PHOENIX -- A handful of fans still lingered glumly in the rapidly emptying seating bowl at Miller Park last October, the sting from the Brewers' season-ending loss to the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series so fresh, when down below, players in a quiet clubhouse were already setting their sights on the season ahead. Yes, Prince Fielder would probably be gone. But those players all pointed to one big positive that awaited them in 2012: A quality starting rotation set to return intact. "Our pitching was the difference, and we're excited that they're all going to be back," right fielder Corey Hart said that October night. "We'll have 95 percent of our team back next year, and I'm sure [general manager] Doug [Melvin] will do what he always does, and go out and find guys that fit in. I don't expect us to be anything less than we were [in 2011]. Hopefully, the experience will make us better."
Hart was repeating a sentiment aired by Randy Wolf, who spoke in a brief team meeting after the Brewers' season-ending loss. He's one of the five returning starters, along with fellow left-hander Chris Narveson and the Brewers' big three: right-handers Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum. The "sixth starter," Marco Estrada, is back, too. He was not even in big league Spring Training camp at this time last year but wound up filling in admirably while Greinke started the season on the disabled list. And the Brewers have another fall back option in top prospect Wily Peralta, a moose of a right-hander who had a breakthrough Minor League season in 2011 after struggling in Spring Training. Given the offensive challenge awaiting the Fielder-less Brewers, especially if NL MVP Ryan Braun starts the season serving a 50-game suspension, the deep starting rotation will be key to the club's chances to repeat as division champs. "We're going to be a good team next year," Wolf predicted in October, when Fielder's future was uncertain and Braun's potential suspension could never have been envisioned. That time has come, with Brewers pitchers and catchers set for their first Spring Training workout on Monday morning at Maryvale Baseball Park. The day will begin with an address by Brewers manager Ron Roenicke, though he'll save his best material for Saturday, when the full squad will assemble. The Brewers' resurgence over the past decade has mostly been built on bats; home-grown hitters from Hart (selected in the 2000 First-Year Player Draft) to Fielder (2002), Rickie Weeks (2003) and Braun (2005). The team has had less luck advancing pitchers to the Major Leagues -- Gallardo representing the most glaring exception -- so Melvin has assembled pitching by other means. The current rotation is an example. Gallardo was a second-round Draft pick in 2004, Greinke and Marcum came in December '10 trades, Wolf was the team's big free-agent pickup at the '09 Winter Meetings and Narveson had pitched in only five big league games when he was signed as a free agent in December '07. Estrada was a waiver wire pickup in 2010, and Peralta was signed as a 17-year-old free agent out of the Dominican Republic in '05. All of a sudden, the Brewers have some pitching depth. The starters combined for a 3.78 ERA last season, sixth in the NL. Gallardo, Greinke, Marcum, Wolf and Narveson all logged at least 10 wins, the first time since the team's 1982 World Series run that five Brewers starters reached double digits. They also combined to make all but seven of the team's 162 starts -- Estrada pitched those other games. The Brewers were the only team in baseball to employ as few as six starters. "We said in past years when we were having trouble with pitching, 'God, I wish we had pitching,'" principal owner Mark Attanasio said. "Now we have pitching, this unbelievably strong foundation, and we still have a good offensive club. Obviously, losing Prince Fielder is a big loss. ... But we have a lot of depth, and that is encouraging." Another era of change could be on deck. Gallardo is signed through at least 2014, thanks to a $30.1 million extension struck with the Brewers in April 2010. But Greinke and Marcum are on track to be free agents after this season, and Wolf will join them if the Brewers do not exercise his $10 million option for 2013. Narveson is still Brewers property, but will become much more expensive next winter because he's arbitration-eligible for the first time. The Brewers would surely like to extend Greinke beyond 2012 given the high price they paid for him, shipping four promising youngsters to the Royals, including top pitching prospects Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi. But at last check, Greinke was working without an agent, lessening the chances of a deal. The same may be true for Marcum, who cost top hitting prospect Brett Lawrie in a deal with the Blue Jays, though there have been no signs of talks to that end so far. Melvin prefers to limit contract talks to Spring Training, allowing players to focus solely on baseball once the regular season begins. "It's huge having all of our guys back," closer John Axford said. "We've got some key guys coming back in the bullpen, too, but we had six starters make all of our starts last year, and it's unbelievable to think that all of them are back. Everyone is really close, and that's a great thing."