Brewers need health on their side in '07

Brewers hope for a healthy New Year in '07

MILWAUKEE -- Good riddance, 2006. Bring on 2007.

The Brewers will look to move on from an injury-riddled 2006, when two-fifths of the starting rotation and three-fourths of the regular infield missed significant time with various ailments. The first step in the Brewers' bounce-back plan is simply getting healthy.

"We're really close right now," ever-optimistic manager Ned Yost said at the Winter Meetings. "We need health. We need J.J. [Hardy] to stay healthy, we need Rickie [Weeks] to stay healthy and we need Benny [Sheets] to stay healthy. The pieces are starting to add up to a pretty nice sum."

The Brewers have added a few new pieces since the end of the season, but the core of the team will return in tact, starting with a pitching staff anchored by Sheets, Chris Capuano and Dave Bush. Francisco Cordero, a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing second half, will be back as the closer, and many of the position players will also return. Hardy (ankle) and Weeks (wrist) are on track to return from surgeries, and the Brewers remain hopeful that third baseman Corey Koskie will be fully recovered from a case of post-concussion syndrome. That trio is expected to start in the infield with first baseman Prince Fielder, who already has a season under his belt and will not turn 23 until May 9.

The outfield will feature some new but familiar faces. The team plans to move 2006 club MVP Bill Hall to one outfield position, and 24-year-old Corey Hart will get his first shot as an everyday player. But the other starting spot remains in limbo, and depends whether general manager Doug Melvin can land the speedy center fielder he's been looking for this winter.

If that search bears no results, a scenario looking more and more likely, Melvin and Yost have plenty of options. Hall could play center field, leaving one corner to Hart and another to Geoff Jenkins or Kevin Mench, two players coming off poor seasons who have been the subject of trade rumors this winter. Club officials seem to be leaning toward using Brady Clark off the bench, but he is another option for center field, as is prospect Tony Gwynn Jr. And don't forget Laynce Nix, acquired with Mench and Cordero from Texas last July, who will be coming off foot surgery.

 Season in Preview
A lot can change by Opening Day, but as 2006 becomes 2007, this is who is projected to take the field for the Brewers:
  LFCorey Hart
  2BRickie Weeks
  1BPrince Fielder
  CFBill Hall
  CJohnny Estrada
  RF Geoff Jenkins/Kevin Mench
  3BCorey Koskie
  SS J.J. Hardy
  SPBen Sheets
  SP Chris Capuano
  SPJeff Suppan
  SP Dave Bush
  SPClaudio Vargas
  CL Francisco Cordero
Schedules: Spring | Regular season
Tickets: Spring | Regular season
More previews:

Before heading to Italy for the holidays, Melvin made another major move. He agreed to terms with free agent Jeff Suppan on the richest contract in franchise history, a deal that guarantees the veteran right-hander $42 million over the next four years and has a club option for a fifth season. The Brewers do not necessarily expect Suppan to win 20 games, but they do hope he is a steadying force in the middle of what could be one of the NL Central's most complete starting rotations.

Earlier in the offseason, Melvin moved to improve the team's offense. He traded reliable starter Doug Davis to Arizona in a deal that netted Johnny Estrada, who is expected to provide an offensive upgrade at catcher, and Claudio Vargas, who will be called on to replace Davis in the rotation. The team also signed free agent Craig Counsell, a Wisconsin native who will start the year as a reserve infielder alongside Tony Graffanino. That combo should give the Brewers a nice lefty-righty combo off the bench that can cover any spot on the infield.

Is this the year that the Brewers finally contend? That remains to be seen, and posting a winning record might be a better place to start. They have not finished a year above .500 since 1992.

Grading on a curve: On a scale of one to 10, give them a 7. Melvin was pleased that he was able to add Estrada and Counsell before a relatively inactive Winter Meetings, and the Suppan signing indicates that the team believes it is very close to contending. But so much of the Brewers' success or lack thereof depends on the players rehabbing injuries, and the status of players like Hardy, Weeks, Koskie and, to some extent, Sheets, will remain unknown until players begin arriving for Spring Training.

Arrivals: Cs J.D. Closser and Johnny Estrada; RHPs Greg Aquino, Grant Balfour, Chris Oxspring, Jeff Suppan and Claudio Vargas; IF Yohannis Perez.

  Departures: IFs David Bell and Jeff Cirillo, RHPs Rick Helling, Dan Kolb and Tomo Ohka.

The road ahead: It seems unlikely that Brady Clark, Jenkins and Mench -- who will combine to earn $14-$15 million in 2007 -- will all be back, but Melvin has made it clear he will wait for the right offer to come along. The team may remain on the lookout for a prototypical leadoff man after missing out earlier this winter on Dave Roberts, and bullpen depth would also help. It is equally likely that Melvin & Co. have finished their offseason shopping and will head into 2007 with some combination of players already on the 40-man roster.

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