Health may be largest factor in Brewers' success

After losing core of lineup to injury in '13, Milwaukee looks to bounce back

Health may be largest factor in Brewers' success

PHOENIX -- To Ryan Braun, it's obvious why last season fell apart for the Milwaukee Brewers, and easy to predict what will determine the team's fate for 2014.

"I think all teams, especially small- and mid-market teams, depend on their good players staying on the field," said Braun. "That's one of the biggest advantages of the big market teams. They have a good player get hurt, and they go out and take on somebody else's $10 million player and it doesn't impact them that much.

"We don't have the luxury to do that. Our biggest key is everybody staying healthy."

That did not happen in 2013, when Braun was compromised by neck and hand injuries long before his season ended in suspension. Aramis Ramirez managed to appear in 92 games, but played on a bum left knee. Corey Hart did not play at all because of surgery on both knees.

The consensus in the clubhouse today is that in order to bounce back in a balanced National League Central, the Brewers will need all hands on deck.

"It was a tough thing last year, man," said catcher Jonathan Lucroy, one of the handful of Brewers who had positive seasons. "I've said this before, it's tough to go to war without all your weapons, especially in our division. In 2011, when we went to the playoffs, we had very few injuries that year, especially to our key players. I think that's the name of the game at this point, because we have a lot of talent in here."

Most of that talent is held over from last year, starting with All-Stars Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura at the top of the batting order. They will be counted on to repeat their breakthrough performances.

Then comes Braun and Ramirez in the middle of the order. They will be counted on to return to 2012 levels of production, when the duo combined for 68 home runs and 217 RBIs.

Lucroy will hit fifth, followed by some order of left fielder Khris Davis, whose late-season surge convinced the Brewers to move Braun to right field, plus a combination of first basemen Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay and second basemen Scooter Gennett and Rickie Weeks.

The pitching staff is also familiar. Big free-agent acquisition Matt Garza joins holdovers Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta. The back end of the bullpen will again be led by Jim Henderson, Brandon Kintzler and Francisco Rodriguez. The most notable newcomer is left-hander Will Smith, acquired from the Royals in December in one of general manager Doug Melvin's few significant moves.

When the organization committed $50 million over four years to Garza in the biggest free agent investment in club history, it signaled that Brewers brass aims to contend in 2014.

"Last year, that wasn't exactly what I saw coming in," said Lohse, who signed with the Brewers because he thought they would be contenders last year. "When you miss the whole middle of your lineup, that's a tough one to grind through. We learned a lot about ourselves the way we played in that second half, and got a lot of young guys some experience that they wouldn't have had if everybody had been healthy. It stunk to go through it, but we got good experience."

With no roster overhaul, and coming off a 74-win season, many will view the Brewers as underdogs. In MLB.com's preview of the NL Central, columnist Phil Rogers picked them fourth.

Lucroy shrugged off that sentiment.

"I think we're always underdogs," he said. "When you're a small-market team, you're never going to be given any credit. I like it that way. I don't like when you have all the hype around you, and then nothing happens. I'd rather have no hype around you and make something happen."

There will be no shortage of hype surrounding Braun, who is back in action after being suspended for the final 65 games of last season for his ties to Biogenesis. He announced his return with a home run in his first Spring Training at-bat, and has spent the ensuing four weeks out of the spotlight.

It will be clear very early in the season how Braun will be received by baseball fans. After opening the season at home against the Braves from March 31-April 2, the Brewers travel to tough venues in Boston and Philadelphia. Later in the month, they go to Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

Manager Ron Roenicke has had a series of conversations with Braun about what lies ahead in those unfriendly environs.

"He knows what he's going to have to go through this year," Roenicke said. "We talked about it in the winter, we talked about it again early here. So he understands."

The crux of the manager's advice?

"Just the basic stuff: Keep thoughts on trying to win ballgames," Roenicke said. "I've never had to go through something like that, so it's hard to say how to react. He has been going through this not just last year, but in different cities he's gone through this so far because of who he is. Whether it's harder because it's every ballpark now, I think the guy is used to just being a great player and being booed."

No less an authority than radio broadcaster Bob Uecker said this spring, "As Ryan goes, so goes this club."

"I feel good about the team," Braun said. "You knock on wood, but hopefully we get to Monday healthy, because that's always one of the biggest keys to Spring Training. There have been so many significant injuries this spring, but we've had just about everybody stay healthy. That's encouraging and exciting."

"I think the expectation is to try to compete to get back to the playoffs. That's our goal. I think it's realistic."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.