Brewers dismiss doubters, eye Central repeat

Brewers dismiss doubters, eye Central repeat

PHOENIX -- The Brewers have their entire pitching staff back, and five of their eight positional starters from a team that won a franchise-record 96 regular-season games and the National League Central.

Yet they enter the season as underdogs. Most national prognosticators like the Cardinals, the defending World Series champions, even without Albert Pujols. Or the Reds and their retooled pitching staff. The Brewers appear a solid third.

Perhaps that has something to do with Prince Fielder wearing a Tigers uniform these days.

"That's what it is," said Milwaukee left-hander Randy Wolf. "That's all it is."

Fielder does leave a big hole on the stat sheet: Two hundred home runs in six seasons and change with the Brewers, plus 656 RBIs. A trio of top-four finishes in NL MVP balloting. A fixture in the cleanup spot and at first base.

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But while Fielder gets ready for life in the American League, the Brewers enter life without him expecting to contend. General manager Doug Melvin replaced Fielder in the lineup with NL Central lifer Aramis Ramirez, the former Pirates and Cubs third baseman. Replacing Fielder at first base is Mat Gamel, the 26-year-old longtime prospect.

Together, the Brewers argue they could get equal or better production from their corner infielders than they received last season, when third baseman Casey McGehee struggled. They could also improve defensively at those positions, and at shortstop, where Alex Gonzalez takes over for Yuniesky Betancourt.

An improved defense would benefit the pitching staff, with all five starters returning including Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum in contract years. Closer John Axford is coming off a club-record 46 saves, and Francisco Rodriguez returns as baseball's most accomplished setup man.

At least that's the thinking. Whether the formula works will be determined over 162 regular season games, and the Cardinals and Reds and the rest of the NL Central will have their own say.

"I think our team's a pretty good, all-around team," said Greinke, the straight-shooting starter. "We don't have the best pitching staff in baseball, the best bullpen in baseball. We don't have the best anything, but we're solid at everything.

"Our defense is solid; better than last year, I think. Our offense is solid; maybe about the same as last year. We'll see. Everything is slightly above average, across the board, and that's our strength, I think. Nothing's going to carry us, I think."

There are several keys to the Brewers' offseason makeover.

On the pitching side, it could be Jose Veras, the mountainous right-hander acquired from the Pirates for McGehee. He comes off a career year (3.80 ERA, career-high 79 appearances, 27 holds) to fill a seventh-inning role handled capably in the second half of 2011 by veterans LaTroy Hawkins and Takashi Saito. Veras will be the primary bridge from the Brewers' solid rotation to Rodriguez and Axford.

On the offensive side, eyes are on NL MVP Ryan Braun, who is bidding to bounce back from a winter spent beating a drug suspension. His success may depend partly on the hitter behind him, Ramirez, who will not be Fielder, but will be counted on to produce.

Ramirez has batted .300 or better in six seasons, has topped 90 RBIs eight times and 25 or more home runs nine times. The Brewers focused on him early in the offseason and signed Ramirez to a three-year deal.

"They've got the key, and that's pitching," Ramirez said of his decision to sign. "They've got five solid starters."

Greinke sees the Brewers at least seven starters deep. Yovani Gallardo, Greinke, Wolf, Shaun Marcum and Chris Narveson are all back, as is swingman Marco Estrada. The seventh arm is top prospect Wily Peralta, who floundered in 2011 Spring Training, but responded by going 11-7 with a 3.17 ERA between Double-A Huntsville and Triple-A Nashville.

"I think our pitching is good enough to [overcome an offensive dip], and I think defensively, we'll save some more runs," Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke said. "It's not so much how many you drive in, you just have to score more than they do."

And the offense?

"I think it's basically what we had last year, but we're more solid in the fifth spot if Corey [Hart] is going to be there," Roenicke said. "You subtract Prince from it, but add Aramis, which I like. I like what Aramis is doing.

"We're not going to replace Prince. But there are other things we can do to make up for the loss of what we [got] from him. Aramis is a very good hitter. I really like him in the fourth spot. But it's not fair to say, 'Well, he's got to his 40-some homers.' He's not that guy."

Will he be enough, considering the Brewers' other pieces? The prognosticators don't seem to think so.

By October, we'll know if they were right to focus on Fielder.

"They shouldn't," outfielder Nyjer Morgan said. "But it's all good. We'll fly under the radar at 9,999 feet. We'll go undercover and do what we're supposed to do. We have a solid unit."

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.