LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Brewers were "deep in discussions" Wednesday on both the trade and free-agent fronts, general manager David Stearns said. But one of their targets was headed elsewhere.
Right-handed setup man Anthony Swarzak, who had a two-year offer in hand from the Brewers following an effective 29-game stint with Milwaukee during the second half of last season, agreed to sign with the Mets instead. He took a two-year, $14 million deal, as first reported by Newsday.
The Brewers will have to find relief elsewhere.
"Ultimately, we determined that the prices these guys were getting at this stage in the offseason were more than we felt comfortable paying," Stearns said. "That happens a lot this early in the offseason at the Winter Meetings. Things can go really fast and you can get into a little bit of a bidding war. We try to avoid that. A lot of relievers signed some pretty lucrative contracts over the past couple of days."
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Before Swarzak went off the board, the Rockies reportedly agreed to three-year deals with Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee that guarantee around $27 million apiece. Those veterans joined Mike Minor (three years, $28 million with the Rangers), Brandon Morrow (two years, $21 million with the Cubs), Tommy Hunter (two years, $18 million with the Phillies), Pat Neshek (two years, $16.25 million with the Phillies) and Luke Gregerson (two years, $11 million with the Cardinals) in finding homes. Later Wednesday, Juan Nicasio reportedly struck a two-year agreement with the Mariners and Joe Smith got a two-year deal with the Astros.
But many setup types remained available. Among the more notable names available as of Wednesday evening: Addison Reed, Hector Rondon, Seunghwan Oh, Tony Watson, J.J. Hoover and former Brewer Brandon Kintzler.
The Brewers also remain on the hunt for starting pitching. Stearns urged patience and reiterated that the Brewers have financial flexibility to sign a player for the right price.
"I'm confident that over the course of the offseason, we're going to be able to meet our objectives," he said. "There are still a lot of very talented players out there -- relievers, starters, position players -- both in trades and free agency. We have a lot of time to go, and I'm confident we are going to be able to improve our team."
Swarzak was a tricky case after enjoying a career year at 31. A year ago, he took a Minor League deal from the White Sox with an invitation to big league camp and went on to post a career-best 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings with a 2.33 ERA in 77 1/3 innings split between the White Sox and Brewers.
"Relievers in general are tricky to evaluate," said Stearns, pointing to year-to-year fluctuations being common among even established bullpeners. "That problem is probably accentuated a little bit with someone like Anthony, who had a career that didn't necessarily predict what he did last year. At the same time, you can't take away what he did last year. He had a tremendous year. He was a big part of our run down the stretch, and he deserves to be rewarded for it."
The Brewers have money to spend on pitching but need at least one established starter in addition to filling out the bullpen. Corey Knebel is coming off an All-Star season and will return for his first full season in the closer role. The Brewers' other returning relievers include left-hander Josh Hader and right-handers Jacob Barnes, Oliver Drake and Jeremy Jeffress. Lefties Wei-Chung Wang and Tyler Webb and righty Taylor Williams are on the bubble between the big leagues and the Minors.
Missing from that list is Jared Hughes, who had a 3.02 ERA and boosted his strikeout rate to 7.2 per nine innings in 59 2/3 innings in 2017, but was nontendered by the Brewers last month. He projected to earn about $3 million in arbitration. In light of the contracts being bestowed upon relievers now, does Stearns stand by that decision?
"Yeah," he said. "In any relief pitcher, we're looking at how he fits into the overall dynamic of our 'pen. It wouldn't surprise me if Jared gets a very nice contract, but at this point, I think we felt like we could devote resources elsewhere and we could fill our 'pen needs elsewhere."
As he prepared to depart the Winter Meetings, those needs remained.
"I do think we're making progress, and I think a lot of the work here is going to lead to productive results, whether it's tonight, tomorrow or a couple of weeks from now," Stearns said. "A lot of times, it's easy to get caught up in what happens at the Winter Meetings. But a lot of the work we're doing here lays the foundation for the rest of our offseason."