Brewers want to make return to playoffs

Brewers believe they are ready for postseason

If there was any doubt that expectations have changed as another baseball season approaches in Milwaukee, listen to this:

"We're already looking at July," Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash said, before the team had even finalized it's Opening Day roster. "We're focusing on teams that might have players available to help us stay in the race."

It's a sea-change for a franchise that had trouble finding enough available players to fill the Opening Day roster in recent seasons. With a mix of youth and experience in the lineup, and as solid a pitching staff as they've had in years, the Brewers are hoping to sneak into September with real hopes of a berth in the postseason.

They took a big step forward in 2005, going 81-81 for the team's first non-losing season in 13 years. But this is still a franchise four years removed from a 106-loss season (2002) that prompted a massive front office overhaul and 24 years removed from its last berth in the playoffs (1982).

Is this really the year that the once-proud Brewers get back in the spotlight?

"I'm looking forward to playoff baseball and that's where our ultimate goal should be," said general manager Doug Melvin, who took over in September 2002 and promptly hired Ash and manager Ned Yost and sparked the team's turnaround.

Said Ash: "My impression is that it's a much different club in terms of the expectations that have been placed on them. The first year we were here we were happy just to put 25 guys on the field. It's progressed to the point where there's certain expectations, both externally and internally."

Still, there were legitimate questions facing the team as it prepared to break camp.

How healthy is ace right-hander Ben Sheets, who strained a muscle in his upper back near the one he tore last August and who will start the year on the disabled list? Will closer Derrick Turnbow prove a one-year wonder, and will setup man Dan Kolb bounce back after a terrible year in Atlanta?

There are questions about left fielder Carlos Lee, the team's top offensive threat who is entering the final year of his contract. In previous Brewers seasons, that would almost ensure his departure by July 31, but if they win early might the team be more inclined to open the coffers?

And there are questions about a young, but tremendously promising infield. Will shortstop J.J. Hardy be the .187 hitter he was in the first half of 2005 or the .308 hitter he was in the second half? Will Rickie Weeks, fresh off thumb surgery, and Prince Fielder, a rookie, be the immediate run-producers that the Brewers believe they can be?

Yost has a different question in mind.

"I'm looking at 90 wins, somehow," Yost said. "How do we get to 90 wins?"

Last year, 90 wins would have been good enough to edge the Houston Astros for the National League Wild Card. The Brewers were within five games of the Wild Card leaders for much of August and September, though there were a number of teams ahead of them. Yost and Melvin believe that experience -- playing meaningful games in September -- could have a carryover effect in 2006.

"I really felt we were in playoff contention with two weeks left in the season," Melvin said. "I don't think a lot of people believed it, but we could have gone into Houston and swept three games [from Sept. 16-18]. We had a chance. It's going to be a little more difficult now."

That's because people actually expect the Brewers to win more than they lose. The team has gotten exponentially more national media coverage this spring, and players like Hardy have said it would be a disappointment to miss the postseason this season.

Yost did his best to block it all out, but he knows the stakes are raised.

"Four years ago, when I was sitting in my office, I knew we didn't have the players to compete," said the manager, who got a two-year contract extension this spring. "We were going to do everything we could do to change our attitude and the way that we went about our business on the field, but at the end of the day I knew we didn't have enough to do battle with.

"We're to the point now that we're a pretty talented team."

Does he worry that the team will be burdened by those expectations?

"Just because expectations rise doesn't mean you stop enjoying doing what you're doing," Yost said. "You can't meet expectations if you're tight or you don't enjoy what you're doing."

The fun begins April 3 against the Pirates at 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.