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Knobler: Brewers could extend Greinke, Marcum, Axford

If you still aren’t willing to accept the fact that Prince Fielder is gone, here’s another piece of news to chew on — Danny Knobler of CBS Sports is saying the Brewers may continue to use the Prince Fund to keep players who want to stick around, as they entertain the idea of offering extensions to Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum.

For now, the Brewers are focused on shortstops, and on a certain big-money first baseman.

But don’t be surprised if the biggest money they hand out this winter goes to one or more pitchers already on the roster.

According to sources familiar with the team’s plans, the Brewers intend to pursue contract extensions with starters Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, both of whom would be eligible for free agency after the 2012 season. The Brewers also plan to pursue long-term deals with some younger core players, including closer John Axford.

Extending Greinke would be ideal, although it wouldn’t be cheap. Marcum and Axford, though? That should make the Brewers think twice.

Back when Jered Weaver signed his 5-year, $85 million deal in August, most people (including Ryan Topp of Bernie’s Crew) thought it might be a preview of the kind of deal Greinke would sign. That’s an average of $17 million a year, a modest increase over the $13.5 million Greinke will make in 2012 in his last year before free agency.

When it comes to Greinke, there are many more factors to consider than just money. Comfort and familiarity figure to play an important role as well (perhaps more than other players), and Greinke seems to enjoy life in Milwaukee. He likes playing for a winner, and as long as the core the Brewers have locked into longterm deals is around, Milwaukee should be one.

From the Brewers’ perspective, now would be the perfect time to make an offer to Greinke. Not only would they avoid having him hit the open market, but after a couple “down” years (by his standards — ERA+s of 100 and 102 the past two years), they could justify offering him a bit less than open market value. From Greinke’s perspective, a short extension — say a three-year deal — would provide a bit of personal stability for the next few years while also giving him a chance to enter the free agent market after his age 30 season…still young enough to get one big contract if that’s what he wants.

Marcum, on the other hand, would be a much riskier play. I’ve thought for awhile that extending Marcum would be a bad idea, and it really has nothing to do with his performance over the last couple months of the season. He put together a very good season and was one of the reasons why the team won the division, but historically, pitchers like him — those without great stuff and a history of injuries — don’t age well. He’s put up back-to-back years of 195+ innings following Tommy John surgery, but as he enters his 30s, there are going to be concerns about his effectiveness slipping.

Marcum’s fastball averaged 86.9 mph in 2011, which isn’t a huge deal considering how infrequently he threw it (just 34.3% of the time), but doesn’t inspire confidence about his velocity as he ages. His bread and butter is the changeup, but according to FanGraphs, his change was the least effective it’s been since 2006, coming in at 2.6 runs above average. He also missed fewer bats in 2011. His swinging strike percentage was down by about half a percent (from 10.9% to 10.3%), and his Z-Contact percentage — how often an opposing batter makes contact on a pitch inside the strike zone — jump from 84.7% to 86.9%. His K/9 dipped, and his BB/9 rose. There’s a chance these could all be one-year flukes, but it’s enough to make you think twice about offering an extension. While Greinke is the type you would jump to re-sign in the offseason, Marcum is the type you may want to wait to extend until midseason, just to make sure what you saw last season wasn’t the start of permanent decline.

As far as Axford goes, extending any relief pitcher is a big risk for a small-market club. When you’re talking about a pre-arby closer who will be 29 in 2012, it borders on insane. There’s just no reason to even entertain the idea of extending Axford right now, unless the club is sure it’s going to save a boatload of money by buying out an arby year or two. We saw last season the impact a very good bullpen can have, but part of the reason the Brewers were able to put together such a group was the fact that Axford was making peanuts. Axford’s been very good the past two years, but you don’t want to pay for past performance when it comes to relief pitchers.

If Jonathan Papelbon’s contract can teach us anything, it’s that closers are vastly overrated on the open market. If the Brewers weren’t trying to replace half their bullpen this offseason, this would actually likely be the very best time to sell high on Axford. With K-Rod gone and Takashi Saito and LaTroy Hawkins possibly leaving, too, it would be hard to justify. It’d be a great way to capitalize on the value, though, now that Axford is in “Proven Closer” territory.

Mark Attanasio said recently that the Brewers aren’t going to spend money just to “fill payroll,” and that they were going to pick their spots. Spending money on Greinke? Excellent idea. Rolling the dice on Marcum and/or Axford? That’s how a small-market team gets burned.

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