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Brewers banking on young hurlers to step up

MILWAUKEE -- The new calendar means a new start for the Brewers, who face their share of challenges in the year ahead. Here are 10 questions that will help define the coming season:

1. Which moves are yet to come?

Until late December, the Brewers subtracted much more than they added, parting ways with relievers Kameron Loe, Manny Parra, Francisco Rodriguez and Jose Veras, plus outfielder Nyjer Morgan and bench specialist Travis Ishikawa. But December brought bullpen additions starting with a trade for Burke Badenhop, a sinkerballer who steps in for Loe, and ending with free agent agreements with left-handers Tom Gorzelanny and Mike Gonzalez.

So, what does general manager Doug Melvin have up his sleeve for the remaining six weeks of the offseason? The bullpen looks set, though it's possible the Brewers will make some depth additions to the pitching staff or the bench. An addition to the starting rotation might take a trade, and Corey Hart has some value entering the final year of his contract, though Melvin has expressed skepticism about trades because they fill one hole but create another.

2. How much will they spend?

Principal owner Mark Attanasio made very clear on 2012 Opening Day that the team's nine-figure payroll was unsustainable under current conditions in baseball's smallest media market. And true to those concerns, the Brewers are bringing payroll down for 2013. The question is how low it will go. Melvin mentioned $80 million in a pre-Winter Meetings interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which would mark a decrease of more than 20 percent.

3. Can the kids pitch?

Melvin himself raised this question two days after the season finale, noting that the Oakland A's won the American League West while using 12 rookie pitchers, including all five members of their season-ending starting rotation. Rookies started 101 of the A's 162 games, and the team won 94 times.

"Do all of us have the nerve to do that?" Melvin asked. "Do we have the patience to do that?"

It appears so. With Dempster off the board, Melvin indicated the Brewers would not pursue any of the other notable free-agent starting pitchers, meaning he is content to enter the season with Yovani Gallardo plus some combination of Marco Estrada, Chris Narveson (assuming he's fully recovered from shoulder surgery), Wily Peralta, Mark Rogers and Mike Fiers, with Tyler Thornburg and Hiram Burgos also in the mix for big league jobs. Considering the Brewers view themselves as contenders rather than rebuilders, it's a risky proposition.

On the other hand, if those young arms succeed, it's an opportunity to prove the worth of the team's development system.

4. Is the bullpen good enough?

There's no getting around it: The Brewers fell out of contention in 2012 because of their leaky bullpen. So they broke things down to the studs and set out to remodel, parting with Loe, Parra, Rodriguez and Veras. Closer John Axford is back, this time earning a hefty paycheck because he's arbitration-eligible, and 2012 midseason additions Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler will be counted on to contribute. Badenhop, Gorzelanny and Gonzalez will help bridge the gap from the rotation to the back end of the bullpen. Prospects like Johnny Hellweg and Michael Olmsted will get a look. Josh Stinson has a shot to be the long man. The starters who don't make the Opening Day rotation could be called into relief duty.

Even with their December additions, it is difficult to argue that the Brewers are in better shape than they were at this time last year, when Milwaukee relievers were coming off their sensational finish to 2011.

5. Can the offense repeat?

The Brewers lost Prince Fielder and were better on offense, leading the National League in runs, home runs and stolen bases. So much for all of the consternation about Fielder bolting for Detroit.

Now, can they do it again? Like last year, when Melvin had a pitching staff returning intact and could focus on the offense (third baseman Aramis Ramirez, shortstop Alex Gonzalez and outfielder Norichika Aoki were among his additions), this year the Brewers have an offense returning intact so they can focus on pitching. Considering the question marks swirling around the 2013 pitching staff, it will probably be on the hitters to carry this team.

6. What is Hart's future?

The longest-tenured player in the organization has made clear he wants to stay, but Hart, who moved from right field to first base last season, is entering the final year of his contract and so far there has been little evidence of the Brewers and agent Jeff Berry moving toward an extension. At the same time, the Brewers have their 2012 Minor League Player of the Year, Hunter Morris, slated to man first base at Triple-A Nashville.

It's a tough call for the Brewers and for Hart, considering the big money spent this winter on free-agent hitters, especially outfielders. B.J. Upton signed for five years and $75.25 million with Atlanta, Shane Victorino landed three years and $39 million from the Red Sox and Angel Pagan got four years and $40 million from the Giants.

Hart communicated to the Brewers last season that he is willing to play either first base or right field, so that versatility helps. So does his open desire to stay. Expect this matter to be raised during Spring Training.

7.Which Weeks will show up?

Manager Ron Roencike stuck with Rickie Weeks through the player's early-season slump, perhaps because he knows firsthand the effect of a major ankle injury. Roenicke suffered one as a rookie in 1981 and Weeks his own in 2011, and by the end of the season, Weeks could finally admit that the injury affected his swing. He hit .199 and slugged .343 before the All-Star break and .261/.467 after. He hit eight home runs in the season's final month. Weeks will be the Brewers' highest paid played in 2013, and they need him to contribute. Health should help.

8. Where does Gamel fit?

Mat Gamel reported to Spring Training in terrific shape with a chance to replace Fielder as the everyday first baseman, but was lost for the season after injuring his right knee on May 1. Hart eventually took over and was excellent at first base, meaning Gamel is back to being a man without a position. He will play first base, third base and the outfield in Spring Training and, as things stand, looks like a bench player. His Minor League numbers prove he is an excellent hitter; the question is whether Gamel will ever get a chance to prove it in the Majors.

9. Which prospects will step up?

It appears 2013 will be a year of opportunity for young players, including Jean Segura, 23 in March, and pegged as the Brewers' everyday shortstop. Peralta won't be 24 until May. Outfielder Logan Schafer, 26, is poised to get his first extended big league action as the Brewers' fourth outfielder. Hellweg, 24, could get a chance to make the jump from Double-A. Burgos, 25, began last season at advanced Class A Brevard County and will be in the mix. Morris and second-base prospect Scooter Gennett will be a step away from the Majors at Triple-A Nashville.

10. Can the Brewers hang in a tough NL Central?

As the Brewers take a step back -- they don't like the word rebuild -- the division looks like it's getting tougher. The last-place Astros left for the American League West. The defending division-champion Reds look even better than they were last year, when they won 97 games and finished nine games ahead of the second-place Cardinals, who always seem competitive. The Pirates just need to avoid another second-half collapse. The Cubs are still building.

Where do the Brewers fit in that mix? We'll find out beginning April 1.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy.
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