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Brewers will search for arms at Meetings

MILWAUKEE -- The Brewers' offseason so far has been one of subtractions. Shaun Marcum and Francisco Rodriguez were among the free-agent departures. Then the club cut ties with 2011 postseason hero Nyjer Morgan and relievers Kameron Loe and Jose Veras rather than take those players through arbitration.

Now, it's time to go shopping.

General manager Doug Melvin and his staff will spend the rest of this week making final preparations for the Winter Meetings, which run Dec. 3-6 at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, the sprawling Nashville, Tenn., resort which last hosted the event in 2007. The Brewers finalized a previously agreed to deal with free-agent reliever David Riske at those Meetings but were otherwise idle -- so idle that club officials hopped an earlier-than-expected flight home.

Five years later, the Brewers are again in the midst of a bullpen overhaul. And this time, Milwaukee is looking at starting pitchers, too.

So will these Winter Meetings be more active for the Milwaukee contingent?

"I can't give you any odds on that right now," assistant GM Gord Ash said. "Obviously, we've talked to some [free-agent starters], but we haven't advanced past the initial inquiry stage."

Among the group of available starters are the three players most often linked to the Brewers so far: Zack Greinke, who is probably out of the club's price range, Ryan Dempster and Edwin Jackson, two arms from the second tier of free agents.

Other notable starters on the open market include Joe Blanton, Francisco Liriano, Kyle Lohse, Brandon McCarthy, Anibal Sanchez, plus, if you dig deeper, veterans like Jeff Francis, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Roy Oswalt and Carlos Zambrano.

The Brewers are working their way through that group from a position of flexibility. They have only one member of their 2012 Opening Day rotation locked in for '13 -- right-hander Yovani Gallardo -- but they have options for the other four spots. For one of the back-end spots they have first-time arbitration eligibles Marco Estrada, a favorite of manager Ron Roenicke, and left-hander Chris Narveson, who is coming off shoulder surgery. For the middle they have home-grown arms Mike Fiers, Wily Peralta and Mark Rogers, each of whom showed promise in '12 and would come cheap in '13. In reserve they have another prospect, Tyler Thornburg, who is likely to begin the season at Triple-A Nashville.

But Roenicke made the case late last season for adding at least one veteran starter to the mix, whether via free agency or a trade. He surely took that case to Melvin.

The bullpen is just as pressing a priority after the Brewers finished last in the Majors in relief ERA (4.66) and blown saves (a franchise-record 29).

At least John Axford righted his ship in August and September to give the Brewers a viable closer. He is arbitration-eligible for the first time and will get a significant raise in what should be an interesting case; Axford had nine blown saves in 2012 after a nearly flawless '11. If the sides are unable to avoid arbitration early in the process, there could be a significant gap between the salary Axford seeks and what the Brewers propose to pay him.

After Axford, it's an open field. Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler will probably get shots after long Minor League careers. Manny Parra is arbitration eligible again and has been high on promise and not as high in production. A prospect could make the leap, like newcomer Michael Olmsted, signed as a Minor League free agent, or hard-thrower Johnny Hellweg, one of the players netted from the Angels in July's Greinke trade.

But the Brewers have lots of room to add relief help via free agency, trades or waivers, just like they did back in 2007. Besides Riske, that winter's haul included Eric Gagne, Salomon Torres and Guillermo Mota, each of whom wound up playing significant roles, for better and worse, on the '08 club.

The free-agent relief market has been surprisingly quick to develop, with two signings -- Jeremy Affelt back to the Giants for three years and $18 million, and Brandon League to the Dodgers for three years and $22.5 million -- driving up prices.

"I wouldn't say [those deals made adding relievers] harder, I would say more expensive," Ash said.

Heading into the Winter Meetings, the Brewers have one factor in their favor that they lacked last year, when nearly every spot in the rotation and the bullpen was already spoken for.

"We can certainly sell opportunity this winter," Ash said. "Incredibly helpful. It's why, last year, we couldn't sign any starters, because they looked at our rotation and said, 'I don't have any chance to pitch there.'"