Bulk of Crew's nucleus to return for another run
Fielder's future uncertain; most of core should be back in '12
MILWAUKEE -- After winning their first division title in nearly 30 years, the Brewers are getting the band back together for the 2012 season.
There's a chance Prince Fielder might have played his last game in a Brewers uniform, but the good news for Milwaukee is that much of the team that made up the 2011 National League Central champs will be around at least one more year.
NL MVP Award candidate Ryan Braun will be back. Rickie Weeks will be back at second base, and his ankle should once again be 100 percent. And joining them will be Corey Hart, Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, to name a few.
Most important is the fact the Brewers' entire five-man starting rotation is set to return, barring the club making a trade involving one of them. That alone gives the Crew a shot at reaching back-to-back postseasons for the first time since 1981-82.
"We wouldn't have been there if we didn't have the pitching we had," Hart said. "We have almost 95 percent of our team back next year. And I'm sure [GM Doug Melvin] and them will go do what they always do, they'll go get guys to fit in. I don't expect us to be anything less than we were this year. Hopefully we can add this experience to next year and be even better."
Six players on the Brewers' roster are eligible for free agency, with Fielder representing the biggest potential loss. Also on that list are relievers LaTroy Hawkins and Takashi Saito, veterans Craig Counsell and Mark Kotsay, and utility man Jerry Hairston Jr.
Counsell said he wanted to get away from everything for a couple weeks before sitting down with Melvin and "deciding what's best." Kotsay said he didn't know what he might do next season.
Setup man Francisco Rodriguez, who has a mutual option, and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt (club option) also could join that list. The buyout on K-Rod's contract is $4 million, while Betancourt's is $2 million.
Even if the Brewers do not re-sign any of those eight players, it would leave them with most of their starting lineup intact. The bullpen and bench could have a lot of new faces, but aside from Fielder, the key components should remain in place.
"We had a special group coming in this year. We knew that from Day 1," Brewers closer John Axford said. "With the group of people that we have coming back next year, and as far as we got this year and as well as we did, I think we're definitely going to be hungry for more."
A number of Brewers will be arbitration-eligible in the offseason, including four who will go through the process for the first time. Marcum, Carlos Gomez and Kameron Loe all are in their third arbitration years, while Manny Parra and Josh Wilson are each in their second.
Third baseman Casey McGehee, center fielder Nyjer Morgan, catcher George Kottaras and lefty reliever Mitch Stetter all are arbitration-eligible for the first time.
In the event of Fielder's departure, the biggest hole the Brewers will have to fill certainly is at first base. There are a handful of in-house options that the club could pursue, though each would involve some degree of risk.
Hart could be a candidate; he was drafted as a first baseman before moving to third and then right field. While it's uncertain how he would transition defensively, Hart provides the type of power expected of a first baseman, and he could slide down to bat fourth or fifth in the order, as well, if needed.
Other options could include McGehee, who played some first base in the Cubs' system, or Mat Gamel, who spent much of the season at first base for Triple-A Nashville. Outside of that, the Brewers would likely have to fill the spot through trades or free agency.
Beyond first base, other positional needs will likely include the bullpen, bench, right side of the infield and potentially an outfield spot. In particular, many of the positions could stand to be upgraded defensively as errors plagued the Brewers throughout the NLCS.
But once they fill their biggest holes, the 2012 Brewers should look a lot like the club that finished two wins shy of the second World Series appearance in franchise history.
"The other teams have question marks, too. The guys who just beat us have a question mark at first base," Brewers owner Mark Attanasio said. "Our responsibility is to win here. So we have to figure out how to do that.
"We have to figure out how to do it, and [we have to] do whatever it takes to make that happen."
Jordan Schelling is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.