Then there was the bad news: They slumped horribly in July and August, finished two games behind the Cubs in the division and extended the franchise's postseason drought to 26 seasons.
These guys can hit. The Brewers led the Majors and set a franchise record last season with 231 home runs, and most of the contributors to that total are back. Prince Fielder passed Willie Mays as the youngest player ever to hit 50 homers in a season, and Ryan Braun belted 34 in just 113 games to win NL Rookie of the Year honors. Add Rickie Weeks, Mike Cameron (after his 25-game suspension), Corey Hart, Bill Hall and J.J. Hardy, and the top seven hitters in Milwaukee's lineup should finish with 20-25 home runs, if they stay healthy.
Projected starting lineup
|1. 2B Rickie Weeks|
|2. CF Tony Gwynn, Jr.|
|3. 1B Prince Fielder|
|4. LF Ryan Braun|
|5. RF Corey Hart|
|6. 3B Bill Hall|
|7. SS J.J. Hardy|
|9. C Jason Kendall|
|1. RHP Ben Sheets|
|2. RHP Jeff Suppan|
|3. RHP Dave Bush|
|4. RHP Carlos Villanueva|
|5. LHP Manny Parra|
|Closer: RHP Eric Gagne|
|Setup: RHP Derrick Turnbow|
|Setup: RHP Salomon Torres|
|Setup: LHP Brian Shouse|
|Middle: RHP David Riske|
|Middle: RHP Guillermo Mota|
|Middle: RHP Seth McClung|
Until they prove otherwise, the Brewers' weakness is their defense. Manager Ned Yost made glove work the team's top offseason priority, and the additions of center fielder Cameron and catcher Jason Kendall, plus Braun's move from third base to left field, should help. But the Brewers will probably be a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of defense, and they will have to pitch and hit their way around errors.
You'll know they're rollin' if...
Ben Sheets stays healthy. Is it unfair to pin the hopes of a whole team on one pitcher? Yes. But the numbers over the last two years say that the Brewers are a different team when Sheets is in the rotation. Replacements for an injured Sheets and Tomo Ohka went 6-17 in 2006, and last season the Brewers were 20-33 while Sheets was out with finger and hamstring injuries.
You'll know they're in trouble if...
Braun slumps. Braun had most of his success last season batting third in front of Fielder (.332 average, .379 on-base percentage), and slumped mightily when Yost swapped those players in the lineup (.227 and .277). But Yost plans to hit Fielder third and Braun fourth this season, so the onus is on Braun to be more selective at the plate and prevent opponents from pitching around the dangerous Fielder.
There are no bigger tests for the Brewers than series against the Cubs, their geographical rivals and, beginning last season, their primary competition in the division. The two teams open the regular season at Wrigley Field from March 31-April 3, then reconvene there from April 29-May 1. The Brewers went 6-9 against the Cubs last season, including a crucial late-August meeting at Wrigley in which the Cubs won two of three and widened their division lead.
Besides their usual home-and-home series against the Twins (June 13-15 in Milwaukee and June 27-29 in Minneapolis), the Brewers will face the Orioles, Red Sox and Blue Jays. The Brewers are 4-5 against those teams since joining the NL, and have not faced Baltimore or Boston since an Interleague trip in 2003. It's a tough trip -- the Brewers are 161-228-1 all-time in Baltimore and Boston.
The Bottom Line
The talent is there. The young players are more experienced. Barring a major spate of injuries, there's no excuse for this team not to at least compete for the division again.
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.