pitcher. Doug Melvin seems content heading into next year with Ben Sheets, Doug Davis, Chris Capuano and Tomo Ohka taking the one through four spots in the rotation. Melvin is also on record as saying that he isn't impressed with the free agent crop, and likely won't have the money to spend to land a big fish from a small pool of talent. Melvin could just be posturing, and Mark Attanasio may give him a flexible enough of a payroll to go out and sign a bigger name free agent pitcher, with Wisconsin native Jarrod Washburn being a popular name. Washburn is on record saying he would like to return to Wisconsin, but before you get too excited keep in mind that his agent is Scott Boras, who rarely is involved with hometown discounts. A.J. Burnett offers the biggest name on the free agent market, but likely will draw a ludicrous multi-year contract that the Brewers would be wise to avoid handing out to a pitcher that has had his share of injuries.

However, the Brewers have not ruled out that the organization may have an in- house solution to the fifth and final rotation spot. Dana Eveland is probably the leading candidate to fill such a role, with Ben Hendrickson, Dennis Sarfate and possibly even Rick Helling, should he re-sign with the club, serving as other possibilities.

Keep in mind that the Brewers could lose their first-round pick depending on how active they are on the free-agent market this offseason. By finishing with the 15th best record in all of baseball last year, they will pick 16th in next June's amateur free agent draft, and therefore would lose their pick if they sign any Type A or B free agents either before the December 7th, the last day a team may offer a player arbitration, or after that time if the free agent's previous team did indeed offer such a player arbitration.

Keep an eye out on Brewerfan.net's Fan Forum for a list of the free agent rankings as they become available.

Trades
Of course the bigger topic of the offseason as briefly discussed above is the situation at first base. Lyle Overbay, affectionately known as "O" by the fans, is blocking super-prospect Prince Fielder. As talented as Fielder is, he is still unproven at the big-league level, and there are perceived problems to varying degrees of speculation about his weight, attitude, defense and choice of agents (Scott Boras). However, he is one of the most gifted young hitters in all of baseball, and many would be surprised if he didn't make the proper adjustments to big-league pitchers. He showed his potential in limited action during the 2005 season, and hit at every level as he moved up the minor league ladder. Fielder has the potential to be an impact hitter, and along with Rickie Weeks he could form the most dynamic right-sides of the infield in all of baseball. With J.J. Hardy and Billy Hall, they could form one of the most dynamic young infields overall.

With Lyle Overbay, you know what you're getting. He doesn't hit for much power, but he is a smooth, consistent hitter that is going to get his base hits while drawing a lot of walks. He plays good defense, and is about as humble as they come. However, by the standards of first basemen, he is only average. Overbay is entering this offseason as arbitration eligible for the first-time in his career, meaning his rights can be retained by the Brewers for three more years before he becomes a free agent. He is due for a modest pay raise, one that the Brewers could easily afford.

Doug Melvin and Mark Attanasio have both addressed the issue at first base, noting that they don't have to move Overbay and could afford to have both he and Fielder in the same organization for another year. But let's be realistic, they're both posturing, knowing they don't want to let every single team in baseball know that they want to and have to move Overbay, therefore lessening his trade value. I have pondered dealing Fielder like many other fans have, but unless I received a similar player in return (such as a young, dynamic starting pitcher) I just couldn't bring myself to losing a potentially dominant offensive force.

Also, the stars may align properly for it being a near-perfect offseason to have an extra first baseman to be dealt. With several teams looking for improvement at first base, and since Paul Konerko is the only notable first baseman on the free agent market, Doug Melvin without a doubt will receive a lot of interest from other teams with interest in his surplus at the position.

And while I don't expect Melvin to make any other major trades, don't for one minute think he's going to fall too far in love with his current team to ignore the possibility of improving it. Geoff Jenkins and Carlos Lee both have rather large contracts, and while the Brewers seem as though they can easily afford both of them right now, I'm sure both could be moved if the right deal came along. Few players on the team have the trade value that Billy Hall does. I doubt Hall gets moved, but with J.J. Hardy having shortstop for his own for years to come, the Brewers may entertain offers for Hall given his rare power at a premium defensive position.

Keep in mind that Doug Melvin has stated again and again that any players he receives in trade will be big-league ready (or really, really close) and will help the future of the team. He's not likely to go after a one-year solution, nor low-level prospects.

Other
As noted above, it is possible that the Brewers non-tender Tomo Ohka should they pursue a pitcher on the free agent market. Ohka made $2.75 million last year, and likely will make $3.5-4 million next year. However, he is a proven pitcher that has posted solid numbers throughout his big-league career despite not being overpowering. Russell Branyan and Chad Moeller could also be non-tendered if the team decides to go in a different direction, but neither one is expected to make enough money to be considered a burden to the payroll.

Also keep an eye on players signed to minor league contracts. This is how the team originally acquired Jeff Cirillo, Rick Helling, Doug Davis and Dan Kolb. Baseball America provides a full list of minor league free agents to their subscribers, but the group of candidates isn't always reserved to minor league players, such as was the case with Cirillo, Helling and Davis.

I wouldn't expect the team to pursue adding a player via the Rule 5 draft. The Brewers passed on participating in this event last year after taking and carrying two players (Enrique Cruz and Matt Ford) from the '02 draft on their 2003 roster and one player (Jeff Bennett) from the '03 draft in 2004. Such players are typically projects, and as we found out with Cruz in 2003, those players often don't receive much playing time given their need for added development. With the Brewers thinking about bigger and better things for 2006, they probably won't try to stow such a player on their roster next year, which would take up a valuable spot from someone else that could contribute regularly.

Prediction
I don't believe the Brewers will be active on the free agent market, and for the most part will enter next year with basically the same team they had this year. They will hope for a healthy, full year of Ben Sheets, and with that should receive a boost of improvement by his presence alone. Another year of seasoning for J.J. Hardy and Rickie Weeks should also bring another few wins, and if Weeks' defense improves that alone could mean another one to two win improvement. Lyle Overbay will be traded, and even if Fielder struggles at times, there should not be a significant dropoff in production at first base, and Fielder may just prove to be more productive. Overbay will be traded for a youngish starting pitcher that has a couple of years of big-league service under their belt. While I'm not going to cite a specific trade proposal, Aaron Heilman of the New York Mets or Chien-Ming Wang of the New York Yankees would be a good example of such a player. Players that are slated to get a modest pay raise via arbitration similar to Ohka may also be strong candidates, with Bronson Arroyo of the Boston Red Sox and Brian Lawrence of the San Diego Padres as two more possibilities. The Brewers will sign a free agent outfielder as a reserve that can play centerfield and bats left-handed as discussed above. They will also address their bullpen, although they will not sign an extravagant name on the free agent market to do so. A waiver wire acquisition or minor league free agent may be a likely route in which this area is addressed.

A dark horse candidate that I truly think the Brewers may be interested in on the free agent market is Bill Mueller. A switch-hitting third baseman, Mueller has proven that he is a very good defender at the hot corner, can hit for a good average while exhibiting very good plate discipline. While the Brewers had some good power hitters in 2005, they lacked high average hitters with the ability to get on base.

Patrick Ebert is affiliated with both Perfect Game USA and Brewerfan.net, and can be contacted via email at pebert@brewerfan.net

 




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