PHOENIX -- So long, polar vortex. Hello, pitchers and catchers.
While Wisconsin continues to weather the winter, Phoenix is in the midst of a heat wave, with the high temperature pushing above 85 degrees when Brewers pitchers and catchers formally reported Saturday for the start of Spring Training. After undergoing physical exams on Sunday, the group will gather at Maryvale Baseball Park first thing Monday morning for the first official workout of the 46th season in franchise history, and the Brewers' 45th season in Milwaukee.
"I've pitched against [the Brewers], I know what they can bring," said right-hander Matt Garza, Milwaukee's most notable newcomer. "I know what type of threat a healthy [Ryan] Braun and a healthy [Aramis] Ramirez is. It's going to be an exciting year for us. We've got a great rotation, we'll have a solid bullpen and I think we'll put up runs."
That sense of optimism permeated Brewers On Deck, the team's annual fanfest in late January, but even manager Ron Roenicke concedes that many observers will view the Brewers as underdogs in a tough National League Central. Last year, sunk by a 6-22 month of May and Braun's suspension beginning in July, the Brewers ran fourth behind the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds.
If the Brewers are to climb up the standings, they will probably need good health from Garza, whose four-year contract guarantees $50 million and is the richest free agent deal in franchise history. Braun will have to return to form after a disastrous 2013. Ramirez will need to avoid the knee woes that hobbled him all year and return to being a run producer in the cleanup hole. And Jim Henderson will have to prove he can handle closer duties over a full season.
"I don't worry a lot about preseason rankings," said catcher Jonathan Lucroy. "We know those teams are all good but we're going to be good, too. I'm excited about it and I really don't care about the rankings at the beginning of the season, because it's the end of the season that counts."
All of the Brewers' pitchers and catchers are expected in the Phoenix area on Saturday, with two exceptions. Reliever Francisco Rodriguez, who just signed a one-year deal with the Brewers last week, will be delayed 7-10 days while awaiting his work visa, general manager Doug Melvin said. And left-hander Miguel de los Santos remains on the restricted list while Major League Baseball investigates questions about his identity, and is not expected to be part of the Brewers' plans for the foreseeable future, according to Melvin.
The Brewers' exhibition debut is March 27 on the road against the A's, and the Maryvale opener is Saturday, March 1, a split-squad game against the D-backs. For the first time, all of the Brewers' home Cactus League games will be televised on FS Wisconsin as part of a Spring Training broadcast schedule that also includes radio broadcasts on the statewide Brewers Radio Network, and webcasts on Brewers.com.
Tickets for games at Maryvale Baseball Park are on sale now at brewers.com/springtraining.
Here are some of the storylines expected to carry the Brewers' spring:
First base: Juan Francisco is back after a so-so Brewers debut that saw him hit 13 home runs in 240 at-bats after a trade from Atlanta, but also strike out 95 times. He is still just 26 and the Brewers love his power potential, but to avoid another year being shorthanded at the position, the team picked up veterans Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay on Minor League contracts. Reynolds appears to be the clear frontrunner to start Opening Day, but the Brewers will use Spring Training to evaluate all options.
Second base: Rickie Weeks is the $11 million incumbent, but he is coming off a hamstring injury that created opportunity for 23-year-old Scooter Gennett, who capitalized by batting .324 in 69 games. Roenicke said at the Winter Meetings that the everyday job was Gennett's -- "To say, 'Scooter, you're on the bench and Rickie is our everyday guy right now,' I don't think that's real fair to Scooter," Roenicke said -- but that stance has since softened a bit. Perhaps the Brewers will try a loose platoon. Perhaps they will find a team willing to trade for Weeks.
Bullpen roles: Henderson, Brandon Kintzler, Rodriguez and Will Smith are good bets to fill key bullpen jobs, and Tom Gorzelanny will join them if his shoulder is 100 percent by Opening Day. That leaves two openings and many interesting arms, from Rule 5 pick Wei-Chung Wang, who has never pitched above Rookie ball, to veteran non-roster invitee Zach Duke to returning players like Rob Wooten, Michael Blazek, Alfredo Figaro and others. Assuming the projected starters stay healthy, would the Brewers consider putting a prospect like Tyler Thornburg in the 'pen? Stay tuned for answers.
Playing time: Roenicke and Melvin have spoken this winter about the need to avoid the sort of early season slump that marred last May. That could mean more playing time for certain players, and a more laser-like focus on fundamentals. It will be interesting to see whether Roenicke and his coaches bring anything new to the age-old routine of Spring Training.
Braun: He has made a series of public apologies and done his time, but how will Braun be embraced by Brewers teammates? How will he be treated by opposing pitchers? Those matters figure to follow the Brewers all season.