MILWAUKEE -- Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun had a big smile on his face before Friday's season opener, eager to put a tumultuous winter behind him and to see if his team is as good as he believes it is.
Asked whether he had extra incentive on this
Opening Day, Braun said with a smile, "Of course. Come on, of course."
Braun is the defending National League MVP, an award he'll receive on the field at Miller Park on April 22. He spent much of his winter mounting a successful appeal of a suspension under Major League Baseball's Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.
A three-member special panel ruled in Braun's favor just before Brewers position players reported for Spring Training.
"It's not so much about proving anybody wrong as it is about proving the people who all believed in me and supported me right," Braun said. "I'm definitely excited. Very motivated."
Manager Ron Roenicke has been talking with Braun throughout the spring about potential challenges ahead. The Brewers opened their season in friendly territory, but they will travel next week to Chicago and Atlanta, where the reception may not be as nice.
"Right now, he's in a really good place," Roenicke said. "The first couple weeks of spring were a little difficult, but he's back to the guy he was that I saw last year. He's very confident. He knows he had a tough offseason, mentally, and I think he's in that place right now where his focus is on having another repeat year, even better. That's hard to believe, but it's how he talks."
Braun believes the Brewers are better in 2012 than they were last season, when they set a franchise record with 96 wins in the regular season and beat the D-backs in the NL Division Series. The Brewers fell in the NL Championship Series to the eventual World Series champion Cardinals, who returned Friday as Milwaukee's Opening Day opponent.
"I think our bullpen is stronger," Braun said. "We have Zack Greinke healthy all year. I think we've gotten better defensively. I really believe this is the best team I've been a part of so far."
Life without Prince Fielder, Braun said, "is really not that much different. The biggest difference will be offensively. You don't instantly replace a guy who's one of the best offensive players in baseball. ... But we all recognized his impending free agency, and the reality that if he reached free agency, the likelihood of him re-signing here was very small."