MILWAUKEE -- Last year, the Brewers reported to Spring Training with a "division crown or bust" mentality, and why not? They had won the National League Central the previous season with a franchise-record 96 wins, and were returning a pitching staff almost entirely intact.
This year, it will be different. Three key starting pitchers are gone and another is coming back from major shoulder surgery. Four key relievers were let go. Pundits are already calling the Brewers a third-place team at best.
Yet Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, entering his 11th season atop the team's front office depth chart, is preaching optimism.
"I'm always an optimistic person," Melvin said. "I always feel that you have a chance, or you wouldn't be doing this. Obviously, Cincinnati and St. Louis have very good clubs and they're probably more experienced, but we're still a very good ballclub. We were in the pennant race until Game 159 last year and we led the National league in runs scored. This club is still capable of getting to postseason."
Whether this club makes it that far will probably depend on its starting pitching, a group still led by right-hander Yovani Gallardo but with far less certainty in the other four spots. Right-hander Marco Estrada, who had nine big league starts before starting 23 games for the Brewers last season, is viewed as the club's No. 2 starter. Left-hander Chris Narveson is coming back from shoulder surgery. And young right-handers Wily Peralta, Mike Fiers and Mark Rogers will try to break through.
"Look, we had guys go down in the late part of last season and we went on that run with the young guys," catcher Jonathan Lucroy said. "I don't see why we can't do it again. Why can't we?"
The starting pitching is not the team's only issue. There's the rebuilt bullpen, and uncertainty at first base after Corey Hart was lost for at least the first month of the season to a knee injury. There will be holes created by the World Baseball Classic, which will claim the team's best player -- Ryan Braun -- both of its catchers, its top two starting pitchers and two of its key relievers.
Melvin remained bullish.
"Spring Training will be an opportunity to get a look at a lot of different guys," Melvin said.
Pitchers and catchers report
February 12 for pitchers and catchers with less than three years of Major League service time; February 15 for all others.
Full squad reports
First Spring Training game
Home vs. Athletics, Feb. 23 at 2:05 p.m. CT.
Home vs. Rockies, April 1 at 1:10 p.m. CT.
Triple play: Three questions that need answers
1. What will happen to Braun?
Another year, another dose of controversy for the left fielder, who owned up to a business relationship with Tony Bosch, the head of a now-defunct clinic which reportedly supplied banned substances to players. Braun said that his only tie to Bosch was financial in nature -- a dispute over fees owed Bosch after Braun's lawyers consulted with him during Braun's 2011-12 appeal of a suspension. Braun said he would participate in Major League Baseball's investigation. Considering he's also slated to play in the Classic, it will be a busy spring.
2. Can the 2013 Brewers be the '12 Oakland A's?
The upstart A's shocked the Angels and Rangers in the American League West last season with a slew of rookie pitchers. Now the Brewers are poised to attempt the same. They made a strong play for free agent right-hander Ryan Dempster but he chose Boston instead, leaving Melvin with a choice: Overpay for another free agent, or give the young guys a shot? He chose the latter.
3. Is the bullpen better?
The Brewers finished last season with a Major League-worst 4.66 relief ERA and 29 blown saves. The blown saves were a franchise record. So Melvin broke the group apart, parting ways with four pitchers (Francisco Rodriguez, Jose Veras, Kameron Loe and Manny Parra) who combined for 282 appearances. Manager Ron Roenicke will count on Jim Henderson in the eighth inning, and on newcomers Burke Badenhop, Tom Gorzelanny and Michael Gonzalez to pitch as well as they did in 2012.
83-79, third place in the NL Central
Projected batting order
1. RF Norichika Aoki:
.288 BA, .355 OBP, .433 SLG, 10 HR, 30 SB in 2012
2. 2B Rickie Weeks:
.230 BA, .328 OBP, .400 SLG, 21 HR, 63 RBI in 2012
3. LF Ryan Braun:
.319 BA, .391 OBP, .595 SLG, 41 HR, 112 RBI, 30 SB in 2012
4. 3B Aramis Ramirez:
.300 BA, .360 OBP, .540 SLG, 27 HR, 105 RBI in 2012
5. C Jonathan Lucroy:
.320 BA, .368 OBP, .513 SLG, 12 HR, 58 RBI in 2012
6. 1B Mat Gamel:
.246 BA, .293 OBP, .348 SLG in 21 G in 2012
7. CF Carlos Gomez:
.260 BA, .305 OBP, .463 SLG, 19 HR, 51 RBI, 37 SB in 2012
8. SS Jean Segura:
.264 BA, .321 OBP, .331 SLG, 14 RBI in 44 G in 2012
1. Yovani Gallardo, 16-9, 3.66 ERA in 2012
2. Marco Estrada, 5-7, 3.64 ERA in 2012
3. Wily Peralta, 2-1, 2.48 ERA in six appearances 2012
4. Chris Narveson, 1-1, 7.00 ERA in two starts in 2012 before knee injury
5a. Mike Fiers, 9-10, 3.74 ERA in 2012
5b. Mark Rogers, 3-1, 3.92 ERA in seven starts in 2012
The new guys
RPs Badenhop, Gonzalez, Gorzelanny: Badenhop is a sinkerballer like Loe who will probably be matched against right-handed hitters, and Gorzelanny and Gonzalez give Roenicke the sort of lefty-on-lefty possibilities he lacked in his first two seasons as manager. Bullpens are notoriously difficult to predict, but the Brewers believe they have upgraded here.
RP Johnny Hellweg: Shortstop Jean Segura was considered the centerpiece of the July trade that sent Zack Greinke to the Angels, but Hellweg could have just as much impact. The 6-foot-9 right-hander posted a 2.70 ERA in seven late-season appearances for Double-A Huntsville and will get a good, long look from Brewers coaches this spring. He could be future closer material.
Prospects to watch
1B Hunter Morris: The Brewers' reigning Minor League player of the year will try to build on a breakthrough 2012 in which he batted .303 with 28 home runs and 113 RBIs at Huntsville. He will probably start the season at Triple-A Nashville, but will first get plenty of reps in Spring Training as Hart recovers from knee surgery and Gamel eases back into action.
OF Logan Schafer: No one stands to benefit more from Nyjer Morgan's departure than Schafer, a .294 hitter over parts of five Minor League seasons who appears pegged for the fourth outfielder role. Schafer is an excellent defender and a left-handed foil to the right-handed Gomez, the starting center fielder.
RHPs Tyler Thornburg and Hiram Burgos: Consider them the Brewers' Plan B's in the event of starting rotation troubles. Thornborg was bounced around during 2012 and could benefit from some stability in 2013. Burgos was the Brewers' Minor League pitcher of the year.
On the rebound
Gamel and SS Alex Gonzalez: You rarely see ACL tears in baseball, but the Brewers lost two members of their Opening Day lineup to that injury on a single road trip. Both Gamel and Gonzalez will have to play their way back into the regular lineup, though Gamel will get a shot at the start of the season at first base in the wake of Hart's own knee injury.
Narveson: He's relatively experienced and he's left-handed, two factors that will boost Narveson in his bid for a spot in the starting rotation. The question is how his surgically-repaired shoulder will respond.
Axford: Axford's comeback began in the second half of 2012, when he reclaimed the closer's role and logged 13 saves in September. He will aim to build on that success as the anchor of Milwaukee's rebuilt bullpen.
Braun: He also played for Team USA in 2009, and jumped at the opportunity to play again.
Gallardo and Estrada: No, it's not ideal that the Brewers' top two starting pitchers are leaving for the Classic. But Gallardo in particular wanted to play badly after sitting out '09 because he was coming back from a knee injury.
Lucroy and Martin Maldonado: No, it's not ideal that the Brewers' top two catchers are leaving for the Classic, too. Lucroy will play for the U.S. and Maldonado for Puerto Rico.
Gomez: The speedster will play for the Dominican Republic.
Team Canada: Melvin and assistant GM Gord Ash are both Canadian, so it makes sense that Milwaukee would supply five players: Relievers Axford and Henderson, infielder Taylor Green, Minor League pitcher Nick Bucci and outfielder Rene Tosoni.
The rest: Burgos will join Maldonado with Team Puerto Rico and infielder Jeff Bianchi is on Team Italy. Minor Leaguers Hainley Statia (Netherlands) and Mike Walker (Australia) will also play.
The starters: Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf are all gone, leaving the Brewers to go young in the starting rotation. That trio combined for 66 of the team's 162 starts in 2012, as well as 94 regular-season starts in 2011.
The relievers: Last year's Opening Day bullpen included Axford, Estrada, Loe, Parra, Rodriguez, Tim Dillard and Jose Veras. Axford is back, but Estrada moved to the rotation and Dillard, Loe, Parra, Rodriguez and Veras are all gone.
Nyjer Morgan: Morgan led the 2011 Brewers in energy and alter egos, but never found a foothold in 2012. The Brewers let him go soon after the season, and Morgan wound up signing to play in Japan.