Crew goes for cigar in 'all-in' year

Crew goes for cigar in 'all-in' year

MILWAUKEE -- For the first time since 1983, the Brewers will report to Spring Training as defending division champs, coming off the best regular season in franchise history.

The return of pitchers' fielding practice and baserunning drills will mark the end of a strange winter marked by the departure -- as expected -- of slugging first baseman Prince Fielder via free agency and the news -- very unexpected -- that National League MVP Ryan Braun was appealing a suspension under MLB's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.

Just like that, what should have been a celebratory offseason turned sour, with fans lamenting Fielder's loss and wondering for months whether Braun would be on the field for Opening Day. Manager Ron Roenicke instead tried to focus on the positives awaiting his second season and said in no uncertain terms that the Brewers aim to contend again in 2012.

"We love our team," Roenicke told a crowd at "Brewers On Deck," the club's winter fanfest. "We think we had a great year last year, we changed some things, we have some different personnel this year [but] we think we have a great ballclub this year."

The Brewers will face a stiff test to start the season when the world champion Cardinals come to town April 6 to open Miller Park. The Cardinals ousted the Brewers last October in a six-game National League Championship Series.

"We came really close, but we didn't get the cigar," said outfielder Nyjer Morgan.

They're about to get an opportunity to try again.

Pitchers and catchers first workout

Feb. 20

First full squad workout

Feb. 25

First Spring Training game

Home vs. Giants on March 4 -- 1:05 p.m. MT/2:05 p.m. CT

Opening Day

Home vs. Cardinals on April 6 -- 3:10 p.m. CT

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. Is this the "all-in" year?
Some considered the Brewers all-in last season because it was Fielder's final year before free agency, and general manager Doug Melvin indeed made bold trades for starters Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum over the winter and for reliever Francisco Rodriguez in July. But Melvin disputed the "all-in" argument because Fielder was the team's only regular in his final year, and the entire starting rotation was set to return intact. The "all-in" argument is easier to make this time around, with Greinke, Marcum and Randy Wolf all entering their final guaranteed year, closer John Axford on the cusp of arbitration and the payroll pushing past $100 million for the first time in club history.

2. Can Mat Gamel fill Fielder's shoes?
Gamel is the Brewers' answer at first base, a longtime prospect who has always hit in the Minors but has never been given the regular playing time to prove he can play in the big leagues. With Fielder gone to Detroit, this is Gamel's big shot.

3. Will pitching lead the way?
Starting pitching held the Brewers back in Ken Macha's two seasons as manager, but that changed dramatically in 2011 with Roenicke at the helm. Melvin's moves for Greinke and Marcum shored up a staff that featured five double-digit winners, and Rodriguez's arrival essentially gave the Brewers two shutdown closers. All of those players are back for 2012 and in contract years. The Brewers will need solid seasons from all of them to beat the always competitive Cardinals, the re-armed Reds and the improving Pirates in what looks like a compelling NL Central.

2011 record
96-66, first in the NL Central

Projected batting order
1. 2B Rickie Weeks:
  .269 BA, .350 OBP, .468 SLG, 20 HR, 49 RBIs in 2011
2. CF Nyjer Morgan:
  .304 BA, .357 OBP, .421 SLG, 4 HR, 37 RBIs in 2011
3. LF Ryan Braun:
  .332 BA, .397 OBP, .597 SLG, 33 HR, 111 RBIs in 2011
4. 3B Aramis Ramirez:
  .306 BA, .361 OBP, .510 SLG, 26 HR, 93 RBIs in 2011
5. RF Corey Hart:
  .285 BA, .356 OBP, .510 SLG, 26 HR, 63 RBIs in 2011
6. 1B Mat Gamel:
  .310 BA, .372 OBP, .540 SLG, 28 HR, 96 RBIs at Triple-A in 2011
7. SS Alex Gonzalez:
  .241 BA, .270 OBP, .372 SLG, 15 HR, 56 RBIs in 2011
8. C Jonathan Lucroy:
  .265 BA, .313 OBP, .391 SLG, 12 HR, 59 RBIs in 2011

Projected rotation
1. Yovani Gallardo, 17-10, 3.52 ERA, 207 K in 2011
2. Zack Greinke, 16-6, 3.83 ERA, 201 K in 2011
3. Shaun Marcum, 13-7, 3.54 ERA in 2011
4. Randy Wolf, 13-10, 3.69 ERA in 2011
5. Chris Narveson, 11-8, 4.45 ERA in 2011

Projected bullpen
Closer: John Axford, 46/48 saves, 1.95 ERA in 2011
RH setup man: Francisco Rodriguez, 2.64 ERA with Brewers and Mets in 2011
RH setup man: Jose Veras, 3.80 ERA with Pirates in 2011

The new guys
3B Aramis Ramirez: Early in the offseason, Melvin had lunch with Roenicke and asked the manager for the No. 1 item on his wish list. Roenicke replied with, "Cleanup hitter," and the Brewers found one in former Cub Ramirez, a mainstay of the NL Central for parts of 14 seasons. He's been a slow starter in recent years but that may have something to do with the chilly April and May weather at Wrigley Field. Ramirez said he's looking forward to playing in climate-controlled Miller Park.

SS Alex Gonzalez: Only one National Leaguer qualified for the batting title and had a lower on-base percentage than Brewers lightning rod Yuniesky Betancourt: Gonzalez. But he's a much better defender and was available on a one-year deal with an option, so the Brewers pounced at the Winter Meetings.

OF Norichika Aoki: The Brewers do not scout in the Far East but posted a surprise winning bid for Aoki, a three-time batting champion in Japan, then signed him to a two-year deal in January. Club officials say they won't determine Aoki's role on the team until they see him play in Spring Training.

RHP Jose Veras: Acquired from the Pirates for third baseman Casey McGehee, Veras will help fill an important role as a bridge between the starting rotation and Rodriguez and Axford in the bullpen. The Brewers were all but automatic in the seventh inning during the second half of 2011 with Takashi Saito and LaTroy Hawkins, so Veras has some big shoes to fill.

Prospects to watch
RHP Wily Peralta: The big righty flopped last spring in a tryout for the big league starting rotation but had an excellent year in the Minors, going  11-7 with a 3.17 ERA between Double-A Huntsville and Triple-A Nashville. He's widely considered the Brewers' top prospect.

"All players, with a very rare exception, have to learn in the big leagues, and Wily's right there to take that step," Brewers farm director Reid Nichols said. "If we have a need and he's performing or if you need somebody to start tomorrow, it could be him. He will have to perform to get the shot, but I think he's ready."

RHPs Taylor Jungmann and Jed Bradley: It may be unfair to lump them together, but we'll do it anyway. Both are power pitchers -- Jungmann a right-hander and Bradley a lefty -- picked by the Brewers in the first round of last year's Draft. Both came out of college and should move fast. MLB.com rated Bradley the Brewers' second-best prospect and Jungmann third. But fans will have to be patient, since both signed too late last summer to join a Minor League affiliate.

3B Taylor Green: Green hit .336 in the Minors last season with 22 home runs and 91 RBIs, then finished last year in the big leagues. He appears blocked for now by Ramirez at third, but could wind up playing some first base in 2012 or even some outfield if the Brewers have a need.

On the rebound
2B Rickie Weeks: He's coming back from a major left ankle injury and said at the end of January that he still was not 100 percent. The Brewers hope he gets there quickly, because Weeks was a force at the start of last season, ranking second in the NL with 71 runs scored and third on the team with 19 home runs when he was injured running to first base in late July. His 3.9 WAR (wins above average) made Weeks the most valuable second baseman in the NL at that time, according to Fangraphs.com.

LHP Zach Braddock: Some off the field issues, starting with a sleep disorder, derailed Braddock's 2011 season, but he is still just 24 and has a power arm. He could be a dominant reliever if he puts it together.

RHP Shaun Marcum: For five months, Marcum may have been Milwaukee's most stable starter, but he faded badly in September and in the postseason. Marcum told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel last month that he tweaked his delivery in the offseason in an effort to stay stronger all the way through. It's a big year for him because, like Greinke, he's due to reach free agency in October.

Long gone
1B Prince Fielder: Fielder was a three-time All-Star, he finished in the top four in NL MVP balloting three times and he bashed 230 home runs, second in Brewers history to Hall of Famer Robin Yount. Fielder is also the Brewers' all-time leader with a .390 on-base percentage, ranks second (to longtime teammate Braun) with a .540 slugging percentage and third with 566 walks. He's sixth in club history with 656 RBIs, though every member of the top five played at least 150 games more in a Brewers uniform than Fielder's 998.

And now he's gone.

"He's been our franchise," said Hart. "He's a star. He's a game-changer. Having him made our team scary."

3B Casey McGehee: The affable former Cub led the Brewers with 104 RBIs in 2010 but struggled throughout the 2011 season, eventually losing starting duties at third base to midseason pick-up Jerry Hairston Jr. The Brewers swapped him for Veras immediately after signing Ramirez.

RPs LaTroy Hawkins and Takashi Saito: The Brewers had some talks with representatives for both players but were hung-up by Rodriguez's decision to accept arbitration. Hawkins landed with the Angels and Saito with the D-backs.

IF Jerry Hairston Jr.: Melvin wanted to re-sign Hairston, who essentially can play anywhere on the diamond. But the Dodgers were willing to offer a two-year deal that the Brewers couldn't match.

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.