PHOENIX -- The Brewers are eager to test an old baseball debate: Can momentum carry from one season to the next?
Even with this week's splashy addition of right-hander Kyle Lohse, Milwaukee will begin the year as underdogs in a division widely expected to be led by the Cincinnati Reds. But the underdog role served the Brewers well late last season. After trading away Zack Greinke on July 27, they were 38-25, the Majors' fifth-best record after that date. From Aug. 20 on, the Brewers and A's tied for baseball's best record at 29-13.
The A's won the American League West and went to the postseason. The Brewers finished third in the National League Central and went home.
"The way we finished shows we have what it takes," closer John Axford said. "It's about having that feel, that the guys in the starting rotation did the job after Greinke was gone. The bullpen came around. The offense came around. And all of that happened just as it began to matter. We weren't folding up, and that's a good thing to take into a new season."
Will that good feeling carry into 2013?
A trio of key players will help decide:
1. Ryan Braun.
The Brewers' best player has also been the best player in the NL over the past two seasons, leading the way in batting average (.326), home runs (74), RBIs (223), runs (217) and slugging percentage (.596). Braun won NL MVP honors in 2011 and finished second to Buster Posey in 2012.
The question for 2013 is where Major League Baseball's investigation into Biogenesis will lead. The league is exploring ties between that South Florida firm and a number of Major League players who appeared in its founder's files, including Braun. After the link was exposed, Braun explained that his lawyers consulted with the firm during Braun's successful appeal of a suspension in the 2011-12 offseason, and that he otherwise did not know Tony Bosch. If MLB investigates and feels otherwise, it could mean trouble for the Brewers.
"I don't think it's really an issue for us," said Brewers left-hander Chris Narveson, the team's union representative. "Ryan has handled it as well as someone possibly could."
Echoed Axford, the team's assistant player rep: "People were worried about that last year, too. The atmosphere is the same, people are talking the same. ... We're his teammates and we're behind him.
"After an MVP season and then what might have been an even better season last year, he's an important part for us."
The Canadian closer was lights-out in 2011, but found trouble in 2012 after his string of 49 consecutive regular-season saves was snapped on May 11 against the Cubs. In June, Axford's ERA was 9.00. In July, he was removed from the closer's role.
"It was hard on both of us," manager Ron Roenicke said. "It's a lot of conversations, it really is. It's knowing their personality, knowing their confidence level. The conversations I had with 'Ax,' with Frankie [Rodriguez, who also struggled in the role], I knew where they were ... and they were able to let me know, 'OK, I'm fine maybe stepping back a little bit, finding it and then getting back into it when I find it.'"
Axford found it late, talking his way back into closer duties and converting 15 consecutive saves to end the season.
Now he's back at the top of a revamped relief corps. The Brewers will count on Jim Henderson to repeat his second-half magic from last season and serve as the setup man. Offseason additions Burke Badenhop, a right-hander, and left-handers Tom Gorzelanny and Michael Gonzalez completed the remodel.
One player does not a starting rotation make, but the late-camp arrival of Lohse did alter the Brewers' outlook. Lohse, 34 and locked into a three-year, $33 million contract, gives the Brewera a steady No. 2 behind Opening Day starter Yovani Gallardo and lessens the pressure on other starters like Narveson and Marco Estrada.
Can Lohse repeat his sensational 2012 season? It will be a challenge, considering he was 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA for the Cardinals. But whether or not Lohse repeats those gaudy numbers, general manager Doug Melvin put it simply on Monday when he said, "We're a better ballclub today than we were yesterday."
Good enough to complete for the division?
"This was very much a target of ours that I saw as a team that would be successful and a team I could help out," Lohse said.
Brewers fans seemed to respond. According to the team, it sells about 7,000 tickets on a typical late-March weekday. On Monday, when the Lohse news broke, fans gobbled up 34,000 tickets.