With only 34 games (at the time of writing) and the postseason left to the season, the off-season will be here before we know it. Some say it's too early for an off season debate, but I say neigh, its an off day, lets get something productive done!
At last count, the Brewers have fourteen "key" players that have contracts expiring after the 2008 season. They are: 2B Ray Durham, 3B Russell Branyan, U Craig Counsell, U Joe Dillon, CF Mike Cameron, OF Gabe Kaplar, SP CC Sabathia, SP Ben Sheets, SP Chris Capuano, RP Derrick Turnbow, RP Guillermo Mota, RP Brian Shouse, CL/RP Saloman Torres, and CL/RP Eric Gagne. (I'm sure I'm missing some, so if I see any in the comments or anyone with the power to edit, feel free to add them to the list.)
Both Cameron and Torres have team options for the 2009 season, a $10MM option with a $750K buyout and a $3.75MM option with a $300K buyout. At the time of writing, it seems as though both will be exercised, leaving the Brewers without five position players, three starting pitchers, and four relievers.
I will attempt now to make a 25-man roster out of the best free agents available this winter. Bear with me; this might get a little hairy. I'm sure some will disagree, but I'm basing this on current and past performances. If someone is most likely to go back to the team they came from, they will be off this list.
2008-2009 Free Agent All-Star Team
Catchers: Jason Varitek and Ivan Rodriguez
First base: Mark Texeira and Richie Sexson
Second base: Orlando Hudson and Mark Ellis
Shortstop: Rafael Furcal and Orlando Cabrera
Third base: Hank Blalock and Joe Crede
Outfield: LF/RF Adam Dunn, LF Manny Ramirez, LF Milton Bradley, LF Pat Burrell
Starting Rotation: CC Sabathia, Ben Sheets, A.J. Burnett (has an option to opt out of contract, it is presumed he will), Jon Garland, and Oliver Perez.
Relievers: Francisco Rodriguez, Brandon Lyon, Brian Fuentes, Kerry Wood, Eric Gagne, Will Ohman
That team might win a few games, eh? Compared to the 2007-2008 off-season crop, this is a gold mine. Solid players across the board at all positions. Now, what are the Brewers to do? Lets assume all of the non-free agents stay put. There's a good chance that Kaplar and Branyan stay with the team, so that brings the total to missing: three infielders, three starting pitchers, and four relievers. What to do?
In regards to the infielders, the play from third base has been less then spectacular, and free agency may address that problem. Players like Hank Blalock, Joe Crede, and Casey Blake would fit the mould nicely. Nomar Garciaparra, who has played all over the infield, including first base, could provide the Craig Counsell bat with a little more pop. Perhaps the minors can shove some players up. Mat Gamel has proven he can handle a bat but apparently not a glove, so he may be looking to move to a less precarious position (See Braun, Ryan). Alcides Escobar, apparently a better shortstop than Mr. Hardy, can provide gold glove defense in the middle shifting J.J. over to third or second. Speaking of second, the Rickie Weeks experiment has yet to reach its lofty potential. Veteran guys like Mark Ellis and the switch-hitting Orlando Cabrera can provide the stability Brewer fans have been looking for. If Ray Durham sticks around he has shown he can still play and provides the lefty platoon bat for Mr. Weeks.
Looking at starting pitching, Brewer fans hope for the possibilities of CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets signings. Sheets would be easier to attain; as a part owner of the Milwaukee Admirals along with great chemistry with the team provides the beginning of a hometown discount that would allow him to stay with the team. Mr. Sabathia on the other hand is a different story. During the short time he has been in Milwaukee, the team has molded around him and he seems to be clicking with the whole team and seems to really enjoy Milwaukee, especially Jason Kendall, who has expressed interest in retiring as a Brewer. However, CC is a big time pitcher, and he comes with the big time markets. Teams like the Yankees, Angels, Mets, and Braves will be hot on his heels, along with smaller market teams in need of pitching, such as the Rangers and Phillies. Mark Attanasio has given Melvin the O.K. to open the wallet and spend money on players, but will this small market team be able to afford his big time pitching? If Sheets and Sabathia are unavailable, guys like A.J. Burnett and Oliver Perez can eat some innings and hopefully fill the big void less. Project pitchers are also available, like Mark Prior, Mark Mulder, and Matt Clement, and would be available at a discount for Mike Maddux to tackle. The old inning eaters are also available, the likes of Randy Wolf, Odalis Perez, Derek Lowe, Josh Fogg, Paul Byrd, and Randy Johnson, just to name a few. The youth in Manny Parra, Yovani Gallardo, Carlos Villenuava, and Seth McClung may struggle if forced to hold down the rotation with Dave Bush and Jeff Suppan.
The bullpen has been the Brewers Achilles heel for quite some time, with inconsistency reigning supreme. However, great players are finally available in the coming off-season. Francisco Rodriguez, K-Rod, is running away with the saves lead this year but will demand a premium price in free agency, most likely a record deal. Could he be the big money pitcher Attanasio and Melvin look at? If not, other solid closers and set-up men are out there. Brian Fuentes, Brandon Lyon, and Kerry Wood are all solid closers and have performed well for the team. Trevor Hoffman, Eric Gagne, Todd Jones, and Jason Isringhausen have been great closers in their career, but do they have enough in the tank to keep performing? Set-up men like Will Ohman and Juan Cruz have been stellar and would provide the key 8th inning role the Brewers have been looking for. The Brewers seem to have a gaggle of average to above average middle relievers; can one of them step up and perform to an elite level?
Of course the season has over a month (hopefully more for the Crew) until the 2008 season comes to an end. Of course there will be debate over what to do all the way until the beginning of the next. There will be bargains (Everyday Jason Kendall) to the blunders (Eric Gagne, is he turning it around, and not making that 10M look so bad?). Until then, enjoy the comments, hopefully there will be many, good luck to the Crew to finish out the season to get that first Series win for the franchise, and when the season is finally over, it's your move, Mr. Melvin.