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Quiet in free agency, Brewers confident in system

GM Melvin continues to explore options to fill first base, bullpen openings

MILWAUKEE -- The Brewers began the new year as the only team yet to sign a Major League free agent since season's end.

General manager Doug Melvin was asked Monday what he would say to fans perturbed by the team's inactivity.

"I would just say that it's true, we haven't done all that much," Melvin said. "But just because you don't respond in free agency doesn't necessarily mean it's the [wrong] thing to do. If you look at a lot of the teams that got involved in free agency in the past few years, it hasn't been that successful for them -- and then there are the players whose price range isn't even close to what we could consider. We're putting a lot of faith into our system."

In Melvin's view, the Brewers' Major League roster is well-stocked aside from first base and the bullpen, areas club officials are still open to supplementing at the right price.

Trading Norichika Aoki to the Royals for Will Smith netted a needed left-handed arm and opened right field for Ryan Braun, whose move opens left field for promising slugger Khris Davis. That trio of Braun, Davis and Gold Glove center fielder Carlos Gomez, whom the Brewers signed to an extension last spring to avoid having to negotiate with him this winter in free agency, gives Milwaukee the promise of an above-average offensive outfield.

Melvin said he also feels set on the infield, aside from first base. The Brewers are bullish on young shortstop Jean Segura and second baseman Scooter Gennett (with Rickie Weeks in reserve), and feel comfortable that third baseman Aramis Ramirez will return to his career norms after a 2013 season ruined by knee problems. They view catcher Jonathan Lucroy as a potential All-Star.

The rotation is comprised of Kyle Lohse, Yovani Gallardo, Wily Peralta, Marco Estrada and Tyler Thornburg, with Smith, Johnny Hellweg and other younger arms vying to break in. Brewers officials made the decision earlier this offseason, Melvin said, that the time was right to "go with our young guys" rather than get involved in a bidding war for mid-tier free-agent starters.

The bullpen is under construction, led by second-year closer Jim Henderson and setup man Brandon Kintzler. The only reliever on the roster who qualifies as "veteran" is left-hander Tom Gorzelanny, who is rehabbing from shoulder surgery, but should be ready for Spring Training. Melvin has had talks with "a few" former closers available in free agency, including Carlos Marmol and Francisco Rodriguez, but also has confidence in lower-cost options like Rob Wooten, Michael Blazek, Donovan Hand and others, including Smith if he does not crack the rotation.

"We weren't going to get [Shin-Soo] Choo. We weren't going to get Robinson Cano," Melvin said, referring to top free agents. "We can look at $5-$6 million guys, but if we think our guys are better or as good at $500,000, why would we make a move just to make a move?"

Instead, the Brewers have stood pat.

"We've sort of been on the sidelines with free agency this year," Melvin conceded. "We're putting a lot of faith in the players that performed for us in the second half of the year. We're expecting Ryan Braun to come back and perform.

"Anything else, we're always open to discussions, but it's still got to be good for the ballclub. Our bullpen is an area that we've talked about maybe whether we would add an experienced piece or not. ... First base, I've had ongoing discussions with [Mets general manager] Sandy Alderson, but we haven't gotten to anything where we're comfortable with the deal from our side, and he's not been comfortable with the deal from his side."

Melvin and Alderson had conversations about first baseman Ike Davis as far back as the General Managers Meetings in November, and met several times at the Winter Meetings a month later. The Mets' price is high -- they asked the Brewers for Thornburg, and the Orioles for top pitching prospect Eduardo Rodriguez. The Brewers would rather trade a position player, perhaps from a stable of outfielders that remains reasonably deep, even with Aoki's departure.

Melvin declined to say whether the Mets' asking price for Davis, who was demoted to Triple-A at one point last season, was higher than expected.

"I don't ever get into that," Melvin said. "Everybody makes the deal that they feel is the best deal for them. I don't ever consider whether asking prices are too high on [trades] or not, because you don't know until after the deal and you've seen players perform.

"I think we've pretty well stood by -- the one thing we've done is we do not want to give up pitching."

The Brewers had some interest in free agents Justin Morneau and James Loney before they signed elsewhere, and were linked to veteran Michael Young, but now appear intent to either fill first base via trade or with internal options, a list topped by corner infielder Juan Francisco. He was working on mechanical adjustments at the end of the Major League season before hitting .260 with a .350 on-base percentage and three home runs in 40 games with Licey in the Dominican Winter League.

Melvin reiterated Monday that the Brewers were not interested in the top remaining free-agent option for first base, Kendrys Morales, who received a qualifying offer from the Mariners earlier this winter and thus will cost his new team a Draft pick.

Other business will occupy the Brewers in the six weeks that remain before the start of Spring Training, including negotiations with their two arbitration-eligibles (Estrada and Francisco). The team also has yet to finalize a list of non-roster invitees.

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

Milwaukee Brewers, Ryan Braun, Khris Davis, Juan Francisco, Will Smith