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Pitching improvements could be main key for Brewers

With offense expected to be boosted by Braun's return, all eyes on upgraded staff

PHOENIX -- There are at least two certainties regarding the 2014 Milwaukee Brewers.

No. 1: The offense will be much improved over last year. No. 2: Hank the Dog will be extremely lovable.

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That leaves pitching, particularly the starting pitching, as a major variable. On paper, the Brewers will have a deeper bullpen than they had last year. With improved starting pitching, Milwaukee could once again be legitimate contenders, even in the highly competitive National League Central. Without improved pitching, fourth place would beckon once again.

But first things first. Hank the Dog was in the clubhouse at Maryvale Park on Friday. Hank was wearing the HankCam and being charming in a canine sort of way. He stood on his hind legs and was rewarded with -- what else? -- a sausage. A mere Milk Bone might have sufficed.

Hank posed for a picture with outfielder Logan Schaefer, with Schafer wearing a Hank the Dog T-shirt, which features a likeness of Hank, along with the number "K9." Nice.

Hank at least provides the Brewers with a sympathetic image. This is a franchise that not only will welcome a stray dog. This franchise can turn the pooch into a global celebrity.

But over 162 games, there is a chance that Hank will not directly assist the Crew in the matters of scoring runs and preventing runs. But the first part of the equation should not be a problem for Milwaukee.

The Brewers led the NL in runs scored in 2012. That was after Prince Fielder had departed. And that was before center fielder Carlos Gomez and shortstop Jean Segura emerged as productive hitters. And second baseman Scooter Gennett, for that matter.

In 2013, the Brewers tumbled to eighth in runs scored. The reasons for the decline were obvious. Between a thumb injury and a 65-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, outfielder Ryan Braun, the best hitter in this lineup, played only 65 games.

And third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who would typically hit behind Braun in the cleanup spot, was limited by injuries to 92 games.

It is not a high-risk proposition to suggest that the Brewers will have a markedly improved offense in 2014. So consider that concept suggested.

Milwaukee's pitching situation took a turn toward the more promising when the Brewers signed Matt Garza to the largest free-agent deal in the club's history. Garza signed for $50 million over four years, with $1 million available each year in incentives.

This acquisition gave Milwaukee's rotation more depth and more quality. For the purposes of this discussion, we will view Garza's 19.06 ERA in three Cactus League starts as an aberration.

Garza gives the Brewers a core of three proven starters. Yovani Gallardo had a sub-standard 2013 but did return to form in the second half. Kyle Lohse has been a highly consistent pitcher.

Beyond that, power-pitching Wily Peralta harnessed his stuff in the second half of 2013 and gave evidence that he had a sizable future. Marco Estrada has demonstrated that he can succeed at this level, but he has been derailed by injuries.

Asked Friday if he was confident that this group could pitch at a level that would allow the club to contend, manager Ron Roenicke said: "I think we all are. It's always a question of whether guys can do it or not, but I think all of our guys, certainly the three who are more veterans, we know what they can do.

"And then Peralta is just getting consistent with his stuff, trying to have the second half that he had last season and do that over an entire season. Marco has shown two different times that he's got stuff to pitch for an extended period of time. Whether he can do it for six months, we'll see."

Catcher Jonathan Lucroy sees considerable promise for this group.

"If the guys can pitch like they're capable of pitching, I think we're going to be really good," he said of the rotation.

Lucroy discounts pitching numbers generated by Spring Training

 "I think Yo [Gallardo] has been really good," Lucroy said. "Everybody else is pretty much working. You look at a guy like Garza; he's kind of struggled. But you know what? He's working on stuff. It's one of those things where I feel like Spring Training numbers don't reflect the rest of the season. In my opinion, they haven't. I think we're going to compete really well."

The potential of Peralta is particularly encouraging to Lucroy.

"He's a huge weapon," the catcher said. "If we can get him going, he's one of the best. I mean, he's nasty. He makes hitters adjust their whole approach just because he can throw 98 [mph] with sink. Hard sink. I don't know of hardly any guys who can do that with the exception of maybe him and maybe [Jose] Fernandez from the Marlins. I think if he can stay consistent and just be down in the zone, throwing strikes with his sinker and everything else, he's going to be really, really good."

There can be some question about organizational depth behind the starting five, but for now, this rotation could answer the pitching questions in a highly positive way. If not, there should still be a productive offense and a feel-good dog story. But even with those two components, better pitching will be required for a postseason appearance.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for

Milwaukee Brewers