Brewers wait in the weeds for Sabathia

LAS VEGAS – All of the usual suspects pulled their chairs to the big-boy table Monday at the winter meetings. The Boston Red Sox met with CC Sabathia’s representatives. The New York Yankees confirmed they discussed everything under the sun with Sabathia himself for 2½ hours. And Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said Sabathia told him personally that he’d love to wear Dodger blue.

Meanwhile, Doug Melvin twiddled his thumbs.

Understand, Melvin, the Milwaukee Brewers’ general manager, is not supposed to have a seat here. This is Liechtenstein getting elected to the UN Security Council. The Brewers are a small-market team with smaller revenues and, in any other situation, the smallest chance to have the privilege of offering Sabathia a contract with more zeroes than a dive on ladies’ night.

And yet they are there, their grip still felt, however tenuous. Melvin declined to categorize much of anything after his half-hour meeting with Sabathia’s agents, Greg Genske, Brian Peters and Scott Parker, on the winter meetings’ official first day. To call Melvin cautiously optimistic would be fair, if more of the emphasis gets placed on the former than latter.

It was tough to read anything from Genske’s response. Corralled momentarily on his way out of the Bellagio hotel, he said, “I’ve got nothing for you. I’m just trying to get out of here.”

Despite Sabathia’s known affinity for Milwaukee after his trade there in July, the Brewers cannot compete with the Yankees’ six-year, $140 million offer nor Boston’s championship machine nor the geography offered by both teams in Los Angeles, where Sabathia recently built a house, or San Francisco, near his hometown of Vallejo.

He is the best pitcher on the free-agent market, 28 years old, already with 117 victories and a Cy Young Award to accompany a personality lauded by teammates and management. In short, he is close to the perfect free-agent catch (conveniently forgetting for the moment his postseason failings), and Melvin realizes he’s driving the Yugo in the drag race.

“It doesn’t really matter to me, because there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said. “I guess it’s a little like playing poker. Trying to read the other guy, their cards. But they control all this.”

Melvin tries to be honest with himself. He takes solace that Sabathia didn’t accept the Yankees’ offer, richer than Johan Santana’s deal. He also doesn’t expect a call from Sabathia’s agents if an agreement elsewhere is near. He likes that when assistant GM Gord Ash asked the representatives during the meeting whether Sabathia had any qualms with Milwaukee’s direction, they said he didn’t. He wonders why Sabathia didn’t meet face to face with the Brewers’ brass before leaving town Monday afternoon, or why he won’t accept the invitation of a dinner at Brewers owner Mark Attanasio’s house in Los Angeles.

In other words: Melvin is holding 2-7 off-suit and trying to crack aces, kings, queens and jacks.

Though the Brewers and Yankees are the only teams to publicly confirm interest in Sabathia, the Angels, Dodgers and Giants loom large, with the Red Sox’s curiosity lukewarm. One friend said Sabathia has said he prefers most to play for the Angels … except that they have prioritized re-signing first baseman Mark Teixeira. The Giants are a darkhorse, making all the sense if not for their other $100 million-plus contract, the Barry Zito albatross.

And the Dodgers – well, Colletti, with what came out as an off-handed remark, stirred the industry: “I ran into him last night. He said, ‘I want to be a Dodger.’ ”

“Ned Colletti said that?” Melvin said, when apprised of Colletti’s comments. “Was he kidding?”

Not kidding, exactly, but not entirely accurate, either. Turns out Colletti clarified his comment later, saying Sabathia told somebody who told somebody who told Colletti that he wanted to pitch for the Dodgers.

Do the Dodgers want him to pitch for the Dodgers? They do need a starting pitcher, but they’ve become almost religious in their abhorrence of long-term contracts. Keep in mind, it was Sabathia who approached Colletti – or didn’t – not vice versa.

So the Brewers hang tight. They have no other immediate plans. They’ve dedicated their entire offseason to a long shot, though, let’s remember, outfoxing all the other contenders for Sabathia in July wasn’t easy, either.

Not only must everything fall the right way – Sabathia decides New York isn’t for him, Teixeira goes back to the Angels instead of signing with Boston, the Red Sox push their money toward Derek Lowe and A.J. Burnett, and the Dodgers and Giants really do consider the price tag prohibitive – but the Brewers will have to increase their offer to higher than the current $100 million for five years.

Sabathia’s agents brought up some questions, Melvin said, that the Brewers were “not prepared to answer at this point.” Certainly they were a derivation of: Can you get a sixth year and still guarantee a competitive annual salary? And more will come, Melvin admitted, perhaps concerning an opt-out clause after two or three years like the one that made Burnett a free agent this year and J.D. Drew one after the 2006 season.

Until then, all Melvin can do is sit back and speculate. He’s a pawn in this game, skulking along the board, hoping that maybe, just maybe, he gets kinged.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Dec 8, 2008