Tough spring doesn't quell Brewers' excitement

Tough spring doesn't quell Brewers' excitement

Tough spring doesn't quell Brewers' excitement
Brewers general manager Doug Melvin's cellphone was bombarded on Dec. 19, the day the Brewers finalized their trade for Zack Greinke. But one text message stood out.

It was from Shaun Marcum, another right-hander acquired in a trade two weeks earlier as part of Melvin's bid to remake a starting rotation that badly needed one. Marcum was fired up.

"I can't remember what it said exactly," Marcum said two months later. "But it was along the lines of, 'I'm excited. Let's start the season right now.'"

Too bad Marcum didn't get his wish.

A little more than three weeks later, the Brewers are still extremely enthusiastic about 2011, but that feeling has sure been tested during an injury -- and illness-riddled Spring Training.

The Brewers open the season on Thursday at 1:10 p.m. CT in Cincinnati.

All nine of the projected Opening Day starters, including Greinke, left a Cactus League game early or missed a game, and five players who were supposed to be on the 25-man roster will instead start the season on the disabled list, including Greinke, regular catcher Jonathan Lucroy and right fielder Corey Hart.

The ailments have ranged from the random (Greinke's cracked rib from playing basketball) to the routine (Hart's rib-cage strain, a problem that also hit left fielder Ryan Braun and prospect Mat Gamel). They've been serious (Greinke could miss a month of the regular season, and Lucroy and Hart didn't get a single Cactus League at-bat) and they've been small (Braun's ribs, second baseman Rickie Weeks' groin, shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt's thigh, third baseman Casey McGehee's knee and center fielder Carlos Gomez's back only cost those players a handful of games, and Marcum missed one start with a stiff shoulder).

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But the setbacks, big and not-so-big, have added up to test the team's positive-thinking manager Ron Roenicke and a fan base eager to return to the postseason.

As for the players? They insist the goals have not changed.

"The team is definitely still really good," Greinke said. "Every team deals with injuries. It's one thing if you're missing half your team, but we're only missing one starter and one or two position players, and all three injuries are short term. It's not anything ridiculous.

"If your team can't get over that, then it's your own fault. So, we should be fine."

Ditto from Yovani Gallardo, who was tabbed for his second consecutive Opening Day start, in the wake of Greinke's injury. He was clear about the Brewers' goal for 2011.

"For us, it's obviously to make the postseason," Gallardo said. "Coming into camp, since Day 1, I think all the guys would agree with me. Yet again, we all know there are other teams in our division thinking the same thing. It's not going to be easy."

Those other teams in the National League Central have handled their own spring issues. Take the Cardinals, who lost perennial Cy Young Award candidate Adam Wainwright for the year to elbow surgery. The defending-champion Reds entered the final week of Spring Training knowing they will be without starters Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey because of shoulder injuries, and unsure about Bronson Arroyo, who has been ill.

When the Brewers get back to full strength, they should be formidable. One of the league's top offensive teams remains intact, and Melvin made some bold moves to bolster a starting rotation that ranked last among NL clubs with a 5.37 ERA in 2009, and improved only marginally in 2010 to 4.65. Only the 105-loss Pirates were worse.

Milwaukee Brewers
Projected Opening Day lineup
1 2B Rickie Weeks
2 CF Carlos Gomez
3 LF Ryan Braun
4 1B Prince Fielder
5 3B Casey McGehee
6 RF Mark Kotsay *
7 SS Yuniesky Betancourt
8 C Wil Nieves
9 RHP Yovani Gallardo
Projected rotation
1 RHP Yovani Gallardo
2 RHP Shaun Marcum
3 LHP Randy Wolf
4 LHP Chris Narveson
Projected bullpen
CL RHP John Axford
SU RHP Takashi Saito
SU LHP Zach Braddock
MI RHP Cameron Loe
MI RHP Brandon Kinzler
MI RHP Sean Green
MI LHP Mitch Stetter
MI RHP Sergio Mitre
*- Replacing Corey Hart (rib-cage muscle)
&- Replacing Jonathan Lucroy (pinkie fracture)
Starting RHP Zach Greinke (cracked rib) is on the DL.
Full 25-man roster | Depth chart

Melvin went to work, and parted with his top position prospect (Brett Lawrie) for Marcum and his two top pitching prospects (Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress), his starting shortstop (Alcides Escobar) and a potential starting center fielder (Lorenzo Cain) for Greinke.

The result was a starting five that suddenly ranked among the best half-dozen or so in baseball. Greinke, Marcum and incumbent Gallardo all started on 2010 Opening Day. Randy Wolf rebounded for the Brewers in the second half and is a steady, veteran No. 4. And teams could do a lot worse than Chris Narveson as a No. 5.

"We've got some big-time guys coming in," Narveson said, "and I think that makes you work even harder and get even more focused coming into spring."

With all of the early spring focus on the Brewers' pitching, the offense seemed often forgotten. But assuming Hart can shake his lingering left rib-cage soreness, the Brewers returned the top five hitters from a 2010 club that ranked fourth in the NL last season in runs and second in homers and total bases.

The keys to a repeat include Weeks staying healthy for a second straight season, Hart shaking off his lost spring, Braun rediscovering his power stroke and Prince Fielder making the most of his contract year. He's due to hit free agency next winter and has millions riding on a more productive 2011.

The Brewers will also have to get production from a lower third of the lineup that includes free-swingers Betancourt and Gomez.

Roenicke expects the offense to be a strength, and he disputed the notion that it's been forgotten amid the hype about Greinke and Co.

"No, it's not being forgotten," Roenicke said. "It's being counted on."

First things first. The Brewers have to get healthy. Then they have to keep up with the rest of the division. Then, who knows?

"It's hard to win a division. It's hard to get into the playoffs," Roenicke said. "Once you get in the playoffs, it's who gets hot, but it's also the pieces you have, pitching-wise. I don't think you can get deep into the postseason without good pitching. I just don't think it can happen.

"If we can get in the playoffs, if we're hot, I just don't think there are any limitations to how far we can play, because of the pitching."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.