MILWAUKEE – For the past few weeks, Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin has been adding set-up pitchers to his bullpen. All the while, he insisted he’d be comfortable with returning erratic Derrick Turnbow to the closer’s role.

But that didn’t stop Melvin from exploring the options of acquiring an established closer. In particular, he monitored the status of free agent Eric Gagne, once the greatest closer in the game.

Early Saturday, Melvin reached an agreement on a one-year deal with Gagne, pending a physical examination. A source familiar with the talks indicated the Brewers were willing to commit $10 million, so rest assured the physical will be a thorough one.

Because the commissioner’s office requested that all teams delay the announcement of signings and trades until physicals are completed, Melvin wouldn’t reveal details of the agreement.

“It’s one of those things where you’ve got to wait a few days,” said Melvin, reached in Madison at the Marquette-Wisconsin basketball game. “You can’t do anything until the paperwork goes through.”

A spokesman for agent Scott Boras, who represents Gagne, said they would leave it to the Brewers to announce any deal. The Brewers will not forfeit a draft pick for signing Gagne, a Class B free agent.

Gagne, who turns 32 in January, will take over the closer’s role vacated when Francisco Cordero signed a four-year, $46 million contract with Cincinnati. He is the fourth reliever added by the Brewers since losing set-up man Scott Linebrink and Cordero through free agency.

Melvin traded catcher Johnny Estrada to the New York Mets for Guillermo Mota, signed free agent David Riske to a three-year, $13 million deal and traded two minor-leaguers Friday to Pittsburgh for Salomon Torres.

Torres informed the Brewers he might retire due to family commitments, but Melvin already had interest in Gagne before that development. Melvin spoke with Torres on Saturday morning via telephone to gauge his mood.

“I don’t know if he’ll retire or not,” Melvin said. “I told him we’ll respect his decision.

“He said he’s got nothing against the Brewers. He’s got three young kids he’s thinking about. I told him we really wanted him on our team and he’d like it in Milwaukee. He didn’t say when he’d make his decision.”

Melvin tried to acquire Gagne from Texas in late July to strengthen his overworked bullpen. But Gagne instead was traded to Boston, in part because the Red Sox guaranteed the incentives in his contract.

Gagne turned down Boston’s offer of salary arbitration Friday, effectively ending his relationship with that club. Reports out of Boston indicated the Red Sox made the offer merely to keep intact their right to a compensatory draft pick next June.

That same day, Texas general manager Jon Daniels announced he was ending his attempt to reacquire Gagne, who began the 2007 season with the Rangers and posted a 2.16 ERA in 34 games, converting 16 of 17 save opportunities.

Houston also had interest in Gagne, but Boras apparently preferred to steer his client toward Milwaukee, which fell just two games short of winning the National League Central crown last season.

Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder is represented by Boras and has told him how much he enjoys playing for the Brewers, and how close the players are in the clubhouse.

Gagne did not flourish in a set-up role with the Red Sox, who used Jonathan Papelbon to close games. In 20 appearances, the big right-hander posted a 6.75 ERA and was used mostly in a mop-up role in the post-season.

Before elbow and back problems threatened his career, Gagne was the best closer in the game with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He claimed the 2003 NL Cy Young Award by going 55 for 55 in save chances, and eventually set the major-league record with 84 in a row before finally blowing one in “04.

After two mediocre years as a starting pitcher, Gagne flourished as a closer, converting 152 of 158 save chances from 2002-’04. He has converted 177 of 187 career opportunities, a success rate of 94.7 percent, best-ever in the majors.

Gagne was limited to 14 games by elbow problems in 2005 and eventually had surgery to relocate a nerve in April 2006. He had undergone ligament replacement surgery in that elbow in 1997.

Later in “06, Gagne had back surgery and pitched in only two games. The Rangers then took a chance that a healthy Gagne would regain his form and signed him to a $6 million contract, laden with incentives.

Gagne began the season on the disabled list while working back into pitching shape, and in late April was disabled again with an ailing hip before finally taking over the closer’s role.

Gagne, a native of Montreal, became a successful closer by developing a repertoire that included a fastball in the high 90s (mph), a knee-bending changeup and a devastating split-finger fastball. In 5971/3 career innings, he has issued only 204 walks while striking out 680 hitters.

Gagne’s acquisition allows the Brewers to keep Turnbow in the set-up role in which he performed well for most of “07, holding opponents to a .183 batting average and accumulating 33 “holds,” one of the highest totals in the majors. Riske’s contract included lucrative incentives should he become the closer, but that won’t happen if Gagne stays healthy.

With Gagne, Riske, Mota and Torres, assuming he reports, added to a relief corps already including Turnbow and left-hander Brian Shouse, and possibly Seth McClung and Matt Wise, the Brewers actually have more options than they need, barring injuries.



(c) 2007, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-12-08-07 2041EST


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