Brewers Opening Day outlook

Brewers Opening Day outlook

After an offseason of relatively little turnover, the Brewers head into 2006 with a nice mix of youth and experience collectively carrying high expectations.

Back intact is the durable outfield of Carlos Lee, Brady Clark and Geoff Jenkins, who combined to make more starts than any other Major League outfield trio. The catchers, starting rotation and bullpen are largely the same, save for right-handed newcomer Dave Bush.

But the infield has a new look, with shortstop J.J. Hardy and second baseman Rickie Weeks returning with new first baseman Prince Fielder and third baseman Corey Koskie. How far the Brewers go in 2006 could depend a lot on whether those kids can play.

1. Brady Clark, CF:
Perhaps no player gets more out of his natural talent than Clark, the team's hardest worker who is back for a second season atop the lineup. He has a knack for getting on base (.306 AVG., .372 OBP), but was just 10-for-23 on stolen base attempts. Clark has worked this spring on improving his jumps.

2. J.J. Hardy, SS:
It was a tale of two halves for the first Brewers rookie to make his Major League debut on an Opening Day since Paul Molitor in 1978. Hardy batted .187 before the All-Star break and the club considered demoting him to the Minors, but he rebounded to bat .308 after the break with eight of his nine home runs. He only struck out 48 times last season and is well-suited to the No. 2 hole.

3. Geoff Jenkins, RF:
The longest-tenured Brewers player stayed off the disabled list and put up solid numbers, especially in the second half. He batted .332 after the All-Star break despite playing the final month with a compression fracture in his lower back.

4. Carlos Lee, LF:
After his usual slow start, Lee became the Brewers' biggest offensive threat and finished with career highs in home runs (32) and RBIs (114). But his production fell off dramatically after a stint in the All-Star Home Run Derby, and Lee would like to put together two great halves. He is eligible for free agency after the season and could find himself the subject of trade rumors in June and July.

5. Prince Fielder, 1B:
The team felt good enough about Fielder's brief stint last season (.288 AVG., 2 HR, 10 RBI, 59 AB) to trade popular first baseman Lyle Overbay to open a spot for Fielder. A career .299 hitter in four Minor League seasons, Fielder could contend for National League Rookie of the Year honors.

6. Rickie Weeks, 2B:
Weeks had surgery in October to repair a torn ligament at the base of his left thumb and heads into his first full Major League season saddled with high expectations. Like Fielder, there are concerns about Weeks' defense (21 errors in 96 games last season), but his bat should be good enough to overcome his shortcomings in the field. Weeks batted mostly second last season, but could become a top run producer from the six-hole.

7. Bill Hall/Corey Koskie, 3B:
The right-handed-hitting Hall gets the Opening Day nod over the newcomer Koskie because the Pirates are expected to start left-hander Oliver Perez. Several teammates called Hall the Brewers' most valuable player last season, when he batted .291 with 17 home runs and 62 RBIs while playing extensively at second base, third base and shortstop.

8. Damian Miller, C:
The veteran Miller played 114 games in his first season with his home-state team and batted .273 with 50 runs scored, tops among NL catchers. Now 36 and in the second year of his three-year contract with Milwaukee, Miller again will share playing time with Chad Moeller.

1. Doug Davis, LHP:
Davis is not fond of the circumstances -- he was tabbed to start over an injured Ben Sheets -- but it is a significant achievement for a guy who three years ago was released by two different organizations before finding a home with the Brewers. Davis led NL left-handers last season with 208 strikeouts but needs better run support to get to 15-20 wins.

2. Chris Capuano, LHP:
It was a dream season for Capuano, who stayed healthy all year and made a run at 20 wins. His 176 strikeouts trailed only Davis among NL lefties, and he became the Brewers' first 18-game winner since Teddy Higuera in 1987. If Sheets is out for a large chunk of April, the Brewers especially need Capuano to be an innings-eater again this season.

3. Tomo Ohka, RHP:
Acquired in June from the Washington Nationals, Ohka pitched his first career shutout in his Brewers debut at Tampa Bay and also twirled a gem at Philadelphia, but struggled a bit at Miller Park, where he owns a career 5.23 ERA. Like Lee, Ohka is a free agent after the season.

4. Dave Bush, RHP:
Bush won a spot in the rotation partly because of an injury suffered by Rick Helling, but mostly because he was the team's most effective spring starter. Bush has a durable arm and he impressed the coaches with an ability to consistently challenge hitters with strikes. The Brewers acquired him in the Overbay deal and are confident that his 5-11 record and 4.49 ERA last year with the Jays are nothing more than signs of a young pitcher trying to find his way.

5. Ben Sheets, RHP:
The team hopes to have Sheets back in the rotation some time in mid- or late-April, and until then he will build his pitch counts in Minor League games. Sheets, who missed the final month of 2005 with a torn muscle behind his right shoulder, strained a nearby muscle -- the teres major -- in early March, but the team remains hopeful he will be able to make 30-plus starts. When healthy, Sheets is one of the game's elite pitchers.

Hard-throwing, fun-loving right-hander Derrick Turnbow is back for a second season as the closer after tying a franchise record with 39 saves. He tied the mark set the previous season by Dan Kolb, who is also back after an offseason trade with the Braves, and who is expected to serve alongside Matt Wise as a setup man to Turnbow. Kolb's sinker and Wise's changeup are nice changes of pace to Turnbow's 98 mph fastball, but Kolb needs to prove his disastrous 2004 was an aberration and the wiry Wise needs to prove he is durable enough to pitch a full season. Young right-hander Jose Capellan appears to have adapted well to his switch to the bullpen and is also considered a future candidate to close.

Sheets is the key member of this list, though the team remains confident that an extra-cautious approach in April will lead to a healthy Sheets the rest of the way.

Will the defense be good enough to handle the pressure of a possible run at the postseason? The Brewers went 81-81 last season for their first non-losing season in 12 years despite committing a league-high 119 errors, 36 more than their opponents. Weeks and Fielder have worked extensively with new coaches Robin Yount and Dale Sveum, but the right side of the infield could become an issue this season. It helps that the left side -- Hardy and the Koskie-Hall tandem -- is relatively solid, and the Brewers feature primarily fly ball pitchers. If Weeks and Fielder are anywhere near as good offensively as expected, their defensive mistakes will be less noticeable.

"I feel like if we don't make the playoffs it's going to be a disappointment. I think that's kind of the atmosphere and I think everyone here feels like this is going to be a good year." -- Hardy

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.