Looper agrees to one-year deal
The Brewers reached agreement on a one-year deal with an option with right-hander Braden Looper, who spent the past two years in St. Louis’ starting rotation. General manager Doug Melvin said there were still some details to be finalized, probably with the option, but Looper will become a Brewer when he passes a physical examination later in the week.
The Brewers have followed Major League Baseball guidelines this winter in withholding the announcement of all signings until physical exams are completed.
“A physical is part of the deal,” said Melvin, who added that he was “optimistic” that Looper would be pitching for the Brewers this season.
The Brewers and Looper’s agent, Alan Hendricks, were thought to be hashing out the final details on an option for a second year, be it a vesting option or club option or mutual option. Looper, 34, is expected to receive a 2009 salary in the neighborhood of $5 million.
Hendricks did not return a telephone call seeking comment on the negotiations.
In recent weeks, Brewers owner Mark Attanasio and Melvin indicated that they did not plan to sign a free-agent starter, preferring to keep payroll flexibility to make a move during the season if the opportunity arose. But Melvin said they looked at pitchers who might become available at some point and decided they would be too expensive in both salary and players required to work a trade.
“If we do tie (Looper) up, we do lose some flexibility by making this decision now,” Melvin said. “But it was hard to pass up a guy that would have led our staff in innings pitched (in 2008).”
Melvin referred to the fact that Looper pitched 199 innings last season for the Cardinals while going 12-14 with a 4.16 earned run average in 33 starts. Among the returning starters for the Brewers, Dave Bush was tops with 185 innings.
Attanasio and Melvin also knew the Brewers were perilously thin in starting pitching, with only five legitimate major leaguers reporting to spring training at the end of the week. The addition of Looper probably bumps right-hander Seth McClung back to long relief, a role he filled at times last year while shuttling back and forth from the bullpen to the rotation.
Barring injuries, the starting rotation shapes up to be Yovani Gallardo, Manny Parra, Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush and Looper. Parra is the only lefty.
Melvin will have to remove a player from the 40-man roster when Looper’s deal becomes official.
The Brewers had shown interest in Looper just before Christmas but backed off, waiting to see what happened to the market. After signing free-agent closer Trevor Hoffman in January, Attanasio and Melvin said they probably were done with significant pitching moves.
Attanasio said the Brewers’ payroll already was projected to surpass the $80 million level of opening day in 2008. If Looper’s salary is about $5 million (he made $5.5 million in ’08), the payroll would approach the $90 million level the Brewers reached after acquiring left-hander CC Sabathia and second baseman Ray Durham last July.
But prices continued to come down, as evidenced by left-hander Randy Wolf signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers for $5 million guaranteed last week. Melvin said the depressed market was a factor in jumping back in on Looper.
“That had an impact,” Melvin said. “It helps when the player wants to come here, too.”
Beyond Looper’s workload, there are other things the Brewers like about the former closer. He obviously knows the lineups in the NL Central (and won’t miss facing the Brewers at Miller Park, where he was 0-4 with a 7.01 ERA in 25 2/3 innings).
Though he surrendered 25 home runs in ’08, Looper generally is a groundball pitcher. The homer total stemmed in part from the fact that Looper pounds the strike zone, averaging 2.04 walks per nine innings last year.
Looper also is an accomplished hitter, for a pitcher. He tied for third among NL pitchers in 2008 with 13 sacrifice bunts and ranked fourth with 16 hits while batting .254.
“He does a lot of things,” Melvin said. “He’s very durable; he grinds it out and throws strikes. He can swing the bat a little. He knows the division.”
Looper was a closer for Florida and the New York Mets before being converted to a starter over the past two seasons by the Cardinals. He went 24-26 in 64 games (63 starts) with a 4.52 ERA.