MILWAUKEE -- What a difference a year has made for Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun.
"This is nice," Braun said, with the sort of laugh that was absent at this time last year. "It's relaxing."
Braun was anything but relaxed as the calendar flipped to February a year ago, when he was staring down the barrel of a 50-game suspension. He'd spent all winter fighting back following an ESPN.com report in mid-December 2011 linking him to a failed a drug test during the postseason, and he skipped the Brewers' late-January fanfest because an appeal was still ongoing.
It was not until Feb. 23, the day Brewers position players reported to Spring Training, that Braun's fate was sealed, when a three-member arbitration panel ruled in his favor and overturned the suspension.
This offseason, there has been no such drama.
"It's definitely a lot different for me," Braun said. "It's just nice to have a regular offseason, a regular routine, know exactly what I'm getting myself into. Most of all, it's a lot more relaxing."
Business as usual for Braun means he attended "Brewers On Deck," which drew nearly 12,000 fans to Milwaukee's downtown convention center on Jan. 27. Last year, the event was dominated by questions about Braun's uncertain status and the departure of free-agent slugger Prince Fielder; this year, pitching was the primary topic.
That is mostly because an offense that led the National League in runs and home runs is returning intact, led by Braun, who shook off his tumultuous offseason and batted .319 with 41 home runs and 112 RBIs. He led the NL in runs and homers, and finished second in NL Most Valuable Player Award balloting to the Giants' Buster Posey.
"When Ryan's healthy, Ryan can have a better year than last year or the one before. He can," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "We need to keep him on the field and keep him healthy.
"But if he wants to hit for power, he's going to hit for power. If he wants to hit for average, he's going to hit for average. There's not much he can't do."
Braun has hit at least 25 home runs in each of his six seasons and driven in at least 100 in each of the last five years. His goals now are more nuanced.
"I think the challenge is always longevity and consistency," Braun said. "Hopefully, I continue to have success. There's always room for improvement. Defense is something I've always prioritized and tried to get better at; I think I'm headed in the right direction."
"It would be really good if I could walk more than I strike out," said Braun. "I don't know that that's going to happen. But if I could do that, it would be really cool."
The Brewers' first full-squad workout is Feb. 16, and Braun expects to depart around March 1 to join Team USA for the World Baseball Classic. He will not go far; the Americans are in Pool D with Canada, Mexico and Italy, and play first-round games in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Ariz.
With the Classic in mind, Braun started preparing for the season "way earlier," long tossing in November and hitting before Christmas. Braun works out during the offseason at Pepperdine University, the picturesque seaside campus near his Malibu, Calif. home.
"I don't know that I'll be that much more ahead," Braun said. "I just hope I've built myself up to the point where I'll be ready to play a few more innings. Other than that, it's not too much different from where I'm normally at."
Has he spent time analyzing Team USA's chances?
"I like our chances," Braun said. "On paper, we certainly have a great team. Obviously, it's challenging for us in that it's a little earlier than guys are in their best shape. We're obviously not in midseason form at the beginning of the season. But I know everybody is really fired up to play."
Then, it's back to work for the Brewers, who will try to compete in the NL Central with a solid offense, a rebuilt bullpen but a mostly unproven starting rotation.
"It's a different feeling," Braun said, "but I'm excited."