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Heading to Meetings, first base Crew's top priority

Free agent Hart expected to receive offer from club before Meetings begin

MILWAUKEE -- Two months into the offseason, the Brewers' situation remains essentially the same. Besides the standard goal of getting better and the annual task of reconstituting the bullpen, first base is the team's most glaring need.

The options to fill that need, general manager Doug Melvin said, remain "wide open."

So it is with an open mind that Melvin will travel to Orlando, Fla., for the second time in a month, this time to attend baseball's Winter Meetings at Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort in Lake Buena Vista with a larger club contingent than attended November's General Managers Meetings.

He has made splashy Winter Meetings moves before, from the Carlos Lee acquisition in Anaheim in 2004 to the Lyle Overbay trade in Dallas in 2005 (which opened first base for a kid named Prince Fielder ) to a four-year agreement with free agent Randy Wolf in Indianapolis in 2009. Melvin does not expect to make any equally gaudy moves this time -- but you never know.

"We're on the watch for any talent that can make our club better," Melvin said.

The easiest place to do that would be first base, where the Brewers ranked last of the 30 teams in 2013 production while Corey Hart recovered from surgeries on both knees. Hart, who belted 30 home runs in 2012, is a free agent, and is expected to have an offer in hand from the Brewers before the Winter Meetings begin.

A deal could make sense for both sides. Hart is comfortable with the Brewers, who made him an 11th-round Draft pick in 2000, and hitter-friendly Miller Park would be an excellent venue to rebuild value for one year before trying free agency again next winter. The Brewers, meanwhile, could get a discount on a player they know and like, while giving first-base prospects Hunter Morris and Jason Rogers another year of Minor League seasoning.

Hart is represented by Jeff Berry of CAA Sports, who negotiated with Melvin on Hart's three-year extension during the summer of 2010. Hart has said that the Rockies, Rays and Red Sox have also showed some interest this winter. Cost would be an issue for the Brewers, who already have nearly $75 million committed to 11 players, including estimates for arbitration-eligible pitcher Marco Estrada and corner infielder Juan Francisco. Last year's entire 25-man Opening Day roster cost about $85 million.

So far, Melvin and Berry have had two conversations, though Melvin declined to characterize their progress.

"Obviously, first base is the one area of focus," Melvin said. "We talked about a maybe a bullpen piece or so. But we're still always open to [other ideas]. A lot of times, a club like ours that is not engaged in all the free agents, we sit back and study other ballclubs and see where they're at, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and be ready in case something comes up."

In other words, the Brewers are open to trades. They have an excess of Major League-ready outfielders, including leadoff man Norichika Aoki if Ryan Braun moves from left field to right, and could seek deals for a first basemen or bullpen arms. The Mets (Ike Davis and Lucas Duda ) and Rangers (Mitch Moreland ) look like potential trade partners on paper, and the White Sox (Adam Dunn ) or Phillies (Darin Ruf ) could also make sense.

Unlike last year, the Brewers will not be actively shopping for a starting pitcher. Melvin said he has Estrada penciled into next year's rotation, so four spots are tentatively spoken for with Kyle Lohse, Yovani Gallardo, Wily Peralta and Estrada. That would leave one spot for a young pitcher like Tyler Thornburg, Johnny Hellweg or Hiram Burgos.

"I think our pitching is better than what people perceive," Melvin said.

After a disastrous May, Brewers pitchers combined for a 3.48 ERA from June 1 through the end of the season, seventh-best in baseball. After the All-Star break, Brewers starting pitchers were fourth in MLB with a 3.36 ERA.

"For our ballpark and the division we're in -- a very good division with the Reds and the Cardinals being two of the top hitting teams in the league -- our pitching is still fourth-best," Melvin said. "But we have to find ways to score runs. Our biggest free-agent signing will be getting Ryan Braun back."

Braun was suspended on July 22 for the remainder of the season for violations of MLB's Joint Drug Agreement and Basic Agreement. He was reinstated to the roster on Oct. 31.

"That's a big addition," Melvin said.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy.

Milwaukee Brewers, Corey Hart