PHOENIX -- The stakes are raised after an 81-81 finish last season, Milwaukee's first non-losing campaign since 1992.
The team is feeling good about its mixture of veterans like Geoff Jenkins and Carlos Lee and youngsters like Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy and Rickie Weeks, plus a solid pitching staff led by ace Ben Sheets. But how will those players respond to heightened expectations of fans who have been snapping up tickets at a record rate this winter?
Team strength: The Brewers starting outfield of left fielder Lee, center fielder Brady Clark and right fielder Jenkins was the Majors' most durable unit in 2005, combining for 451 starts. Jenkins led the Brewers with a .513 slugging percentage and 42 doubles, Lee led with 32 home runs and 114 RBIs and Clark with a .306 average and 94 runs scored.
Achilles heel: The right side of the infield could be a problem point for a team that already ranks poorly in team defense. First baseman Fielder and second baseman Weeks have tremendously high ceilings, but neither is considered a plus-defender. That's one of the reasons manager Ned Yost brought in bench coach Robin Yount and third base coach Dale Sveum, who will serve as co-infield instructors focused heavily on Fielder and Weeks.
Top newcomer: Defensive questions aside, Fielder could be an immediate offensive force. The Brewers opened a spot at first base by trading away the steady but unspectacular Lyle Overbay, and Fielder will get every chance to succeed there. He is only 21 years old, but the Brewers believe he's ready after batting .291 with 28 home runs and 86 RBIs in 103 games at Triple-A Nashville last season.
Ready to make The Leap: Corey Hart homered for his first Major League hit last August and the ability to play as many as five different positions could give him chances to hit more in 2006. Hart has played first base, third base and all three outfield positions in his Minor League career and will probably serve as a super-sub off the bench. He batted .308 with 17 home runs, 69 RBIs and 31 stolen bases last season at Nashville.
On the hot seat: Sheets will earn a franchise-record $11.5 million this season and a lot is riding on his health. Sheets missed five weeks in early 2005 with a recurrence of an inner-ear ailment that threw off his balance, then spent the final five weeks on the disabled list with a torn muscle behind his right shoulder. He is healthy again this spring and on track for a fifth consecutive Opening Day start.
You can bank on: Despite a second-half dropoff, Lee remained remarkably productive despite a switch to the National League. He set career bests with 32 home runs and 114 RBIs, his third straight year with at least 30 homers and 99 RBIs. This is the final year of Lee's contract, so there is plenty of incentive for him to put together another huge season.
Litmus test: The Brewers were within five games of the NL Wild Card late into last August, and there is a sense among coaches and players that the team could jump further into that race in 2006. If Sheets can stay healthy and closer Derrick Turnbow can put together another solid season, there should be enough offense for the team to contend for the first time in a decade.
Games you don't want to miss:
Pirates, April 3-5: Brewers' first home Opening Day since 1995
Cardinals, June 9-11: Chance to see if the Brewers are for real
Cubs, July 6-9: Can Brewers fans "Take Back Miller Park?"
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.